June 1999

Jai Uttal - Beggars and Saints
Triloka 7208-2
Released: 1994

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Jai Uttal and the Pagan Love Orchestra -- if there’s power in a name, then this ensemble inhaled a very deep whiff of the peace pipe. Such a smoke-filled image also conjures up altered states, shamanic journeys, peyote dreams, bhang and ghanja excesses. Add ecstatic devotion to the Divine to this mind-bending mix, and you enter the world of the Bengal Bauls, the Indian sect of itinerant beggar musicians whose very existence epitomizes the yoga tradition of Bhakti, the Path of Love.

This is Jai Uttal’s third of four releases so far, and his best in many ways. His particular genius is in delivering the devotional songs of the Bauls to a Western audience, spirit intact, well and prosperous, while its outer wrappings are distinctly non-Hindu, thoroughly modern, a rollicking blend of reggae-funk-grooves and other indescribable ingredients. Uttal has incarnated this archetypal Hindu religion into his Brooklyn soul sufficiently to make his music a truly authentic and heart-felt expression of an ancient tradition very unlike his own of the Big Apple. On this third, album he overcomes what might have been an earlier trepidation to wear his pagan heart so openly on his sleeve. His voice is filled with fervent passion beyond restraint, and he openly and mindlessly looses himself in the Sanskrit mantras of adoration. This is no Hare Krishna sermon, mind you. We’re not talking frugal vegetarians here coming to convert and save your sinning soul. We’re talking shameless seducers, tantric lovers, wild-eyed drunks asking you to join the party.

Most of Uttal’s pagans are frequent collaborators with Ali Akbar Khan, the Indian sarod maestro in residence in San Rafael, California. There is the outstanding percussionist Geoffrey Gordon, harem master over numerous pulsating gopis like bandir, dumbek, tar, congas, bongos, tabla and kanjira whose infectious grooves also weave much of the magic rhythm carpet that is Triloka’s first Tulku release Trancendence. There is bansuri flutist extraordinaire Steve Gorn, whom Marc Levinson recorded for Interworld Music on the audiophile disc Luminous Ragas, Peter Apfelbaum on various sexy saxes and percussion instruments, Jeff Cressman on trombone and flugelhorn, and of course Jai himself with his nubile consorts dotar, harmonium, ektar, gopichand, gubgubbi, oud, banjo, mandolin and kartals.

What to say of the music itself? Can you envision yourself skidding about your living room butt nekkid surrounded by candles, heavy incense and a divinely inebriated crowd of trance drummers while you sing at the top of your lungs to your favorite deity? Go right ahead and turn her into anything you like -- Pamela Anderson, Cameron Diaz, the young Marlon Brando, Jean-Paul Belmondo. Can you summon heart-wrenching memories of loves lost, the summer passion of your wildest romance when you gladly made a fool out of yourself for a mere glance of your beloved? Can you forget yourself enough to truly let go into the arms of whatever your idea of the Great Unknown might be? Well, any further descriptions of Jai Uttal’s music will now be utterly useless, as you have already imbibed its heady spirit and are well on your way to let your pagan soul hang out beyond repair.

OK, OK. Guilty of vagueness as charged. You see, would you rather have people smoke pot and get all messed up and weirded out, or listen to music that makes them happy and rejoices their souls? So what if they don’t show up for work on time? They’ll be so much more fun when they do. What? That’s against the constitution? Well, so is being a poor sport. Here, give this a spin. This is a very cool headphone rig from HeadRoom. It won’t hurt a bit, and it speaks more eloquently for the case of Beggars and Saints than I can myself. This goes over your ears, and here’s the volume control. [Mumbling to myself: "Damn, I should have gotten the closed-backed cans -- this guy’s nearly deaf, and now everyone gets to hear me black-mailing him with the tape of him arguing with the bouncer at the rave."]

Huh? Listen to Beggars and Saints -- or better yet, listen to it with friends. Pass it around....