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Friends in High Places

Gopula What a deep relief it was to hear those sounds and smell those smells once again. Bells, chants, heart-rending cries of “Radhe Radhe,” incense, sacred fires, cow dung burning…… I was back in my holy Vrindavan again; the land of Radha and Krishna; the ‘dham’ (pilgrimage place) where I first met my Guru, Neem Karoli Baba.

It was the mid-90’s and my heart was feeling parched. Thirsty for some sweetness, some balm, some bhav. Life in the west had been heavy for me. Though from the outside looking in all seemed wonderful, my insides were hurting and needed a good dose of divine comfort that I hadn’t been able to find back home. So it was back to India for me and I was inwardly rejoicing as the rickshaw brought me close to my Guru’s ashram.

But on stepping into that abode of peace I was instantly accosted by my old friend Dinesh, one of the helpers at the temple. “Jai Gopal, you must come!!! One of our temple staff has died and we need help with the body!” Fresh off the plane and it was dead bodies already…. “He’s died of tuberculosis and we have no one to help prepare the funeral pyre and carry the body to the Yamuna for cremation. And we need to borrow your ‘Sweez knife’ (Swiss Army Knife) to cut the ropes.” Oy Vey! What could I say?

So we ran to the Ramakrishna Mission Hospital where I watched as the remains of a little old guy were washed and wrapped in fabrics, flowers and oils. “Chant!” I was ordered, so I began singing “Sri Ram Jaya Ram Jaya Jaya Ram” over and over again. Finally ready, the body was lifted on to a kind of wooden pallet and we began our walk through town to the river banks. “Ram Nam Satya Hai!” “God’s name is the only truth!” We repeated these words as we paraded through the streets of Vrindavan. People came out of their homes and shops to pranam to us and I felt honored to be part of an ancient ceremony. Until the ant appeared, creeping from underneath the covers of that eternally sleeping body! And crawled down the bamboo stick that was resting on my shoulder! And gently stepped on to my skin! And not-so-gently bit me!!! OH NO! My paranoid, neurotic, Jewish inner child screamed, knowing without doubt that I would be next in line for this suddenly not-so-wonderful ritual. (Well, since I’m sitting here many years later writing down this story I guess we can surmise that I was safe and didn’t die from tuberculosis……)

Anyway, we finally arrived at the sandy shores of Mother Yamuna, one of the great holy rivers of North India. The very same waters where little Gopala played with the cowherd boys and girls; where He conquered the demon Kaliya, wildly dancing upon his serpentine head; where He bathed under the gentle midnight moon with His beloved Srimati Radharani. But while the others were either prostrating and praying or building the funeral pyre, I sat sweating and fretting about my bug bitten shoulder and impending doom.

Ok, let’s get back to the real story now.

I sat and watched as the fire was set and the body of this old man was consumed by the hungry flames. My japa beads were turning: “Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram.” The transience of material life revealed itself to me as what was once human became smoke and ash. Fears of my own mortality quieted down in the mantra’s rhythm and a tiny taste of eternity penetrated the core of my being. “Ram Ram Ram Ram Ram…..” In the West we are so protected from death, and as a result we can never really make friends with it until he’s pounding down our door, gripping the reaper in his long, icy fingers. But in India life and death live side by side, hand in hand, and there is a greater peace surrounding the passages we all must cross in our endless journey through time. Many yogis spend years watching the bodies being consigned to flames in the burning ghats on the shores of Mother Ganga, the holy Ganges river. When the truth of time and existence fully dawns within them they are then ready to truly enter the path of Bhakti, or devotion and surrender to the Lord of Mercy and His divine beloved.

Thus was I meditating that sunny afternoon in Vrindavan, when suddenly a thunderous sound shook me from my reverie. There in the distance, framed by a tornado of dust and sand, was a herd of cows galloping right toward where I was seated. Cow bells clanging, footsteps pounding; I was about to be trampled! What a day this was turning out to be…. But as the final moment approached and I leaped to my feet in desperation, the cows simply stopped running and formed a circle around the smoldering pyre. Softly lowing, plaintively mooing, these cows positioned themselves in what looked like a protective ring around the burning body. “Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” I turned to see Dinesh watching this bizarre phenomenon. “Yes, it is,” I said. “What’s going on?” Dinesh then explained to me that this man was a very shy person who worked at the ashram taking care of the cows. He had no friends or family but gave all of his love and attention to milking, brushing, and feeding the cows, especially the little calves who were born in the ashram farm. No one was ever able to engage him in much conversation but he could often be seen chatting with his babies or with their mommies as he gathered milk for the older ashramites. What was he saying to them, his bovine confidants? We’ll never know. “But what we do know,” continued Dinesh, “is that his friends the cows have come to say goodbye…” There were tears in Dinesh’s eyes as he told me this, and I, in turn, choked up as well. How little we actually know about life, about love. A seemingly unknown, unloved old guy, surrounded by hundreds of his closest intimate associates as the flames consumed the last remnants of his earthly life…

