10 Questions Series: Jai Uttal

August 31, 2013 by Chris Grosso

Jai Uttal

NAME: Jai Uttal

BIO: Jai Uttal is a Grammy nominated singer and “a pioneer in the world music community with his eclectic East-meets-West sound.” He is a “sacred music composer, recording artist, multi-instrumentalist, and ecstatic vocalist, [who] combines influences from India with American rock and jazz to create a stimulating and exotic multicultural fusion that is truly world spirit music.” 


Q: Who and or what, do you attribute the person you are today to?


A: I’d say who I attribute the person I am today to, is to everyone I have been in thousands and thousands of lifetimes and all the experiences this soul has had in all those lifetimes as well as all the great beings this soul has been guided by, and protected by, for all those lifetimes. I would say that the name person, or being, who has been protecting this soul for all those lifetime’s is my Guru Neem Karoli Baba, who in this incarnation I met when I was 19 in India. In the more here and now aspect of that question, I would still say of course my Guru, but also in no particular order of hierarchy, my musical Guru Ali Akbar Khan, my wife Nubia & my son Ezra.


Q: What are some of the musical albums or musicians/bands that have impacted your life and in what way?


A: You could ask me this question on a thousand different days and probably get a thousand different answers. Right now, the first one that comes to mind is Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan. The album was an explosive musical, emotional and spiritual expression and it blasted through the ethers and shattered down walls. It really connected with me.


The Bauls of Bengal who I met in West Bengal in 1974. I had heard their albums before going to India. I think it was called, The Street Singers of India by the Bauls of Bengal. Bauls are a spiritual, ecstatic wandering sect of musicians, bhakti’s, poets, and dancers who travel around the countryside of West Bengal singing their own particular style of music. It’s like an atomic bomb of the heart with every song being about breaking down the walls of the heart. An interesting side note is that two Bauls of Bengal that I met in India and became friends with were actually on the cover of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album because Allen Ginsberg had brought them to Woodstock.


Jimi Hendrix has to be on this list too. Electric Ladyland is my favorite, but Hendrix in general has always been one of my greatest inspirations,


All the albums by The Beatles, though my favorite is probably Revolver. I also really love The White Album and Abbey Road.


Of course my music Guru Ali Akbar Khan as well. Every note he plays transforms my entire inner world. I studied with him on and off for forty years. I’m still just a beginner in Indian Classical Music but he was, and is, probably the hugest inspiration to me musically. It’s not that what I do is in the style which he taught, but more so in the sense that music is a spiritual path of redemption and salvation through the consciousness that is applied to every note, which is what he taught us.


The unnamed Temple Singers of India who sing Kirtan every single day and night, year after year. They’re a continuous inspiration to me both musically as well as spiritually. You can wander around India through the Temples and hear music that’s not trained or schooled, but it’s music of the highest caliber that is filled with spirit, devotion and longing.


There’s so many others like Bob Marley and John Coltrane. One of the biggest personal influences for me that I can’t leave out is Old-Time Appalachian Banjo Music. My two favorites are Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Boggs. I often find myself going back to them.


Q: What is one of the most shocking experiences you’ve ever had?


A: The most shocking thing to me was the complete realization that I had become a drug addict and lost what I considered the integrity of my being, and that I didn’t even know I had lost it. When you’re aware that things are slipping you can pull them back, but when you’re not aware, you lose them. It was a very, very, long process in getting to that very low point in my life. So slow and gradual that I didn’t notice it, or I slightly noticed it but didn’t really pay attention. So one day I woke up and realized I’d become a liar and a person with two lives, one for the public and one for myself. I had lost hope in my own life. I always felt that during that time, when I died, I would enter the spiritual world and it would be okay, but that for this life, all hope of happiness, real joy and spiritual connection was gone. So it kind of hit me in the head and I say thank God for that, because then it turned me on to the path of healing. The Jai that I thought I was, I wasn’t. It’s not that he was gone but very deeply submerged.


Q: What is one of the most beautiful experiences you’ve ever had?


A: Meeting my wife Nubia. It came right at the same cusp of what happened to me regarding my answer to your previous question. I had become so jaded to love. I was all about Divine Love, but as far as human love, I thought it would never happen and I didn’t believe in it. It’s funny and not funny, but here’s this guy going around singing Kirtan, and I didn’t necessarily think I was being hypocritical because I was always trying for that spirit to come, but all the different parts of my life weren’t really in alignment and I was really sad. So I met Nubia, who is now my wife, and I immediately felt I had found my soul mate. I hadn’t believed in the reality of “soul mates” prior to that. I thought it was a bunch of crap, but then I met Nubia and I realized it really wasn’t. A lot of parts of my life still needed to be cleared up, and the process of healing needed to begin. A lot of baggage had to be worked through before we could actually be together, but at that moment, everything changed.


