Grammy-Nominated Artist Makes Music for Yoga Jai Uttal's vast musical interests are reflected in numerous world fusion recordings. For more than 30 years he has traveled around the world giving concerts and leading Kirtan, or Indian chanting.
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Grammy-Nominated Artist Makes Music for Yoga

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Grammy-Nominated Artist Makes Music for Yoga

Grammy-Nominated Artist Makes Music for Yoga

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Now breathe deeply and empty your mind of all the chaos brought on by too much multi-tasking. Turn off that cell phone, leave your Blackberry behind, just relax and listen.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is Jai Uttal, famous as a leader of Kirtan, an ancient form of meditative chanting. He is also a Grammy-nominated artist and leading musician in the world music genre. Jai performs at yoga studios, spiritual retreats and workshops. He also performs at concerts around the world. Jai Uttal joins us now from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Welcome, Jai.

Mr. JAI UTTAL (Musician): Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: Now, you are a native New Yorker. You grew up in New York City. How did you discover Indian music?

Mr. UTTAL: As a young teenager just from going through the record bins in Folkways Records down in the West Village and searching through all of the world music albums I could find and coming across these amazing records by Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar and the Bauls of Bengal, the street musicians of India.

NEARY: What made you eventually, though, decide to focus on spiritual music? Did you have a spiritual awakening that grew out of the music or vice versa?

Mr. UTTAL: You know, John Coltrane is spiritual music. Roscoe Holcomb from Kentucky is spiritual music. Indian devotional music is spiritual music as well. But any music that's really coming from the soul and from the heart connects us with the spirit.

NEARY: I wanted to ask you specifically about Kirtan. That's something that a lot of people may not be really familiar with. Can you first of all tell us something about the origins of Kirtan?

Mr. UTTAL: Well, it comes from the very, very, very, very old systems of yoga in India. And you know, we in the West very often misunderstand yoga to be just a set of physical exercises. But yoga is a way to attune the entire system - body, mind, spirit, emotions - to the divine. And Kirtan is a way of channeling the feelings in the heart, which are usually very unchannelable, and using them as - really as fuel to become closer to God, become close to the spirit.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: Maybe you can explain what goes on in this chanting.

Mr. UTTAL: Kirtan, it's a musical form, but it's also a meditative practice. At the most basic level what we do is we sit and sing mantras, ancient Sanskrit prayers, and sing them over and over and over again to a variety of different melodies. Now it can be very tranquil. It can be very sedate. But it can also be super-rocking and passionate and wild. But the mantras are repeated over and over and over and over again, and something about that repetition just quiets the mind.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. UTTAL: Kirtan is cool because you can sing love, you can sing anger, you can sing yearning, you can sing frustration, you can sing sensuality, you can sing everything and put it all into the same song.

NEARY: When you lead a group of people in Kirtan, is there a change in the room afterwards?

Mr. UTTAL: It seems very different. It seems transformed. People walk into that room - and when I say people, I mean myself also - filled with all the thoughts and all the anxieties of the day, of their life, of our life, and after a couple of hours of singing it makes everyone very open and very grounded and at the same time kind of, you know, euphoric.

NEARY: How hard is it to learn how to do Kirtan? I mean...

Mr. UTTAL: You know it doesn't have to be fancy. It doesn't have to be super-musical. It just has to be truthful.

NEARY: You want to try and lead me in a Kirtan chant?

Mr. UTTAL: Okay, let's do it. The word will be ram, R-A-M, which means God, basically, spirit. So I'll sing a line and you sing it back. Ready?

NEARY: Okay.

Mr. UTTAL: (Singing) Ram, ram, ram.

NEARY: (Singing) Ram, ram, ram.

Mr. UTTAL: (Singing) Ram, ram, ram.

NEARY: (Singing) Ram, ram, ram.

Mr. UTTAL: There you go. And say we did that for an hour, you know, and we had drums and we had, you know, more instruments and more support. And the giggling and the self-consciousness would pass, probably in about five minutes, and then, you know, you would start going deeper and deeper into what's inside of you. It's an exploration.

NEARY: I know that you also have made some CDs that are intended to accompany people as they practice yoga. What's the difference in the music?

Mr. UTTAL: I won't say that I designed them for yoga practice. I designed them for a type of listening that allows you to do other things while you're listening, versus something that demands you just to pay attention to the music. So when I made those two records, one of the aesthetic differences was that things became a lot more stretched out. It was something that would be kind of like a womb for people's inner exploration through the yoga practice.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: Does music help you practice yoga, do you think? I mean have you actually tried practicing yoga to the music that you've composed, and does it help?

Mr. UTTAL: It helps me. You know, some people like to do yoga in silence so they can really focus on their body and what's going on. Myself, I can't stand focusing on my body when I do yoga because I started when I was 49 years old and it's too painful. So listening to nice music while I'm practicing yoga really helps me get into it.

NEARY: Now, apart from your music, which we'll call your spiritual music, although you've already said all music is spiritual, you've got a whole other side to you musically, where you really like to play with music. You like to mix eastern and western traditions. Why is that so important to you?

Mr. UTTAL: It's just an expression of who I am. I grew up in a very, very musical scene. My dad was in the music business throughout the '60s and the '70s. And I grew up with western music. I grew up with pop music. I grew up with R&B, and especially R&B; that's what my father was into. You know, these are loves and passions that never went away for me. But then when I was around 19, I got first exposed to Indian music, which grabbed me and turned me inside out.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: What other instruments do you play? I know you play an incredibly wide range of instruments.

Mr. UTTAL: I'm mediocre on all of them. So that being said, I play a whole bunch of Indian instruments - the sarod, dotar, harmonium - and I play guitar. I play banjo. I play a really bad mandolin. And I sing.

NEARY: But you're a good singer.

Mr. UTTAL: Thank you.

NEARY: Well, you're - and a modest man.

Mr. UTTAL: Well, you know, I have a teacher named Ali Akbar Kahn, who is 85 years old and is considered perhaps the greatest living musician of India. And many people consider him one of the greatest living musicians in the world. One day I was talking to him and I said, how does it feel to be a master? Just tell me. What does it feel like to play a concert, and you are the master? And he looked at me like I was crazy. He took a deep drag from his cigarette and took a sip of his scotch and he said, music is like an ocean. The deeper I swim into it, the further away the other shore gets. And it was so much humility, you know. And he said it's very, very rare for him at a concert to have all the systems aligned, you know, his body, his heart, his soul, the sound system, the audience. And he said, when that comes together, I'm not there anymore. It's pure ecstasy.

NEARY: Is that what you're going for? The pure...

Mr. UTTAL: Yes.

NEARY: The pure ecstasy you're going to find on that other shore. Well, it was great talking to you. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. UTTAL: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: Jai Uttal is a sacred music composer and has been leading Kirtans and workshops around the world for more than 30 years.

(Soundbite of music)

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