I didn’t know this man, but I’ve thought of him many times over the years. My son, Ezra Gopal, loves to hear this story and at first didn’t believe that it was true, that I hadn’t just made it up. But I thank this nameless, faceless guy for teaching me about love, and that the truth can’t always be easily seen from the outside; and I pray that I will be surrounded by as much love and caring as he was as I embark on my life’s final journey……..

Ram Nam Satya Hai!!!

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Thanksgiving

Several years ago I was sitting in the courtyard of my guru’s ashram in a small North Indian village, taking the sun, drinking chai, and watching a family of monkeys dance and fight around a few bags of rice. Bells were ringing in the distance and the sweet smells of marigolds and incense were mingling with the pungent aromas of spicy Indian food. The chilly mist of morning was slowly dissolving into the languid afternoon warmth. I found myself smiling at the futile efforts of the ashram manager shaking his stick at the persistent family of monkeys. Could he remove the monkeys, or would he have to move that delicious Basmati rice? Hmmmm……

This beautiful temple to Hanuman has always reawakened a deep river of emotion in me as it’s the place where I first met my guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and where the course of my life was radically changed. Whenever I visit here I find myself in tears, sometimes crying from overwhelming love, but more often crying out of loneliness and longing. However, on this day, listening to the old women endlessly chanting “Hare Krishna,” I was drifting in a cloud of contentment.

Sitting next to me was my chai partner, a very old and perpetually smiling devotee known simply as ‘Papa,’ a man who had been with Maharajji since the 1940’s. Papa’s leathery, toothless face always seemed to shine, even with his declining health, and his eyes held the gleam of one fixed on the divine, one who frequently received visions and visitations from his long deceased guru. Suddenly Papa turned towards me, his face uncharacteristically severe, and told me in his tremulous voice to go into what used to be Maharajji’s bedroom and sing eleven Hanuman Chaleesas. The Hanuman Chaleesa is a 40 verse prayer to the monkey god, “The Remover of Suffering” that was very loved by Maharajji. I, as usual, was feeling lazy and so I was bit reluctant. After all, I was already in a pretty good mood. Why spoil it with what I perceived as ‘effortful sadhana?’ But Papa pushed me, saying rather forcefully: “It’s the very least we can do! It’s the very least we can do! He who has given us everything……..What can we give back to him? Just our songs and our gratitude…….”

There were tears in Papa’s eyes as he said this to me so, to please my old friend and not get on the business end of his razor sharp tongue, I quickly grabbed my harmonium and went into Maharajji’s room to sing.

As soon as I entered the room I felt a change come over me. Perhaps it was the elaborate display of flowers on what used to be Maharajji’s bed, or the softly flickering oil lamps, or the wafting incense, or the huge photo of Baba gazing deep into my soul. But as I was singing, my voice bouncing off the whitewashed clay walls, I began to imagine the embodiment of love lying there, simply enjoying…. I had been in the habit of doing my ‘spiritual practices’ for myself, my own salvation, my ‘enlightenment,’ sometimes even my sanity. But now I found myself singing as an offering of thanks, as an expression of the deepest gratitude for a love and grace given totally without condition. Singing just to bring joy to He who is the source of all joy…. And my heart began to open in a way it had never opened before.

Papa gave me something that afternoon which is still growing inside of me. Although I forget way more often than I remember, I try to say thank you to God and to my guru every day, not just the fun and easy days, but really every day. Thank you for my life, my breath, my love, my challenges, my suffering, my happiness. For sure this is so much easier said than done, but when I can remember to offer my songs, my work, my heart, as a gift, without expecting or demanding anything in return, I can rest for just a moment in the sweet ocean of peace. And it seems there’s always more to be thankful about….

Maharajji

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Jai’s Blog – The Baba in the Stilt House

Ah, India… The land of dreams, exaggerations, unbelievable stories and mythological figures; where the line between the ‘spirit’ world and the ‘real’ world is very thin, indeed; where monkeys and elephants are Gods, and cows are the Great Mother; where the lilting song of a bamboo flute is the signal for a dip into divine ecstasy; where Lord Hanuman himself sneaks into your room and steals your fruit; where clanging bells endlessly announce the rising and setting of the sun; where God-like men and women walk the same dirt paths and drink chai from the same cracked cups as we do; where 250 year old ‘sadhus’ with long winding dreadlocks periodically rejuvenate their bodies through herbs and rituals and vow never to touch their feet upon the Earth.

