Celebration, meditation, dance of the devas, love song to the universe . . . Jai Uttal’s new album Roots, Rock, Rama! is all of that and more.
The whole world’s myriad musical colors coruscate like a bejeweled shawl tossed from the shoulders of a goddess on this landmark two-CD recording. It manages to pack a lifetime’s spiritual and musical quest into seventy-eight minutes of glorious music from an innovator whose work transcends any category or genre designation.
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!
“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.”
The title Roots, Rock, Rama! is a play on the name of the Bob Marley song “Roots, Rock, Reggae.” Marley is one of Jai’s key musical influences, and the first disc of his new album is deeply steeped in reggae’s earthy rhythms, hypnotic bass lines, jubilant horn charts and soulful vocal harmonies. Jai calls this disc the “Rama Sun” CD.
The second CD, known as “Rama Moon,” evokes an entirely different mood. Grounded in the gentle, lilting sway of Brazilian samba, it also touches on the pastoral splendor of the more acoustic tracks from the Beatles’ White Album. The Beatles are another major influence, and Jai has brought their pioneering fusion of Indian music and Western pop into the 21st century.
“CD 1 is more extroverted songs,” he explains. “It’s a celebration, I guess you could say. And CD 2 is the more introverted side of kirtan. It’s kind of like me sitting on my couch and singing quietly.”
The more upbeat “Rama Sun” songs were recorded live-in-the-studio in L.A. by Jai and his longtime backing band, anchored by drummer Dave Allen, bassist Mark Gorman and guitarist Steve Postell (David Crosby, Jennifer Warnes, John Oates, Dave Koz, many more). The sessions skillfully capture the deep musical empathy that developed among these exceptional musicians over the years. Clarion-call horn charts are contributed by Peter Apfelbaum and Jeff Cressman (Santana, Don Cherry, Trey Anastasio, Charlie Hunter, Tito Puente, Shelia E, Joshua Redman, others), two veterans of Jai’s groundbreaking Pagan Love Orchestra who have also played roles on more recent Jai Uttal albums such as Thunder Love and Queen of Hearts. Another frequent collaborator, vibrant singer Tina Malia (Kenny Loggins, India.Arie, Bonnie Raitt, Bassnectar, Deva Premal and Miten, Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Peter Yarrow, and more), forms part of an angelic backing vocal choir that also includes Prajna Vieira, Gaura Vani and Sandy Cressman. Together, they bring a joyous, gospel feel to kirtan’s call-and-response vocalizing.
But the centerpiece of the whole thing, of course, 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. Many of the songs on the “Rama Sun” disc were composed by Jai in response to the need for a specific emotional color for a live kirtan experience. The rootsy, funky “Primordial Swamp Beat” was written on an airplane. And CD 1’s final track, “H.E.L.P. (Hari’s Ecstatic Love Potency)” weaves in the refrain from the Beatles’ 1965 hit “Help.” “We hear all the translations and interpretations of the mantras,” Jai says. “But to me, they’re all saying ‘Help!’ You know? Like, ‘God, help me. I cannot take the next step without your help.’ There’s some humor in putting a Beatles song alongside a Hari Krishna mantra, but on a deeper level, for me anyway, desperate longing is the way I feel. Even in my laughter, lightness and love for my son and wife amid so much grace, a desperate longing is still the motor that keeps me going.”
One more instrumental color, heard on tracks such as “H.A.R.I. (Hari Awakens Radha’s Incandescence)” is the Bollywood magic of the Melodious Strings of Mumbai, led by cellist Jake Charkey. Thanks to modern digital technology, they were able to contribute their parts without leaving India, where they are based.
“So, in a way, this album is a reunion with the whole idea of world music,” Jai notes. “There are so many countries involved—thanks to massive file transferring.”
Jai’s love affair with Brazilian music forms the buoyant, opulent basis for CD 2, “Rama Moon.” He first delved into Brazil’s rich rhythmic and melodic legacy on his 2009 album Thunder Love. But here those influences flourish in more subdued, sepia-toned moods. Three of the tracks were produced by his friend, the Brazilian-born guitarist Jose Neto (Harry Belafonte, Hugh Masekela, George Benson, Steve Winwood). Brazilian percussionist Caf da Silva (Steve Winwood, Gilberto Gil, David Byrne, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Srgio Mendes, Roberta Flack, David Byrne, Harry Belafonte, Mick Jagger, Ashford & Simpson with Maya Angelou, Astrud Gilberto, Dianne Reeves and many more) brings his own brand of rhythmic finesse to songs on this disc. On tracks like “Saudades de Radha” and “S.R.I. (Supersonic Rescue Intervention) R.A.M. (Radiant Atomic Mantra),” the gentle cadences of samba and other Brazilian beats bring out some of some of the most gorgeously melodic songwriting to be found anywhere in Jai’s vast catalog.
It all adds up to a two-CD album that’s vast in scope and deeply rooted in the ardor of devotion. Each of the discs can stand on its own, yet each one colors the other in subtle ways—a complete and elegantly balanced yin/yang experience.
“I wanted to separate the moods,” Jai says. “So that one could have a really enjoyable listening session to the more uptempo CD, and then a really joyful, quiet, chilled-out listening session to CD2. Many people advised me to release the discs separately, but heart-wise that made no sense to me. Because I want to offer a complete mandala with these recordings—a statement of all my years doing mantra music.”
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!
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. But 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 to the work of those artists.
When this mode of financing Roots, Rock, Rama! first became available, says Jai, “it felt like a spiritual affirmation.” In the same spirit, the album will be 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.
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.”