It’s ironic that kirtan music artist Jai Uttal’s 2002 recording, Mondo Rama, was nominated for a Grammy in the “Best New Age Album” category. Uttal, who’s been performing Asian-influenced world fusion for decades, considers that genre a bit outdated.
In an interview with The Share Guide, Uttal explained that the ethereal tinkling favored by crystal-lined New Age stores is “quiet music that [doesn’t] have much rhythm, tempo, tension, or variation”—hardly qualifiers that could be attributed to his own impassioned, trancey, multicultural compositions.
Though “world-music” (arguably a moniker dreamed up by record-label execs hoping to corral an unwieldy collection of far-flung sounds into a neatly marketable package) has existed for less than two decades, New York-born Uttal was cross-culturally pollinating his music long before.
“There were a lot of American musicians mixing African and Western musical styles in the ‘80s,” he tells Xpress. “There was a small group who blended Middl Eastern and Western music, but the Indian-Western blends were few and far between.”
That timeline includes The Beatles in the late 1960s, John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain’s band Shakti in the late 1970s, U.K. collective 3 Mustaphas 3 during the 1980s, and Eddie Vedder’s rearrangement of Pearl Jam’s “Long Road” as a collaboration with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in 1995.
But for Uttal (unlike world-beat purveyors Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and David Byrne), the fusing of various musical styles was not just an armchair journey played out in a recording studio. Instead, while still a teen, Uttal immersed himself in the study of the sarod and traditional Indian voice, training under master musician Ali Akbar Khan. His studies led him to the streets of India where, for a number of months, he lived among the wandering street musicians known as the Bauls.
The end result, however, was not a sitar-meets-electric-guitar “My Sweet Lord” kind of fusion. Instead, Uttal went on to play in Motown, punk and blues bands, infusing his songs with banjo and harmonica, Appalachian old-time and modern rock.
“Sometimes it seems that anything goes, and goes beautifully,” the musician notes. “Other times it seems like nothing works. I guess that’s just the creative process.”
Uttal’s creative process goes deeper than the mad-scientist mixology of musical genres and traditions. His initial India trip introduced him not just to classical instruments but also to spiritual teacher Neem Karoli Baba. The same guru, central to Ram Dass’ book Be Here Now, infected his Western students with the art of kirtan: Bhakti (or devotional) yoga practiced by singing ecstatic praises to God. Brief, though profound, encounters with Neem Karoli Baba (who died in 1973) famously inspired Ram Dass, Bhagavan Das and Krishna Das to return to the United States and begin leading kirtan.
Uttal, unlike his contemporaries, did not abandon his other musical interests in favor of Indian studies. “All through the years when I made my living in those bands, I was also singing kirtan. It’s been my private practice since about 1969,” he says, adding, “I’ve always been a musician, so it was natural for music to become my spiritual path.”
Likely, it’s the infusing of kirtan (which Uttal insists is accessible to anyone, regardless of their knowledge of Hindu scriptures) with countless other influences that renders Uttal’s work so accessible. Yoga Fit magazine deemed him a “Yoga Rock Star.” His 1991 release, Footprints, brought together Hindustani classical vocalist Lakshmi Shankar with the late innovative jazz trumpeter Don Cherry. 1993’s Monkey climbed to the top 10 on the world-music charts, and Shiva Station in 1997 combined reggae, wah-wah and smooth jazz with classical Indian instrumentation to effectively blur the line between yoga studio and dance club.
Uttal’s most recent release, last year’s Loveland, is a joint effort with longtime collaborator Ben Leinbach (who regularly performs rock, blues, funk, pop and Latin jazz). Loveland, rather than further traversing the territory between rock and enlightenment, is a deeply introspective and meditative collection. After years of layering sounds and influences, this stripped down, spare offering is a new direction for the world-music innovator.
But Uttal, who never took to all the genre labels anyway, says that his main concern is just “to keep working from my soul and my heart.”
Jai Uttal performs Tuesday, Sept. 4, at On Broadway (49 Broadway, Asheville). 7:30 p.m. $25/advance, $30/door. 253-6985.