Are you a yogi? If so, you will have likely come across Kirtan either at your local studio or at an event. Grammy nominee and World Music pioneer Jai Uttal performed in Marin earlier this summer and we had an opportunity to attend and cover the event. This concert was a little different from his typical performances, which in the past at least, has focused on Kirtan. In this beautiful and fascinating performance, he performed a series of inspiring songs and devotional chants but was accompanied and supported by a choir of four amazing singers who refer to themselves as the Pagan Love Choir: Sandy Cressman, Prajna Vieira, Lucia Lilikoi and Sandy Griffith.
Think of it as a celebratory evening full of meditative music, dance of the devas, love songs to the universe and beyond. All veterans of The Pagan Love Orchestra, the four singers added magic through their transcendent voices on stage at the Marin Showcase Theater. Playing guitar, banjo, harmonium and more, Jai focused on acoustic and singing, which did nothing short of bringing our hearts alive all night long.
“The Universe is Filled with Colors and Melodies. 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.” — Jai Uttal
I am not new to Kirtan or Jai’s work but it was the first time we saw him in concert where he was the focal point and not part of a larger group of performers and singers, as we saw on the Grace Cathedral stage in May, an event which celebrated Thich Nhat Hahn. For those not familiar with the incredible work of Thich Nhat Hahn, he is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist and founder of the Plum Village Tradition.
What I loved about the style of his summer concert in San Rafael was the diversity of songs combined with the ‘awakened’ voices of the Pagan Love Choir.
Jai performed a number of traditional pieces as well, starting off with Sita Ram, which is really an invocation which repeats itself and puts you into a deep meditation state. To honor the life of his recently deceased friend David Saltz, he sang Sri Ram followed by Let Me Be Sky, which is based on a 14th Century poem by Govinda Dasa. (from his album Thunder of Love)
I really loved My Senseless Heart, which is based on songs of the Bauls of Bengal (from the album Songs of the Mystics soon to be released) and Radhe Shyam Brazilian Style Saudades de Radha. He also performed Dust and Tears, which is based on songs of the 15th Century Poetess Mirabal, who he spoke about with passion on stage. Hari’s Rapture is about the bliss of Krishna, whereas Hanuman’s Heart is a dialogue between Hanuman and Sri Rama (from his album Thunder Love). Another piece from his upcoming album Songs of the Mystic is simply called Psalm, which arose from a request his son made, based on the 23rd Psalm.
We also heard a beautiful version of Jaya Jagadambe, which is Glory to the Divine Mother and was dedicated to Sri Siddhi Ma. They closed the concert with Never Felt This Love, which is a simple but oh so beautiful meditation of Love before they came back on stage for an encore.
Jai Uttal’s Early World
Jai grew up in Manhattan as the son of record executive Larry Uttal, so very early on, was introduced to 1950’s and 1960’s music and musicians, where he even sat in on some timeless recording sessions of the time.
As part of his journey, Jai studied piano, electric guitar and banjo (think old time Appalachian songs) however it wasn’t until his introduction to Indian music at age 17 at a Maestro Ali Akbar Khan concert, that he became transformed. Jai is known for saying that this particular music entered his heart like the source of all life. This led to him studying with Khansahib in California, which dramatically shifted his relationship to sound and to music itself. His teacher had said, ‘All music comes from the voice. I won’t teach you Sarod unless you also study voice.’
Then came the ragas, and as Jai practiced them, he discovered a deeper inner world he never knew existed. It was Kirtan which led to him overcoming his shyness as well as to his own healing and salvation.
In the early 70’s, he met Maharajji (this was the name his devotees used), who encouraged Bhakti (devotional) Yoga but it was actually expressed through Kirtan. Yogis know Kirtan most for the the call-and-response chanting of sacred mantras, and service and over time, it became what Jai refers to as his “soul support system!”
Today on stage, you’ll hear him weaving in and integrating many diverse musical styles and traditions he has practiced and been moved by over the years, together with Kirtan and occasionally on its own.
Here’s some beautiful video we captured at the concert — ENJOY!! It’s a powerful performance.
More About Kirtan
Jai has been leading Kirtans worldwide for over thirty years. “These ancient chants,” says Jai “contain a transformative power and healing energy. By singing these prayers we join a stream of consciousness and devotion that has been flowing for centuries.” From Jai’s site:
“Kirtan is the calling, the crying, the reaching across infinite space — digging into the heart’s deepest well to touch and be touched by the Divine Presence. Kirtan is singing over and over the many names of God and the Goddess, the multi-colored rainbow manifestations of the One. It is said that there is no difference between the name and that which is being named, and as the words roll off our lips in song, the Infinite is invoked, invited, made manifest in our hearts.
“Kirtan is part of an ancient form of Yoga known as Bhakti, or the Yoga of Devotion. But in Bhakti we redefine “devotion”, we expand the meaning to include every shade of color in the palette of human emotion, turned towards God through song, dance, and worship. These chants have been sung for millennium by sages, sinners, devotees, and the great primordial yogi alchemists of old. And, as we sing, we touch the spirits of the millions of people across the centuries who have sung the same songs and cried the same tears. As we sing, we immerse ourselves in an endless river of prayer that has been flowing since the birth of the first human beings, longing to know their creator.”
Be sure to check out this video for more information on Kirtan as told in Jai’s words.
For More on Jai Uttal
Singer, multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer, Jai was among the first to hear the universal heartbeat in the variegated rhythms of the globe. He is also known for being at the forefront of the so called ‘Bhakti’ movement in the West, performing at and leading the yoga community’s tradition of call-and response chanting. What is so beautiful about his ‘being’ and his work is his ability to remain humble throughout while staying committed to a pure vision of devotional chanting for decades.
Way back when, his first album, ‘Footprints’, created the international World Music Charts. Today, his work has extended beyond the yoga community and spiritual events as he plays at concert halls, festivals, ashrams, and yes, even prisons and orphanages. Jai is actually featured in the film ‘Mantra – Sounds Into Silence’, where he shares devotional chants with the men at San Quentin Prison in California.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that he offers Kirtan Camps and the Winter one this year will be held in Mexico during Christmas week. They refer to it as an inner journey of devotional exploration, powerful emotions and deep practice through singing, dancing, breathing, asana, stunning nature and more. There will also be a Summer Kirtan-Bhakti Camp in August 2020 and Jai will be with his wife Nubia at 1440 University for a retreat from March 13-15, 2020. You can find out more about Jai, his world and where he will be performing next on his website.