Wait a minute! Two hundred and fifty years old? Never touch the Earth? That’s going a bit far, don’t you think?

Thus begins the story of the Baba in the stilt house.

I was traveling in India sometime in the mid ’70s, still floating in that cloud-like euphoria of semi-youth, searching for a deeper connection with my Guru, who had left his body in 1973. I had spent an amazing winter in West Bengal with the Bauls (see my earlier blogs), visited some breathtaking but slightly scary Tantric shrines out in the desert (picture a pile of carefully stacked, freshly oiled human skulls. Yikes!); and bathed in the ocean of pure essence in Sri Ramakrishna’s bedroom on the outskirts of Calcutta. But summer was approaching and Bengal was just getting way too hot. And the bedbugs were getting bigger and bigger and bigger!!!

It was time to go north and settle down for a while in my Guru’s ashram in the holy town of Vrindavan, where 5000 years ago Lord Krishna danced with the Gopis, a dance that still continues to this day.

Life in Vrindavan in the 1970s was quite idyllic, at times even heavenly. There were no cars and very little construction and every other house was a sacred temple. Medieval India. The songs and prayers that emanated from each little ‘mandir’ blended in the ethers becoming a kind of symphonic masterpiece of mantra; the sound of 1008 hearts being ripped open in desperate longing and ecstasy. Every day I would wander around, listening to Kirtan, sometimes joining in, drinking chai, eating milk sweets and napping. I wasn’t in the habit of going to see gurus at that time. I had my Baba Neem Karoli, I had my path; other ‘darshans’ and instructions were a distraction to me. I was sustained simply by the kirtans of this deeply sanctified place. But I did keep hearing about this ‘sadhu’ named Deoria Baba, who, according to the legends, was hundreds of years old and was a practitioner of the ancient and very secret Kaya Kalpa rejuvenation techniques of Ayurveda. Every hundred years or so he walked into the river and emerged a while later as a young man! I was told that he lived in simple bamboo stilt houses and never came down to touch the earth. He would instruct his disciples from about ten feet up, his long dreadlocks dangling over the wooden railing. After seeing a picture of this Baba, I was quite intrigued. He looked like some kind of super thin aboriginal ape-man with eyes that pierced the veils of personality and separateness; like someone from outer space. And he was said to be one of the great ‘siddhas’ of modern times. All this was very interesting to me, but most appealing of all was the fact that Deoria Baba highly revered my Guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and took any and all of Maharajji’s devotees under his wing.

Well, it just so happened that Deoria Baba was camped quite near Vrindavan that spring, on the other side of the Yamuna river. So some friends and I decided to embark on a pilgrimage.

Finding a boatman that hot, steamy day was a daunting task. Usually they swarmed the banks of the river looking for customers but somehow the shore was completely empty on this occasion. So we waited and waited, humming kittens and rock & roll songs under our breath all the while wondering what this renowned sadhu would say to us, disciples of another guru. Finally a boat appeared and we piled on. The Yamuna crossing isn’t a long journey in terms of time or miles, but there is a breath of transcendence and peace that seems to hover over the surface of the waters. Crossing the river, and even more so, bathing in it, are deeply transformative events, as Yamuna Devi blesses each and every one who takes the time to ask for Her grace. So as I disembarked on the other shore I had already entered into a kind of altered state. The pastel colors were sharper, the sand felt softer on my bare feet, the wind was so gentle in my long hippy hair… A short walk brought us up to a bamboo gate and a few sadhus lounging in the mid day sun. They asked us who we were and where we had come from, told us to wait and disappeared inside the ‘ashram.’ Time slowed. Silence descended. I could clearly here the beating of my heart and the internal repetition of my mantra. Suddenly the sadhus came running back, yelling at us: “Come, come, Baba wants to see you NOW!” We were ushered across a stretch of sand to a rather strange sight. There, crouched on a rickety old platform, propped up on stilts of sticks and branches, about ten or fifteen feet in the air, was a very old man, Father Time himself, his hand raised up in blessing. “You come from Baba Neem Karoli? Ashirbad, Ashirbad, Ashirbad (blessings, blessings, blessings). Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya!!!!! Ashirbad, Ashirbad.” He had us repeat that ancient mantra to Lord Vishnu over and over again, while his disciples piled fruits and sweets on us which I put in the front shirttails of my long handloomed ‘kurta.’ The atmosphere became completely other-worldly. I couldn’t feel my legs, my feet, my body. Chanting “Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya” the ground beneath me seemed to float, as this strange old man completely readjusted my molecules. Waves of energy streamed from his open hand. Then, just as suddenly, he said “Jao!”, GO, just like Maharajji used to do, like an Indian would speak to the neighborhood dog begging at the lunch table for scraps. I stood up, lost my balance, dropped all of my fruits and sweets, stooped to pick them up, dropped them again and noticed a very funny twinkle in Deoria Baba’s eyes. How familiar he looked. And then he was gone, disappearing into the dark recesses of his space-ship-esque bamboo hut.

