Jai Uttal And The Pagan Love Orchestra
Narada World, 72438-10978-2-3, 2002
By Srajan Ebaen
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Jai Uttal is the uncrowned prince of contemporary Western
Kirtan, with Kirtan the ancient culture of devotionally addressing various Hindu deities in heartfelt song and practiced in temples all over India. On
Mondo Rama - the world of Ram, the world is Ram, mucho Ram, you pick the meaning - he profoundly incarnates Gabrielle Roth's wonderful admonition "sweat your prayers" - bring
'em down low from their lofty mental realms, deep into the terribly exposed and disturbed blood'n'bones physicality of tears and struggles, where we encounter our humanity and all our very practical limitations.
On Mondo Rama, this get-down admonition manifests in more than one way. Not only does Jai wrap the true spirit of this quintessentially Eastern affair into super-accessible, funky, blues-inflected, rhythm-driven garb; not only are the customary Sanskrit mantras well balanced with English lyrics; but those lyrics speak honestly and directly of the challenges that assail any sincere seeker who attempts to live in this world while holding steadfast to the ancient codes of authentic spiritual practice.
"Where is the love, the light inside of me?" he asks. "My heart's been in exile, but now that you've found me, that you've freed me, I'm yours, I'm yours…"
As is true for much spiritual poetry -- especially in the intoxicated tradition of mystic Islam called Sufism -- references to the beloved and to physical love usually refer to the Divine. However, they remain equally and paradoxically relevant in the realms of human relations. This potent ambiguity points at the ultimate sameness, of Samsara and Nirvana, of Suffering and Liberation, of "Heaven's right here, not elsewhere
out there but in this very place, this very body". This enlightened recognition is thus inclusive of the entire realm of human condition and possible experiences. All of it has to eventually become transparent to that which lives it from within. This call is what enlivens the practice, what becomes the powerful engine of Kirtan as it speaks directly to the heart.
In "Valencia Gardens", Jai sings"... At the depth of the ocean lies a priceless gem. Can I swim to the bottom and make it back again? Plunging in the water, will I sink or swim? The flavors of feelings, I hear that sound again. When will it take me? The tide is getting high. Does
it really matter if I live or if I die?""
Translated, this verse whispers: "At the very bottom of the heart resides the mystery. Melting into it,
I will be gone. I've tasted this nectar before. Still, I've always held back from truly merging with it. I know I'll disappear for good then. It is calling me once again. Can I allow the death of the separate self to occur this time? Will only this mystery remain, me a dead man walking?"
The story goes that Jai's late Indian teacher Shree Neem Karoli Baba (also the teacher of Ram
Das) was fed up and disgusted with the lip-serving shallowness of his Indian disciples' Kirtan practice. It had turned rote, perhaps pretty and accomplished but lacking the rawness of heart. Not understanding the Sanskrit words of the songs but determined to please their guru, some of his Western disciples took up the practice. They did so with all the enthusiasm and reckless intensity of young lovers. Gifted with the surprised but open approval of Neem
Karoli, many years have gone by since. However, the torch has passed intact. In Jai Uttal and his compatriot pagans, it's burning more fiercely than ever.
To those innately suspicious of "heavy meaning", of orange-clothed wild-eyed lost souls with shaved heads, sunken cheeks and unpronounceable names, I would say bury the 80s. While Jai and many others have lived that life, they've come back. They've embraced their Western destiny. They now pay taxes, work hard for a living, are married and raise children. They live ordinary lives. And underneath it all, they've been indelibly altered. Perhaps by the touch of a true Guru, perhaps by the powerful presence that is India itself, but definitely by having tasted something real. And perhaps also by having lost it temporarily, by being haunted by its palpable memory, by having to reclaim it every day in the face of what seems like a godless world.
This struggle and honesty makes this whole enterprise real. Mondo Rama is as deep and authentic a work of a gifted and powerful songwriter as any Delta Blues legend, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. It takes its exotically tinged place in its very own culture, yet points beyond. It seduces with the mournful twang of the portable mini sitar called
dotar while it gets down with distortion-driven e-guitar riffs. It intones
"Bhava Bhayankara Girija Shankara, Dimi Dimi Dimi Taka Nan Tana Kelo" (a prayer to Shiva as He who takes away, whose ecstatic dance of universal destruction tears away the veils of ignorance) in direct juxtaposition to the Lennon/McCartney lyrics of "turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying, it is not dying".
It sports Hammond B-3 organ, Fender Rhodes, trombone and cornet, even DJ abused turntables. And it mixes those with a veritable arsenal of exotica, from gubgubbi and ektar and gopichand to dholak and
kanjira. It features Turkish Ney sensation Omar Faruk Tekbilek in a modern rendition of an ancient Hebrew peace prayer.
In short, Mondo Rama is a pulsating example of spiritualized
WorldBeat, from one of the genre's undisputed leaders. Even disregarding all its portents of depth, it's simply wonderfully realized music. And once you allow the potent undercurrents of spiritual yearning to pull on your heartstrings, you'll realize it's also so much more. Of Uttal's canon of releases - and I own
'em all - this is one of the very best, right up there with
Beggars & Saints and Monkey.
"Day after day, I've been ruled by my fears. Deep in the night, I've been cleansed by my tears. And still I'm trying to find a way - to live in love."
My heart's been in exile.
Indeed. Thanks for reminding us. Jay Shiva Hari Om!