When I reviewed the Pagan Love Orchestra’s last album, I was convinced that Jai Uttal had found a musical style that he could cultivate for years. I predicted that his musical future would be one of slow subtle growth and consolidation, with relatively few surprises but many satisfying creative developments. But the future has a nasty habit of confounding our predictions. Uttal’s new album, Mondo Rama, is, in his own words, “both a progression and a departure” from the many imaginative variations of his previous work. No one else could have made it, and yet I never would have predicted that his next album would sound like this. There are new influences acquired from his recent trips to Brazil, Israel, Fiji and India, and strong echoes of the later music of the Beatles. Yet there is no sense of pastiche or patchwork here—Uttal shows us that he is one of the most original and emotionally expressive artists in fusion music. There is less orchestration and arrangement, and more engineered textures. There are fades and quick cuts, sounds played backwards, and samples of urban and international sounds. And most significantly, there is a much broader range of emotions expressed, both in the lyrics and in the music.
On his previous albums, Uttal’s lyrics were simple and straightforward expressions of spiritual exuberance. Mondo Rama still has this spiritual quality, but there is also a sense of light and darkness locked in struggle. Never before has he demonstrated the poetic power of songs like “Valencia Gardens.” Named after one of the toughest and most violent housing projects in San Francisco, its haunting lyric is underscored by a recorded police interview of a fifteen-year-old girl who is now in jail for attempted murder. The opening song “Narayana” has the joyful fervor of a Hindu kirtan. It begins with a strangely sad melodica solo played over a bossa nova beat, which is interrupted by Hindi lyrics that seem to cry out “No! There is more to life than this!” This sense of conflict continues as the song shifts to Reggae, then to a baroque brass flourish reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” and finally resolves to another slower melody with Hindi lyrics. Even the instrumental “Whisper Stream” manages to express this conflict without lyrics. It combines a solo sarod with a techno drum program that moves relentlessly forward as the sarod shifts from driving trills to languid rubato bends. The spiritual element is present in every song, but there is a sense that it is achieved only after a battle with forces that constantly threaten to engulf it.
Much of this struggle is a reflection of the misfortunes that have afflicted Uttal of late. His domestic relationship recently ended with a painful separation after seventeen years. He had serious contractual disputes with the executives at his former label, many of who had been his closest friends. Not surprisingly, his life began to spin out of control, and only got back on track after he subjected himself to a rigorous program of spiritual and physical purification. Only then was he able to begin the series of musical pilgrimages that both got him back in touch with his roots, and exposed him to new traditions that revitalized his creative energy. Thanks to the support of his new label, Narada Records, and to the efforts of both old and new members of the Pagan Love Orchestra, he was finally able to bounce back.
“I’d like to thank my co-producer Ben Leinbach for keeping this project in focus and on track,” says Uttal. “He was always there to handle the logistics and made countless creative contributions.”
Because the album expresses so much about the paradoxical variety of the world in which we dwell, it is strangely appropriate that it is named after a song that doesn’t really appear on the album. The track with that name begins with the sounds of a very noisy party. Uttal is telling people the title of the new album, and everyone talks at once as they give him their opinions of it. Then it fades into a few bars of a song with the words “Mondo Rama,” sung by a several people improvising unsteady harmonies, accompanied only by one guitar and a tambourine, and probably recorded with a hand-held cassette player. Then it fades out, and into the song “Valencia Gardens” which ends the album with the words “I’ll walk away from heaven for a visit to hell, if it brings me closer to you.”
This valiant struggle to reconcile heaven and hell is the unifying theme of this diverse and subtle album. “Mondo Rama means the world is Rama,” says Uttal. “And if this is true, why should the picture we paint show only part of the world? My music was focused exclusively on the spiritual. There was less darkness in my earlier albums, but perhaps that was because I wasn’t fully dealing with the darkness in my own life.” The German philosopher Nietzsche once said that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Uttal has clearly emerged from his struggles stronger and more creative than ever.