So that’s the story of the Baba in the stilt house. Not much of a story, really. But when I reflect on the blessings that I’ve received over my life I can’t help but feel amazed and grateful. What did I do to deserve the ‘ashirbad’ of a prehistoric God-man? Not much! But still those blessings came. And I believe that they’re still coming. As long as I can stay just slightly open, just slightly quiet for a few teensy little moments, God’s ever-present grace can always be felt…

Baba in the Stilt House

PS. This is an excerpt from “By His Grace”. By Dada Mukherji, a long term devotee of Neem Karoli Baba.

“Deoria Baba, himself a great saint, comes to Allahabad every year during the Magh Mela or the Kumbha Mela. A few years back he was here and some of his devotees who are well-known to us came to our house for satsang. They said that the night before they had been sitting around Deoria on the sand and someone came who said that he used to go to Neem Karoli Baba, but he is not there anymore, so he cannot go. Deoria Baba actually shouted at him, “WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? CAN SUCH A SAINT GO ANYWHERE? HE HAS DONE SUCH TRICKS MANY TIMES BEFORE! HE IS ALIVE, AND HE ALWAYS WILL BE ALIVE!”

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Jai’s Blog – How Ganga Dhar and I became the first “official” International Bauls. Part Two.

“The mirror of the sky
Reflects my soul.
Oh Baul of the road,
Oh Baul my heart,
What keeps me tied to the corner of the room,
What keeps me tied?”

– Composed by Nabani Das Baul, borrowed by me for the song, “Corner”, on my album, “Shiva Station”.

It’s kind of funny writing memoir-ish blogs when my memory is so filled with holes. In fact, sometimes I think there are more holes in my memory than actual memories. Hmmm… Am I making stuff up or did this all really happen? Luckily, my alter-ego-old-friend Ganga Dhar is writing his memories as well. We can cross reference each other since so much of our lives were spent together. But why does he remember more than me? I don’t think I took more drugs than him, but I guess I took different ones. (Oh no, that addiction blog again. Later…)

So where were we? The small Baul mela outside of Bolpur, West Bengal. The dusty, raw voiced multi-generational families crying to the Gods on that little rickety stage in the Bengali desert…

After sadly disappointing our new Baul friends with our lack of LSD, Ganga Dhar and I staggered back to our hotel, deeply moved from the experience of seeing these mystical madmen in action. With their long black hair and patchwork clothes and melodies that could crumble the padlocked gates of heaven we were very simply blown away. Upon reaching our hotel we feasted deeply on the house specialty, Aloo Posta, or potatoes cooked in opium poppies. (Mmmm, I sure did love those potatoes. In fact, I began ordering them for breakfast, lunch and dinner.) But somehow or another it was time to make a move. This Baul music seemed to resonate the very core of our beings and set us on fire. We knew we had to get closer to the source.

First we needed a place to settle, other than a hotel. We were directed to a little house out in the desert, by the side of a dry river bed, that belonged to an eccentric Indian artist in self-imposed exile and his somewhat batty Austrian wife. It was called “Studio Bulbul”, named after his daughter who had recently passed away. The artist, Kirin Sinha, was almost blind from cataracts and had been working in concrete, a medium that he could feel in the most visceral way with his hands blistered and burning. I’m not sure if this was some kind of penance or divine inspiration but Kirin was an amazing artist, with hundreds of canvases scattered around everywhere. His paintings looked like the work of a God-intoxicated Hindu Vincent Van Gogh. Luckily Kirin still had his ears, but in some ways he was madder than a hatter; divinely mad that is, filled with visions of the Gods and Goddesses. He used to tell us about his meetings with divine beings. “You can always tell a God or a saint in disguise” he would whisper, “Their feet are several inches off the ground!” Kirin was very impressed and excited to find some young kindred spirits in Ganga Dhar and I, and he took it upon himself to find us a Baul teacher and translate the songs for us. Thus we met Baidyanath Das Baul, one of the great souls and inspirations of my life.