Q: What is one of the most defining moments in your life and why?


A: Well we do spend our lives doing a lot of different things, thinking and defining who we think we are, and as much as that definition is just a mind creation, that’s okay, because we have to have some sense of who we are, even if it’s illusion, so we can take that next step in life. So with that being said, one of the moments that was very defining for me was recognizing that I was already defined, I just didn’t know it, and whatever conclusions I might have from that definition are still pretty mind created, yet in my heart and soul, this moment was, and is, still huge. It was in 1971, and I had already met Neem Karoli Baba but I was at a point in my life where I wasn’t really interested in a Guru. I had already had a Guru and I was a 19 year old kid who sort of thought he knew everything. I was clear in my completely illusory sense of self-knowledge. So I met Maharaj-ji and was completely magnetized by Him and wanted to spend as much time with Him as possible but I had no sense of Him as a Guru or any desire for Him or anyone to be my Guru. After several months of being with Him, He sent us all away, which was a habit He had and then He’d disappear. He told us to meet Him in a town called Allahabad at a certain date, so I was there waiting and sick with my first big dysentery case and I was also emotionally messed up because my girlfriend had just dumped me. I was depressed and questioned what I was doing at 19 years old in India, which a lot of people also went through. So every day I was going to the home where Maharaj-ji was expected but He never showed up and I was getting even more depressed. One night while there, I went to sleep and had a very profound dream. It was very early morning, shortly after midnight, and I was waiting at a train station by myself in Allahabad. A train comes in and Maharaj-ji steps off wrapped in His blanket. After he steps off the train, He wraps His arms and blanket around me and He starts crying. I then start crying and we’re swimming in an ocean of tears and immersed in a complete feeling of, “Finally He’s come back to me, finally I’m back,” over, and over again. It was a very profound dream and when I woke up, I was in a very altered, euphoric state and I knew then that Maharaj-ji was my Guru. I still don’t know exactly what that means, but I know it to be true. When I awoke, I looked at the clock and it was 1:28 am. I proceed to putter around for a bit before returning to sleep. The next morning I woke up and went over to the house where Maharaj-ji was expected and everything was different. People were quiet, yet moving around busily. I asked what was going on and found out that Maharaj-ji had arrived last night at the Allahabad train station at 1:28 a.m. by himself, and once there He contacted them. I don’t know that I needed affirmation after that dream but knowing my own mind, I probably did, and so that was the affirmation and it was very strong. Since then, I know that I am under the protection, guidance and grace of this great, great, Being. Of course, that’s not to say that Maharaj-ji has stopped me from making a million wrong choices and going to some very dark places. But again, I don’t even know if they are actually choices, maybe it’s just my karma unspooling itself and Maharaj-ji is keeping me safe so I don’t go all the way off of the rope. I don’t know, but I do know that He is my protector and savior for lifetime after lifetime.


Q: What do you believe are the benefit, if any, vs. the dangers of mind-altering drugs?


A: Well let’s just say there’s a time and a place for everything. I don’t want to be a preacher for sobriety because I know that for many people, there are periods when drugs can be very valuable. The problem is that once we start taking drugs, it’s very easy to lose the awareness of when the value is gone, particularly for those of us who have the addict gene. For me, I feel that my earliest use of drugs had a reason and a value, but I lost track of that completely. I was exploring my shadow side but then got lost in it but didn’t know I was lost. I can go on and on about what I’d say the negative relationship of drugs is with the devotional path, I’m still learning though. I find on the path of bhakti, blissful experiences are one of those nice side effects, but they’re not the thing, they’re not the big deal. They’re just experiences, and when we take drugs, we begin to hook onto the experience and not the deeper longing to learn how to surrender and learn how to serve, to somehow set aside the ego. I used to have to alter myself all the time to feel that I was in the right place to sing. Part of that was incredible stage fright, but a part of it was also a certain belief that in my normal consciousness, I couldn’t approach that space. Now however, I feel like every bit of my consciousness is put here by God and I have to accept that. It’s not like I’m always in this bright light space, but I have to accept that if I feel that these blissful feelings can come from God, I also have to feel that the more mundane, or even “blue” feelings come from God too, and that whatever space I’m in is the appropriate moment for my devotional practice. I don’t have to get high to feel devotional because that’s fucked up, but again, I do feel like it’s an individual thing. When people ask me for help to get sober, that’s one thing, but if I start telling people they should or shouldn’t be doing things, I’m coming from a  wrong place because I barely know what’s right for me day by day. I pray and hope that my guidance, and the way I am to my little boy, that he doesn’t get into drugs, but I also know that there will probably be a time when he’ll experiment, that’s probably going to happen. As far as the DNA stuff, he has it from both me and his mama but he also has love and education and is surrounded by spirituality and joy and so I pray it doesn’t happen, but life has a habit of being life.


