World music pioneer Jai Uttal is acclaimed for his multicultural fusion recordings. Since the early 1990s, he has released a series of influential albums based around Indian devotional music, seamlessly blended with elements of pop, rock, jazz, folk, electronica, and African and Brazilian rhythms.
Describing himself simply as a pop musician influenced by the folk music of India, the Grammy nominated, multi-instrumentalist added Jamaican reggae and ska to his recent recording, “Queen of Hearts.”
“I’ve always been a fan of reggae, particularly Bob Marley,” says Uttal. “For years at home, I’ve played reggae grooves on guitar and sung kirtan. These songs (on ‘Queen of Hearts’) had been percolating inside of me for years. The musical style mixing reggae, ska, samba and traditional Bengali kirtan seems like it’s been around for ages, but is actually completely fresh and new. And I wanted to make it like an old-school reggae band, not get too much into dub. It’s straight-ahead reggae, only with kirtan.”
Originating in India, kirtan is an ancient form of devotional chant-ing that has been gaining popularity in the West. “I learned kirtan as a teenager,” Uttal explains. “But I never thought it was something I could do on albums or in public. Then I started getting calls to lead kirtan, and I love it. Chanting mantras, I feel an immediate connection to the spiritual realm. When you’re singing with people, there’s a gradual elevation of the spirit, and it’s pretty amazing.”
In his earlier days, Uttal loved playing banjo and was especially attracted to Appalachian music. “I discovered the joy of music when I found the banjo, and I was completely obsessed about it,” he says. “Then I got into psychedelic electric guitar.”
One pivotal day he encountered a recording of classical Indian music by the late sarod master Ali Alkbar Khan and an Indian vocal album (“Street Singers of India – Music of the Bauls of Bengal”), which would radically alter the course of his life.
“I’d never heard anything like it in my life,” he recalls. “I was absolutely amazed.
“I went to the Bay Area in 1969 to study with Ali Akbar Khan. On and off I continued to study with him until he died four years ago. He imbued in me the appreciation of music as a spiritual path.”
Embracing a variety of cultures and traditions, Uttal crafted a string of exceptional, unique recordings, including “Monkey,” “Beggars and Saints,” “Shiva Station” and “Mondo Rama,” which earned a Grammy nomination in 2003 for Best New Age Album.
Uttal played 13 different instruments on his “Mondo Rama” album and sang in Sanskrit, Hebrew and English, including adapting the Beatles’ psychedelic classic, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” interwoven with a Sanskrit prayer.
More recently, Uttal produced a couple of mellow, introspective recordings, including “Music for Yoga” and “Loveland” with Ben Leinbach.
In late March, he released “Return to Shiva Station Kailash Connection,” a marvelous new interpretation of his acclaimed “Shiva Station” album.
“It was a request from the record company,” he explains. “In the last few years I’ve been deeply studying Brazilian guitar, and so I reframed the melodies in the rich harmonic setting of Brazilian music. I really enjoyed the process of undressing the old songs and dressing them in new clothes.”
Playing most of the instruments on the album, Uttal is joined on a few songs by brilliant Brazilian guitarist Jose Neto, who records and tours with Steve Winwood.
“He’s kind of like my idol,” says Uttal. “He plays all the really cool guitar parts.”
Maui’s Lily Meola and Tom Conway recently performed with country star Willie Nelson at a couple of major events in Austin, Texas, as part of the city’s celebrated SXSW festival.
Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel wrapped up a week of taping in Austin with a miniconcert by the country legend. “For Kimmel’s show, Nelson did a spirited rendition of his song, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” with backing by a seven-piece band that included his sister on piano and his son on guitar,” noted the Los Angeles Times. “But he didn’t really start cooking until after the cameras turned off and he revved up a killer 20-minute jam.”
The following night, Willie and his Maui friends headlined an iTunes Festival concert, which was streamed live. “A couple of nice bonuses in Nelson’s set with his Family Band: Willie’s son Lukas stepped out front on guitar for the bluesy Stevie Ray Vaughan nod ‘Floodin’ Down in Texas,’ and the classic ‘Will You Remember Mine’ received a nice duet reading with Lily Meola,” praised Austin360. The concert can be viewed free at the iTunes website.
With Bob Dylan’s MACC concert getting closer, it’s time for another top 10 facts list.
1. Dylan’s classic, “Like a Rolling Stone,” was named the greatest song of all time in the November 2004 issue of Rolling Stone magazine.
2. A cool interactive video for “Like a Rolling Stone” was released last year. Viewers can flip through 16 TV channels (shopping, news etc.) as a variety of personalities like actor Drew Carey and rapper Danny Brown lip-sync the lyrics.
3. The legendary card-dropping sequence used in the film for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” ushered in the world of pop videos.
4. At 11 minutes long, the apocalyptic epic, “Desolation Row,” which closes “Highway 61 Revisited,” was Dylan’s longest song up to that point. Rarely playing it in concert, he sometimes stretches it out to 45 minutes.
5. Upset by America’s commercialism, consumerism and warmongering, Dylan released, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” in 1965. He reported in 1980: “I don’t think I could sit down now and write ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ again. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, but I can still sing it.”
6. Dylan so admired Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of “All Along the Watchtower,” he began playing the guitarist’s version instead of his own. “It overwhelmed me,” he reported. It’s one of the songs Dylan has played live the most.
7. Dylan played harmonica on records by Harry Belafonte, George Harrison, Roger McGuinn, Booker T. and Priscilla Jones, Doug Sahm, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and reggae stars Sly and Robbie.
8. Duets Dylan has recorded for other artists’ albums include “Heartland” with Willie Nelson, “Buckets of Rain” with Bette Midler, “Sign Language” with Eric Clapton, “Don’t Go Home” with Leonard Cohen, and “The Spirit of Rock and Roll” with Beach Boy Brian Wilson.
9. Dylan only won his first Grammy (besides one for performing on “The Concert for Bangla Desh”) in 1980, for Best Rock Vocal Performance for “Gotta Serve Somebody,” from his brilliant “Slow Train Coming” album.
10. In 1987, Dylan and Michael Jackson performed a duet onstage for Elizabeth Taylor’s 55th birthday party. On his “Empire Burlesque” album, released in 1985, Dylan’s song, “Emotionally Yours,” is rumored to have been composed for Taylor. Back in 1963, he referenced the late film star in his song, “I Shall Be Free.”