San Anselmo, CA – March 23, 2016 – While most artists are slowing down at 65, Jai Uttal, the Grammy-nominated Kirtan superstar is revving up his storied career with his 19th album release, the acclaimed Roots, Rock Rama! In just the last few weeks he played a sold out Kirtan event with over 400 bhaktas at Spirit Rock in Marin, and to over 300 people at Wanderlust Hollywood. He also has gigs coming up in Sonoma, Maui, Miami, and his annual headlining gigs in Joshua Tree at Shakti Fest in May, and Bhakti Fest in September.
Last week also saw the release of a music video for the song “S.A.M.B.A (Shiva’s Adoration of Mata Bhavani’s Ambrosia)” shot in January at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, India.
Amazing reviews for Roots, Rock Rama! include top music trade magazine Hits saying it’s “simply undeniable” and about the live show adds “the mood was as purely positive, inclusive and uplifting as any gig I can recall. And isn’t that exactly what we need these days?” LA Yoga says “There’s no way to sit still as this music plays and it’s easy to see how the live concerts Jai will perform in celebration of this collection will go down as unforgettable.” And the Marin Independent Journal adds, “The production values are impeccable and the call and response between Uttal and his chorus of backup singers is heavenly.”
Jai has also recently re-launched his Patreon page with a new welcome video, the “S.A.M.B.A.” video, and more for his supporters. An album as musically ambitious and lavishly produced as Roots, Rock, Rama! is a rarity in our times, when digital downloading has made it hard for artists to earn a living from their music, let alone pay for extensive studio sessions. Jai’s new album was financed by two close friends who contributed the majority of the budget for the project. The remaining sum was covered by fans who donated through Patreon.com, a website that allows music lovers to strengthen their bond with their favorite artists by contributing funds.
When this mode of financing first became available, says Jai, “it felt like a spiritual affirmation.” In the same spirit, Roots, Rock, Rama! was released on the Mantralogy label, an organization that donates part of its proceeds to several charitable causes in India as well as partnering with The Call and Response Foundation which brings scared music to at-risk youth and into prisons. Jai is also partnering with a company called OneTreePlanted. For every copy of the album sold, a tree will be planted to combat deforestation around the world.
Jai Uttal has been rightly hailed as a world music pioneer. Singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer, he was among the first to hear the universal heartbeat in the variegated rhythms of the globe. But his powerful, plangent voice and panoramic musical vision have also long been at the core of the yoga community’s tradition of call-and response devotional chanting known as Kirtan. While his music is deeply rooted in Indian classical tradition—he studied long and hard under the Indian sarod master Ali Akbar Khan—it is also plentifully imbued with echoes of reggae, rock, folk, Brazilian music, Bollywood and other sounds from across the musical universe. All of these diverse and colorful strands are woven together beautifully on Roots, Rock, Rama! The title is a play on the name of the Bob Marley song “Roots, Rock, Reggae.”
“I feel that this album is the completion of a cycle,” Jai says. “And it’s a cycle of many years. I wanted to put every mood, feeling and experience I’ve had into these songs. I wanted to offer a rainbow of devotional feeling.”
But the centerpiece of the album is Jai Uttal’s amazing voice. With his unique gift for phrasing and melismatic ornamentation he can wrest a thousand moods from a simple Sanskrit mantra.
Jai Uttal’s musical journey began at an early age. Growing up in Manhattan, the son of record executive Larry Uttal, he was ideally suited to absorb pop music’s ‘50s and ‘60s golden age. “Every week my father would bring home the top ten singles and play them for my sister and me,” he remembers. “That was the coolest thing. And I was at the recording session of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels doing ‘Devil with a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly.’ That made me totally crazy; it was just so amazing.”
Jai learned to play piano, guitar, banjo and harmonica while still quite young. But a first encounter with Indian music at age 17 proved to be a life-changing experience. He would later say that this music “touched my heart like the sounds of home.” Soon he was studying with Indian sarod virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan. His endeavor to master the challenging Indian stringed instrument also led to the discovery of his singing voice.
“Ali Akbar Khan insisted that all his students study singing as well,” Jai explains. “He said, ‘All music comes from the voice. I won’t teach you sarod unless you also study voice.’ Most of the students just did it begrudgingly. We wanted to be instrumentalists. I was extremely shy and insecure about singing, but I found that when I was at home practicing, I started having glimmers of this deep, deep inner world when I started singing the ragas. But it was years before I took that outside my bedroom. And what took me out of the bedroom was kirtan. I was terrified at first, but somewhere along the line I realized that I couldn’t be paralyzed by fear because singing was my salvation and spiritual catharsis.”
Music and spiritual practice became inextricably linked for Jai when he became a student of Indian spiritual master Neem Karoli Baba in 1971. Maharaji, as the guru is known to his students, encouraged the practice of bhakti (devotional) yoga as expressed through kirtan, the call-and-response chanting of sacred names, over and over again until they become deeply instilled in the consciousness, providing an experience of profound peace and spiritual insight. Kirtan would become the center of Jai’s musical and spiritual life.
But while all this was unfolding, Jai was also exploring other music forms, including a stint as electric guitarist for Jamaican reggae artists Earl Zero. In time, he began searching for ways to integrate all the diverse musical styles and traditions he’d absorbed.
“I felt that the harmonic structure of Western music couldn’t really support the subtlety of the melodies in Indian music,” he says. “So that’s where I started on my very first album, Footprints [in 1990]. I tried to make that leap between Indian melody and Western harmony.”
With contributions from jazz trumpet innovator Don Cherry and Indian vocalist Lakshmi Shankar, Footprints was the first in what has become a deep and diverse catalog of Jai Uttal albums that includes 2002’s Grammy-nominated Mondo Rama, 2009’s Thunder Love and the 2011 children’s album, Kirtan Kids. Many of these recordings were produced by his longtime musical associate Ben Leinbach, who also played the main production role on Roots, Rock, Rama!
So Roots, Rock, Rama! represents not only a grand summation of Jai Uttal’s musical and devotional journey but also a new chapter in conscious music-making. After all these years and so many recordings, concerts and workshops, he’s still wide open to new musical epiphanies.
“The universe is filled with colors and melodies,” he says. “They’re just everywhere, if only we could see and hear them more clearly. I feel that all art exists to enhance devotional practice and devotional expression. So I just try to hear the melodies.”