For years Jai Uttal has occupied a special place in the vanguard of the world music movement, delighting an international audience by embracing an extraordinary variety of cultures and musical traditions ranging from Appalachia to the rock of the 1960s to the Kirtan chants of ancient India. With Mondo Rama, his new release on Narada/Virgin, he breaks still new ground, pushing the boundaries of contemporary world fusion and yet offering his most accessible music to date—an infectious blend that aims Uttal right at a pop mainstream audience.
“This album is both a progression and a departure,” Jai reflects. “During the time of conceiving and producing this CD I did a lot of travelling; Israel, Brazil, Fiji, and India, each time returning to my home in the Oakland-Berkeley area where boom boxes and car sub-woofers are the preferred way of hearing music”. This multitude of experiences went into the making of Mondo Rama. “The album seemed to grow and grow with a life and energy of its own”. “Sometimes it spoke to me, and sometimes I spoke to it”. “Mondo Rama takes the seeds of what I’ve been doing with Indian and World Music and spreads them in various directions: dance music, sampling, turntablism, Appalachian, Brazilian, blues, and Middle Eastern…. While the rhythms and melodies are consistently organic, the textures are tripped out and electronic”. Jai’s rendition of “Tomorrow Never Knows/Shivaya” the Beatles classic from Revolver, is a case in point: singularly melodic verses in English followed by soaring Sanskrit invocations to Lord Shiva (the energy of transformation), that take the listener on a journey from one world to the next and back. “My music is about traveling,” Jai points out. “Actually Revolver was kind of a model for this album. Each song created its own unique environment and yet they were all tied together.”
The references to the Beatles and traveling are apt. Before he ever went to India and immersed himself in other musical traditions, Jai was a Sixties teenager weaned on the Beatles, Dylan. Hendrix et al. As the son of a music business executive in New York, he grew up around music. His father discovered Al Green and Blondie and founded Bell Records (later Arista Records), and he remembers being at recording sessions for “Devil In a Blue Dress” at the age of eight. But it wasn’t until he was nineteen and attending Reed College in Oregon that he surrendered completely to the sounds of Indian music after attending a concert by the great sarod master, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. The experience was so transcendent that he dropped out and moved to the Bay Area and began a 25 year guru-sheshia relationship with the legendary Khan, who taught him mastery of the 25-stringed instrument. When he traveled to India, Uttal became fascinated by all the traditions but actually lived with the Bauls of Bengal, the mystical musical madmen of East India who combined elements of Tantric Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism. Jai could communicate with them only through music, and by the time he returned to the States, exposure to the Bauls, Kirtan Singers and other Indian forms had profoundly altered the way he perceived, conceived and performed music.
While Jai continued delving into Indian music, defining his distinctive voice and honing his chops, he embraced reggae, Motown, punk, blues, rock and jazz in various bands throughout the 70s and 80s. His exquisite vocal style and exotic sound began to emerge with Footprints, his 1991 Triloka release that featured Don Cherry and garnered rave reviews. Jai put together a seven-member band called the Pagan Love Orchestra and began touring internationally. With Monkey in 1993 it was clear that Jai and the Pagan Love Orchestra were gaining a large following when the album landed in the top ten of the world music chart. With Beggars and Saints, Jai’s tribute to the Bauls of Bengal that following year, his increasing fan base was further solidified; and by Shiva Station, his 1997 release mixed by Bill Laswell, he was being acclaimed as one of the true stars of world pop fusion. In 2000, he released Spirit Room, a retrospective of his Triloka releases.
Mondo Rama confirms that Jai Uttal has evolved into one of the foremost artists communicating spiritual themes in truly original World music. The title conveys the presence of “an absolute all pervading Being in a big crazy world,” he explains, and the album was created in a year of great personal change for the artist. In “Narayana”, Hindu chants morph into strains of Bossa Nova in “Sri Krishna”, devotional Kirtan singing meets contemporary DJ turntablism. “Shalom” utilizes the words of a Hebrew prayer for wholeness and forgiveness and peace, and reflects the influence of the Kabbalists on the artist; “Mood X” is a “psychedelic hillbilly song of anguish and love;” and “Kali Mata”, “roadhouse rock merged with Indian village music”. In “Valencia Gardens” we hear the voice of a 15-year-old girl who attempted murder while Jai sings lyrics derived from the songs of the Bauls. Call the music of Mondo Rama what you will—diverse, cross-cultural, exotic, melodic, ancient, modern, acoustic, orchestral, spiritual, techno—the only obvious thing is that it’s exhilarating, delightful, and that nothing else sounds quite like it.