Baidyanath Das was a young man at that time, fully living the Baul life, wondering, singing, dancing, begging. He had a stunningly beautiful wife who was, of course, also a Baul, but he spent most of his time on the move. Somehow Kirin was able to convince him to come to our home three times a week and give us lessons for a small fee. Baidyanath Das would walk in singing “Jay Guru, Jay Guru!!!!”, and sit down and play any instrument within his reach. In fact sometimes that instrument would be the kitchen table or peanut butter jar; the entire world was his instrument as his cry soared to the outer spheres. Baidyanath Das spoke absolutely no English and we had no knowledge whatsoever of Bengali, but the flow of feelings and communication seemed to come effortlessly. He would sing, we would repeat. He would play and we would attempt to imitate. Dotar, gubgubbi, kanjira, kartals, the basic Baul orchestra. Our teacher seemed to be a master of them all. But what most deeply remains in my mind are the memories of him singing quietly, the deep pathos, the ineffable longing in his voice. The quaver, the high notes at the top of his register, the lump in his throat as tears bubbled to the surface. Baidyanath Das was one of my greatest teachers as he led me into the world of passionate devotion through song. “Sing!”, he seemed to be saying, “Sing and break down the walls, destroy the shackles that bind you, discover the ‘Man of the Heart’!” I was still quite a shy singer at that time in my life. Instruments always came easy to me, but singing, well, that was another story. Baidyanath Das jump started the process of transforming me into a ‘singer’. Like all the Bauls we met, he didn’t seem to care at all about singing in tune. In fact it seemed almost to be a stylistic ideosyncrasy to sing beyond one’s range, regardless of one’s ability to hit those super high notes. And yet the musicality was almost always breathtaking.

So Baidyanath Das taught us many songs and Kirin translated them into English, vicariously enjoying our journey. And gradually our home became ‘Baul Central’, a place where every night a different group of wanderers would come to sing, dance and eat. Some of these Bauls were very simple and lovely souls, while others made me nervously aware of my hidden passport and money. But all of them sang and, with bells coiled around their ankles, danced. And, at least for moments, they all seemed to be transported to other realms and universes. Ganga Dhar and I learned from them all; absorbing, drinking in their wondrous music, laughing and jamming along. I’ll never forget one time when a young Baul, who’s name escapes me, took me on a long train journey with him and his compatriots, to sing and dance and hopefully make a few pennies on the way. As we played and sang our crazy mixed up Bengali/English songs, the jaws of the travelers seemed to drop off their faces in shock. Who was this white skinned Baul? What was he singing? I think for a while I even forgot who I was, so lost was I in the music and the deep current of bliss…

Well, as all things come to an end, so did our time in Bengal. The spring was giving way to the summer, the temperature was rising and the bugs were getting bigger and bigger and BIGGER. But one last adventure awaited. Baidyanath Das came by one sizzling afternoon and ordered us to pack a lunch and follow him. A dusty hike in the sun and a seemingly endless bumpy bus ride took us to yet another small and funky little village Baul celebration. We watched and drank in the music and then were invited/ordered on to the stage to sing. OH NO!!!!!!! However, there was no way for us to refuse, so Ganga Dhar and I proceeded to climb up and just do our best, trying to move past our inhibitions and let the passions of our hearts take flight. Thankfully we have no recordings of that moment, but, as was so often the case in India, we were met with such kindness and appreciation by the rustic audience of villagers and Bauls. They simply loved us SO much. The very next thing we knew, standing next to us on stage was Purna Das Baul, one of the elders and certainly the most world-renowned of their community. Indeed, it was Purna Das himself who had made that strange appearance on Bob Dylan’s album cover years before! With a flourish and a bow and perhaps a soft chuckle, this great Baul ambassador of bliss proceeded to pronounce Ganga Dhar and I “The First International Bauls!” I barely noticed the scattered applause as my heart went into wild celebration. Was this a dream? A culmination/continuation of past lives? To this day I don’t really know why this happened, but I do know that it was a life changing moment, a moment that is still living and breathing within me.

That was certainly many ages ago, but I continue to absorb and digest the musical lessons I learned at that time in my life. I’m still practicing the instruments, melodies and rhythms. For a long period of time the ‘dotar,’ a miniature Sarode and a staple instrument of the Bauls, became a sort of trademark for my music. And the spiritual lessons, the devotional aspiration/inspiration, the passion to break down the prison walls of our souls through song, are forever deeply imbedded into my molecules. “Jay Guru! Jay Guru!”

