Bhakti Fest West 2015 is right around the corner. People from all over will converge on this small corner of Southern California desert to delight in a weekend full of yoga, kirtan and loving community.
I caught up with Jai Uttal – a fixture on the main stage here at Bhakti Fest. I had a great time chatting with him and was impressed by how open and honestly he addressed my questions. He told me about his upcoming New Year’s Kirtan Camp and a career inspired by the music he’s grown up listening to since childhood.
MA: What do you think makes Bhakti Fest unique? What is your favorite part of this festival?
JU: Bhakti Fest is special because it is totally focused on kirtan and on chanting the mantras and holy, divine names. It was the first big festival with a rock concert format that solely focused on chanting. It’s an amazing thing to be happening in this day and age. People leave there with a big boost in their hearts.
MA: Your father was in the recording industry. Can you talk about how your family or father’s influence (either creative or business) affected your career path?
JU: It was a funny dichotomy. Our house was filled with music. My father was a businessman in the pop music arena. Every week he would bring home the top 20 singles from the big radio stations in New York City. I was given piano lessons since the age of six. At the same time, and this is kind of strange to understand, my parents strongly discouraged me from getting into music professionally. I think it was because my father became frustrated by his own attempts at the creative side of the industry and ultimately turned to the business side. I had to struggle to actually become a musician. I didn’t get any support from them. Later when my parents were older, they saw the uniqueness in what I was doing. They probably never understood my music, but they understood my passion and later encouraged me.
“We didn’t speak the same language, so we communicated through music.”
MA: Early in your studies and career you spent time in India immersed in local music culture. What was your favorite experience from that time in your life?
JU: There are a few. My first trip to India in 1970 – I found myself waiting in the ashram of this man, who I realized later would be my guru – Neem Karoli Baba who was also guru to Krishna Das, Ram Dass, and many others. It was a dusty, dirty courtyard. A man and woman were singing the Hari Krishna mantra. Their melody was the most beautiful thing I had heard in my life. Then my guru came out of his room and my whole life changed. It was a really transcendental musical experience. The second was during my next trip to India when I met the Bauls of Bengal, traveling musicians who were little known. We managed to find them by wandering and searching through villages. We didn’t speak the same language, so we communicated through music. It was one of the great musical gifts of my life. But the first and most amazing musical experience was witnessing Ali Akbar Khan for the first time at Reed College. My friends and I had taken mescaline and were very much in an altered state. That music revealed itself to me as the closest music to the sound of creation and destruction. It completely blew my mind.
MA: A big part of your current work includes children. What are some benefits of kids experiencing kirtan at a young age?
JU: For me, it’s all about reverence for the mantras – the names we sing in Kirtan. In my life, it’s been the rope that’s kept me from drowning. I’m thrilled when I see the kids feeling the joy and essence of these names. In those names I believe there is a seed that gets planted of the deepest spiritual nature. I don’t know if these kids will turn out to be yogis or devotees, but the good feelings around these mantras will have a positive effect on them. But it goes both ways. When I’m with the kids during practice, their innocence, emotion and energy uplifts me. I get so much from them. I have a ten-year-old boy, and we’re just growing up together. We share everything we have together, and this is one of those things.
MA: What’s on your iPod right now.
JU: Well I have a lot of music on my iPad and iPhone. But really, I listen to CD’s. I listen to my CD’s and these albums have songs I love and some I don’t love. I’ve been listening to a lot of Sly & The Family Stone. I’ve been listening to a lot of Beatles lately. I went to Cirque du Soleil, Beatles LOVE in mid June. That kind of re-ignited the whole Beatles thing in our house. My wife is Brazilian and she has turned me on to so much Brazilian music that we listen to a lot. I’ve been studying Brazilian music on the guitar for the last 3 years. And ALWAYS! We listen to Reggae. I would say that Indian music has been a little low on the daily playlist lately. You go in phases right?
MA: What is a little known fact about you?
JU: I wont tell you all the super unknown facts. One musical fact is that my very first musical love was the Banjo. Old timey music. Not Bluegrass; the music before that. The Appalachian Mountain music. And it’s still a big part of my life. These days I’m not playing the banjo that much, but it’s right here next to me. All of my albums have at least one or two songs with a banjo in it. I’m not a great banjo player but I love it. If I had a lot of spare cash I would be a banjo collector because I just love them so much. When I was 13 I went to spend a summer at a farm in West Virginia. I was playing at the square dances with these old guys and I was just so into it.