KIRTAN CALL

From the sound of his music – or even just his name alone – one could easily picture Jai Uttal having been born swaddled in cloth, bathed in holy waters, raised on a pure devotional vegetarian diet and kept from the harshness of the world. In reality, Uttal is the son of a record executive from New York City who studied classical piano as a child and spent a good part of his youth playing in a Motown cover band.

Uttal spent several years studying music and tradition in India – where he met the guru who gave his life new direction (although the name came from a yoga teacher in America). At 17, he moved to the Bay Area to study sarod with renowned classicist Ali Akbar Khan, with whom he still works with from time to time.

Uttal, 53, has fused all of his influences, from punk rock to Appalachian hillbilly music to Indian classical, into a personal world music hybrid that has garnered his Pagan Love Orchestra a Grammy nomination in 2002. But it’s his work as a leader of Hindu devotional singing known as Kirtan that brings Uttal to the Unitarian Society in an event sponsored by the Santa Barbara Yoga Center on December 3, where he will lead attendees in the ancient form of call-and-response chanting.

Q. Can you tell me about what you will be doing here in Santa Barbara?

A. Kirtan chanting – which has been practiced for centuries and centuries – is a form of group singing, usually call and response, but sometimes in unison. It’s a very ancient practice from India, evoking God or spirit through communal singing. We take very ancient Sanskrit mantras and then most of the time I compose melodies for them. I accompany myself on harmonium, and Daniel Paul plays tabla and sings. It’s group invocation, group prayer, like a journey into our hearts, exploring what’s there and letting it out. It’s very meditative, but not always chilled out.

It can be very quiet or peaceful or other times very hyper and cathartic. Most of the time there’s sections in the Kirtan that are quiet, deep and peaceful and others that are very rhythmically charged and screaming at the top of our lungs. It depends on the mood. Kirtan invites every mood to be expressed within it.

I might just do three songs but they could be forty-five minutes each, going through several musical, rhythmical, emotional changes. It’s very free. I do a lot of improvising, but it’s all accessible because it’s call and response.

How does the mood get determined?

I’m leading, but I try to let it come from an intuitive place, rather than a mental place of control, let it guide. So I like to feel that the spirit is leading the whole group energy. I know that sounds pretentious, but it’s my intention. Of course we are human beings, but at least if only for a minute, we can be there with the intention. I try to feel in tune with the subtle changes.

What is the connection between Kirtan and yoga?

Kirtan is yoga. The way yoga is perceived in the West – as just a body beautiful – is a very narrow aspect to what it truly is. The word “yoga” means “union,” specifically with the divine soul. So all the practices of yoga were originally used to bring you toward a state of oneness. Kirtan comes from the Bahkti part of yoga, which is about the personal relationship with the divine. One of the most vital processes of that is singing, chanting which makes our emotions come to life. It can be a very powerful tool for inner transformation. So it is yoga.

How does a Jewish boy from New York City get into Indian music and devotional singing in the first place?

It was the late sixties, and that’s what was happening. I was certainly super into the Beatles and there were a lot of Eastern influences floating around then. I remember hearing the Hare Krishnas when they first came to New York, which I was drawn to.

Indian music, both folk and classical, is music of the longing, the yearning of the heart. We can call it spiritual yearning, that desire for completion, for fullness and wholeness. Certainly that’s expressed by music all over the world, but with Indian music the philosophy comes from that it was developed only as a form of spiritual practice. My heart felt that right away. It resonated strongly for me.

So does Motown and rock still inform your work?

Oh, very much so. Particularly with the band. Lyrically it’s very devotional, Indian and mostly Sanskrit, but rhythmically it’s a lot of seventies soul grooves, pop and R&B. But you won’t hear that in the Kirtan.

Around Town

Keyboardist/singer/composer Alan Parsons has seen the “Dark Side of the Moon” (he was the engineer on the classic Pink Floyd album) and “Abbey Road” (he worked at Apple Records at the time the Beatles made that album) and had his “Eye in the Sky” (his own massive hit with the Alan Parsons Project). A Santa Barbara resident for seven years, Parsons has now caught the Christmas spirit and is headlining a concert at the Arlington to benefit Unity Shoppe to coincide with the 20th annual KEYT telethon on December 3, with former Montecitan Christopher Cross also on the bill…. When veteran singer-songwriter Tom Russell plays at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez on December 5, he won’t seem as out of place as some of the other folkies who have performed at the venue in Tales from the Tavern’s new series at the country bar. Russell, whose own recording career dates back to the early ‘70s, has had his songs recorded by the likes of country superstars Johnny Cash and k. d. lang, to name just two, although cowboy music is just one of the influences on this literate, dedicated Americana artist…. Although its name reads like a cult horror film and the band hails from grunge capital Seattle, Death Cab for Cutie is actually a pop-oriented outfit that takes its cues from sensitive singer-songwriter Ben Gibbard, who lays his heart bare on the band’s latest, “Plans,” the 2005 major-label debut. Also on the appealing double bill at the Arlington on December 6: Jenny Lewis, lead singer of indie fave Rilo Kiley, playing with The Watson Twins, who opened for Matt Costa at SOhO recently.

Classical Corner

UCSB packs more than half of its fall season concerts into a single nine-day stretch all at Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall on campus beginning Thursday with the University Wind Ensemble led by Paul Bambach. The school’s Chamber Choir and University Singers play Friday (at St. Anthony’s Seminary), followed the next night by the Middle Eastern Ensemble, and Sunday brings the Jazz Ensemble. After a two-day break, the University Symphony performs on December 6; the Ensemble for Contemporary Music plays on December 7, and the season wraps up with the Gospel Choir on December 8.… On Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, the Santa Barbara Choral Society rings in the season with a holiday concert that features Handel’s “Messiah,” including some of the less familiar sections of the iconic masterpiece for the first time in nearly a decade.