A brief footnote:

Although I never heard this from the Bauls themselves while I was in India, many say that the original Bauls were none other than Shri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and his great companion Prabhu Nityananda, who wandered across North India singing the praises of Radharani and Her beloved Lord Krishna, initiating the entire universe into the mysteries of Bhakti and the glories of singing the holy names. It is believed that Caitanya Mahaprabhu was an avatar or incarnation not just of Krishna, but of Radha AND Krishna together, in their eternal dance of love.

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Jai’s Blog – How Ganga Dhar and I became the first “official” International Bauls. Part One.

Mid-60’s…. I was exploring so many new sounds, everything from Cecil Taylor’s wildly abstract piano compositions to Olivier Messiaen’s breathtaking bird-song-imbued hymns to the divine baby Jesus. All mixed up with the outer space guitar of Jimi Hendrix and the continually mind expanding songs of The Beatles. But what took hold of me most, of course, was Indian classical music. So I searched for as many albums as I could, listening, trying to understand, jamming along with my open-tuned electric guitar, pounding on my wah-wah pedal as the sitar or sarod seemed to go crazy. Of course, aided and abetted by a wide variety of heaven sent substances. Little did I know at that time what a dark road I would come to travel in the thrall of these same wondrous substances. But I’ve only just begun this story and I’m already digressing. (Addiction! A blog for another day!)

Anyway, one day I was excavating the shelves at Folklore Records and came across a disc entitled “Street Singers Of India”, on the Nonesuch label. Street singers in India? Hmmm…. I thought Indian music was all about the palaces, the ancient ragas, the music of the spheres. Well, of course I had to check it out. So I brought this record home and put it on the turntable and had my mind and heart completely blown inside out. This was a rustic folk music, but with deep, complex melodies and churning, steaming rhythms. But, more than that, it was the sound of hearts being ripped open, of souls screaming for God.

Reading the liner notes I learned that these singers were part of a sect of wandering mystical musician/minstrels called “The Bauls of Bengal”. There were many translations offered for the word ‘Baul’, but my favorites were ‘affected by the wind’; ‘Intoxicated with the longing for God’; ‘Drunk in the Divine presence’. Then and there I vowed to someday meet these ‘ divine madmen’.

Well, several years passed (I’m attempting to make a VERY long story quite short) and one of my great inspirations, Bob Dylan, released his amazing back-to-basics album, “John Wesley Harding”. And there on the cover were two very strange looking men. Actually they looked just like the singers on my “Street Singers of India” album. Actually, they WERE the SAME singers as the ones on that album! The next year saw the release of “The Bauls At Big Pink”. My mysterious Bengalis were in Woodstock recording at the same house where Dylan and The Band recorded the basement tapes. This was getting a bit crazy. The Bauls of Bengal were in the United States hanging out with Dylan.

More time passed and as I became more and more absorbed in my studies with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, this obsession with the Bauls shifted to the back burner. Then I embarked on my first trip to India and met my Guru, Baba Neem Karoli, had my whole being turned inside-out and became immersed in the amazing world of Indian Temple chanting, or Kirtan.

But when it came time for my second trip to India, after Maharajji had left his body, my friend Ganga Dhar and I made a commitment to find the Bauls and learn from them. Ganga Dhar is one of my oldest friends. We met at Reed College in 1969, and dropped out together a bit later when we found the Music and Religion departments not fulfilling our mystical teenage requirements. I failed all of my classes and GD squeaked through by handing in his High School term paper. So it was off to Bengal for us, with no knowledge of Bengali, very little money and no connections whatsoever in the Baul subculture.

Somewhere along the way we became disconnected and I found myself walking alone around the dusty lanes of the little town of Shantiniketan, wondering how to find these illusive minstrels. I remember it was quite a warm day, heavy, dry, quiet. I sat down to rest at a small chai shop and as I was sipping the sweet milky tea I heard the sound of a drum, and a string drone, and shakers, and bells and very beautiful albeit quite out of tune singing. Expecting to see a band of five or six musicians, I looked up and saw a simple old man wearing a multi-colored patchwork robe and dirty orange turban dancing down the street. The drum was attached to his belt, the bells and shakers were on his ankles and he was holding the one string ektara high above his head as he sang his wild ecstatic songs. Wow! This old guy was the real thing! A mystic Bengali Baul. So, like the spiritual detective I was, I stealthily followed him down the path and he pretended not to see me. Somewhere along the way I met up again with Ganga Dhar, who joined our little parade. Pretty soon we arrived at a large tent in the middle of nowhere, festooned with lights dangling precariously above a stage filled with about twenty five villagers singing and dancing. Granny was playing kartals. Mommy was nursing her little ones. Kids were laughing and chanting the refrain of the songs. And to my total beyond-the-beyond surprise, standing in the middle of the stage with his hands thrown up in the air singing at the top of his voice, was the man from the cover of “John Wesley Harding”, whose name was Lakshman Das Baul!!!!!!!!!! (That one is worth a lot of exclamation points, don’t you think?).