Q: What are some films you’ll never forget seeing for the first time and why?


A: Nothing really comes to mind to be honest. I love going to the movies, though I don’t get to do it very much anymore. I can appreciate films beautiful escapism. My big joy now is going to animated 3D movies with my little boy who just turned seven. Being a father to him is so special to me on so many levels, starting with being a “practitioner” of bhakti yoga, because I had no clue of what that meant because I was always putting myself first. With my son however, I began to learn to truly put someone else first.


Q: Does God exist and if so, in what capacity? If not, why not?


A: I don’t give very much credence or value to belief systems. Quite a few years ago, I was leading one of our Winter Kirtan camps in Guatemala and after about 3 days a woman said to me, “Jai, I’m having a hard time because I’m an atheist and we’re singing to blue skinned Gods and 16 armed Goddesses.” Well at first I thought, “What the heck are you doing here?” but then we had a conversation and I said, “Forget what you’re thinking in your brain and tell me what are you feeling in your heart?” She went on to say, “As I’m singing this Kirtan, I’m feeling an incredible openness and incredible connectedness to something bigger than myself as well as all the folks around me, as well as spontaneous healings within myself.” So I thought to myself that, from week to week, month to month, year to year and maybe even day to day, my mind has different answers, but my heart knows that God and Goddess exist, and my Guru exists, and my own spirit exists. Sometimes, that’s the hardest one, “Do I have a soul or spirit, or am I just a walking animated bunch of molecules that’s going to die?” In my heart, I know God exists and is all present, pervading and all goodness, all benevolence, meaning I don’t believe “He” punishes. I know my Guru exists and my heart is filled with light that is much greater than my little “self”. The mind can play tricks on us. Last night I was laying with my little boy, and as he was going to sleep he said to me, “Papa, you’re going to be mad at me but I can’t stop myself.” So I asked him what it was, thinking he wanted to get up and get something to eat, but he said, “My mind keeps saying ‘God is stupid’ and I try to stop it, and I don’t believe it, but it keeps going on and on.” So I thought, how beautiful that he has this awareness of the working of his own mind at 7 years old, and the awareness that he can’t always control it. So we talked and chanted and kissed and hugged and it was gone, but the mind says a lot of things, and most of the time it’s pretty transparent, but the heart knows, especially when we allow ourselves to sink into it.


Q: What do you think your greatest contribution to humanity is?


A: If there is one at all, it is easily taking care of my boy and being as good of a father as I can to him. I feel like with him, and when I say “him,” I don’t mean just him, but people of his generation, boys and girls, soon to be men and women, maybe not all of them, but some of them, are going to be the saviors of this Earth, of our realm. He’s already illumined and filled with light and knowledge, but of course he’s a kid and needs to be guided and directed and fed and clothed and taken care of and most of all, loved. I have so much faith that what he will do in his life, will be very, very, important. So my main job, as well as my main joy, is being his father and guiding him the best that I can. Sometimes being a papa and playing with a kid all the time drives you nuts, and that’s okay, you go and do something else for a little while. But my greatest contribution, my greatest job, I’m very clear that being a father to him is what it is.


Q: What does the human experience mean to you?


A: The human experience I believe is a reflection of God, a relationship with spirit, a reflection of God’s relationship with God. We can say the reflection of Krishna’s relationship with Radha, or the reflection of Hanuman’s relationship with Rama, but everything in the human realm and experience is radiating with Divine Light. It’s designed to bring us closer to God. Now, that sounds very high and mighty, and I do feel that to be true, but other times, I feel the human experience to be filled with challenges that I need to understand and work my way through, to feel my emotions. Of course, I feel emotions are part of the fuel that connects us with spirit, so that’s a good thing, but sometimes, they’re hard to understand and deal with. I feel that in some ways, the human experience is filled with sorrow. Everywhere I look sometimes, I see sorrow. Everywhere I look inside of myself, I see sorrow. Then the next day, I see the human experience is filled with complete joy. Everywhere I look, I see joy. It’s definitely a rollercoaster. We’re born, we live, and then we die. I guess all that’s to say that basically, I don’t have a clue, but I’m glad to be incarnated as a human. If I wasn’t incarnated as a human I wouldn’t have met my Guru, or maybe I would have in another realm. I wouldn’t have played all this music that I’ve played and continue to play, or maybe I would have in another realm. I wouldn’t have met Nubia, or maybe I would have in another realm and I wouldn’t have had my son Ezra, or maybe I would have in another realm. Okay, I know absolutely nothing, let’s leave it at that.


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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.