Jai Uttal is a Grammy-nominated singer and a pioneer in the world music and kirtan community. He is known for his combined influences from India and American rock and jazz and his ecstatic vocalist. Jai grew up in New York City and at seven years old began studying classical piano, and he has been performing World Music and kirtan around the globe for almost 50 years. He will be performing at this year’s Hanuman Festival, and we are honored and thankful that he took the time for an interview with us.
What came first into your life Kirtan or Bhakti yoga? Do you feel that your musician background made you more receptive to this path versus other forms of spirituality?
I first heard Kirtan when I was about 16 years old at the great “Human Be In” in Central Park in New York in 1967. I had no idea of the concept of Bhakti, but I was immediately transfixed by the sound of the mantras being chanted. After that, I searched in many book stores for anything about Bhakti and chanting, and went through thousands of albums in the record stores looking for anything Indian, particularly, but not exclusively, mantra chanting. The passion for this path developed quickly and spontaneously. Later, as I began to study Hatha Yoga, Bhakti was always at the forefront of my spiritual journey.
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Music goes hand and hand with Bhakti Yoga. The aesthetics of music and creativity uniquely support and awaken the spiritual emotions in the heart. In ancient India, the arts were used exclusively for the practice of devotion. So for me, being a musician since I was a kid, Bhakti was a perfect and completely harmonious path. I still continue my studies of music, and for each new musical door that opens, a new devotional mood reveals itself to me.
Where do you find the inspiration and enthusiasm to sing and create music?
Inspiration comes to me from many different facets of my life. Sometimes it comes from prayer, sometimes from dreams, sometimes from my family, from a gentle breeze, a raining day, or simply picking up an instrument. The desire to become a clearer channel for the energy of devotion motivates me to practice, sing, and pray on a daily basis. Enthusiasm comes from sharing my work with people all around the world.
What do freedom, love, and devotion mean to you? How do you move towards or achieve this in your music?
I feel most free when I am deeply immersed in singing. I feel most love when my family and I are together. I feel the most devotion when I look into the eyes of my guru. I play my instruments and sing as much as time allows, and I try to create new devotional songs every day. I spend as much time with my family as I can, and take care of them as best as I can, as they take care of me. And every evening before bed, I spend time looking into the eyes of my guru, Neem Karoli Baba.
What has been your biggest life challenge and transformation? What helped get you through it?
The most difficult challenge and transformation in my life was getting sober. At first, drugs and alcohol appeared as my allies, shielding me from what seemed to be a very dangerous world. Over time, these substances turned into demons and came very close to destroying my life. Reaching out to other people for support, praying to Hanuman, patience, and faith helped me through this transition. Singing Kirtan and being a father and husband has helped keep me on the path of sobriety, with the intention of living a life of integrity and compassion.
Who has been your greatest inspiration and influence?
Definitely the greatest inspiration and influence in the entire trajectory of my life has been my guru Neem Karoli Baba and my Indian spiritual mother, Shri Siddhi Ma. They planted the seed of devotion in my heart and showed me how to water it and nurture it. Musically, my greatest influence was my teacher Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. He showed me the true spiritual essence of music and how music is a path to God. Of course, the list of musical influences is quite long, from the Kirtan Wallas of India to the Bauls of Bengal, to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Al Green, and on and on. The two people who have most inspired me to live a life of truth and integrity are my wife Nubia and my son Ezra.