I sat down and listened, my heart pounding, my legs trembling. The music was SOOOO beautiful, so earthy and rustic and at the same time so heavenly and filled with such longing. Tears were streaming down my face. I felt home again.

After the performance I went up to this singer and introduced myself. He seemed so genuinely happy to meet me, exclaiming over and over “Do you have LSD?” I think it may have been all the English that he knew. Sadly, I had none, but we quickly became friends and my journey to the center of the Baul world had begun…….

Stay tuned for part two of the story.

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Jai’s Blog – July 23, 2009

Guru’s Grace

A tale of berries and bananas…

Since time immemorial it’s been the custom in India, when visiting a holy person or shrine, to bring an offering. This can be fruit, sweets, flowers, incense, even money, and it signifies an offering of one’s heart and soul, of one’s very being, to the great heart of all. ‘Not my will but thy will be done.’

In December, 1971, I was in the ancient village of Vrindavan, where Radharani and Her sweet cowherd boy, Krishna, had enacted their divine romance many centuries before and, if you believe Vedic legend, are still enacting it to this very day. It was the first of many trips to India. I was 19 and totally dazzled to be in this splendorous world of devotion and mystery. Every other house was a temple resonant with ecstatic chanting; brightly adorned cows walked the streets; smiling Sadhus turning their japa beads offered blessings to all visitors; monkeys jumped from tree to tree; there were no cars and thus no pollution; it was medieval India in its full glory…

And most importantly, I had just met my Guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Of course, at that point I didn’t really know that he was my Guru. That awareness, along with the knowledge that I really know absolutely nothing of the true Guru/disciple relationship, came to me much later. But I did know that there was nowhere else I wanted to be. Maharajji had cast his net around my spirit, and pulled this confused young boy to his dusty, cracked lotus feet.

I was in the habit of stopping by the fruit stand on my way to Maharajji’s ashram and getting something nice and juicy to offer. Maharajji never seemed to pay much attention to these offerings, laughingly distributing the fruits and sweets to everyone sitting around him. So I didn’t put much thought into my meager purchases. But one day I spied something new, glistening on the fruit seller’s multicolored table top – a small pile of long, pale green berries, with the shape of blackberries but the color of grapes. They looked delicious! So I bought a small bag and went back to my room to wash them. After carefully extracting every shred of dirt I placed them back in the bag and started on my walk to the temple. But wait a minute! The bag was made out of thin paper and the bottom fell out. All of these precious berries fell in the dust. Oh no! I was getting late and didn’t want to miss darshan. So I went back to the guesthouse and once again washed each berry individually and lovingly laid them out on a clean towel to dry. But then I realized I didn’t have another bag. This was really turning into a major drama for me. So I rushed back to the fruit seller and begged another bag from him, ran back to my room, packed up the berries and raced to the Hanuman temple that was Maharajji’s ashram. Whew!!!!!

The darshan that afternoon was very short, with everyone basically filing by Maharajji one by one, bowing and moving on. I remember the day very clearly. The sun was bright but a cool breeze was blowing, carrying the sounds of kirtan in it’s soft embrace. Maharajji was sitting on a wooden table off to the side of the ashram over where the cars were often parked, not in his usual spot in the middle of the back courtyard. He had a dreamy, distant kind of expression on his face. When my turn came to bow I offered him the bag of berries which had caused me so much anguish. Baba looked at them, tore open the bag and spread the berries out on his blanket, exclaiming in Hindi, “Berries!” With a big smile he looked at me and slowly, with great relish, he ate every berry in the bag. I had never seen him do anything like this before. And as each tasty morsel disappeared past his lips I felt myself get lighter and lighter, dreamier and dreamier. Perhaps it was true what I had read about the true great ones, that they could devour one’s karma like a piece of candy. When at last I bowed to touch Maharajji’s feet he gave me two bananas and hit me on the head repeatedly before saying “Jao,” which is Hindi for ‘go,’ ‘leave,’ ‘get out of here!’

Now here’s when things began to get a little strange…

After slowly eating one of the bananas, luxuriating in it’s sweetness, I began my walk back home to the guesthouse where I was staying at the time. My feet barely seemed to touch the ground as my mind soared with the aching strains of chanting coming from the temple. “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.” Tears filled my eyes as I walked down the dusty path. There was a small ashram next to Maharajji’s where an old Baba lived with his pet elephant. I’d never met the resident sadhu but had been told that Maharajji liked him very much. I had, however, seen his elephant many times as I passed by. He was a small skinny little fellow with big languid eyes, tiny tusks and a long swinging trunk. That day when I stopped to say “hi,” the elephant looked longingly at my remaining banana and seemed to beg me to share it with him. My heart was already melting from the experiences of the morning so of course I handed my banana to my new animal friend. He scooped up the banana in his trunk and ate it in a blink of an eye and then smiled at me. And then stretched his trunk out to the side like a flute. And then crossed one leg over the other. And then tilted his body to the left. Oh my goodness gracious!!!!! He had transformed into Krishna Himself, playing His divine flute!!!! My whole being trembled with this vision. Had I gone totally crazy? Or had Maharajji opened the eye of my heart to enable me to see God everywhere? Only he really knows. But as I bowed down and put my forehead in the blessed dirt of Vrindavan, I promised myself never to forget that day; the day when simply washing a pile of berries brought me to the feet of the Lord…

Peace,

Jai

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Jai’s Blog – June 23, 2009

I first heard Ustad Ali Akbar Khan perform live when I was a freshman at Reed College in Portland, Oregon in the autumn of 1969. I’d listened to his music a lot by then, sometimes jamming along on the guitar, but I hadn’t yet had the chance to attend a performance. So, being a good hippy kid, I prepared myself by taking a large dose of mescaline, my drug of choice in those early years. Sitting in the front row, I was totally mesmerized by the music but it was when the concert was finally over that the fireworks really started for me. People were walking around, talking, mingling, discussing tomorrow’s classes, and I sat there in awe, wondering why everyone had gotten up. The music was still happening!!!!!!! The raga, the tala, it was all continuing but I was the only one who noticed. In fact, the sound of talking WAS the raga and the clumping of feet WAS the tala. I was witnessing a divine performance of the music of the spheres, the very song of life! Of course we all have had transcendental drug experiences, but how many of them actually last past the first rays of dawn? This one is still with me. Ali Akbar Khan had brought me to the realm of pure sound, where music touches God, where music IS God. And in that moment he changed the course of my life.

Three months later, much to the anguish of my parents, I had dropped out of Reed and was in the beginning class at the Ali Akbar College Of Music in San Rafael, California. My guitar and banjo were given an extended vacation in the hall closet and I had purchased my first Sarod. Since that time, up till the present, I’ve been an on-again-off-again student of the master, who we call Khansahib, or sometimes simply Baba. At times I was obsessive, practicing many hours a day, driven with the ambition to be ‘great’. But more often than not I was a terrible student, okay at attendance but totally lazy when it came to practicing. Still Khansahib gave freely. He told me just to come and absorb. He offered me discounts. He encouraged me in every way to become a true musician – serious, caring, respectful, soulful. He said over and over again that music was medicine, that music brought us into the closest communion with God.

But, perhaps more importantly, Khansahib welcomed me and many others into his family and his home. I taught electric guitar to his son, Alam, now a masterful Sarod player, and spoke with Baba about all the problems of my life. We drank whiskey together and he regaled me with stories of his most amazing life. I worked with him closely on two recordings, learning so much in the process. However, it wasn’t always super easy to hang out and relax with Khansahib. He seemed to have one foot firmly planted in the other world, and one foot rather uncomfortably planted in this one. And he accepted nothing less than total honesty and ‘realness’. Still, his conversations were always inspiring and enlightening, sometimes funny and sometimes deeply moving. And he constantly reminded us and guided us on the profound spiritual path of music. When my parents died one after the other in the ’90s, Baba guided and counseled me through some simple but ancient rituals to help with their passage and my own grief. And when it came to ‘girl trouble’, well, he was a master and a comedian as well. All of his students laugh and talk about Khansahib’s ability to insult and complain to us, sometimes so severely that we had to laugh just to keep from crying. And when we laughed, that stern face of his broke into a grin and we felt his love once again. He just kept asking us to practice. To do our sadhana. To treat the raga like our beloved. To try to play and sing in tune…

Well, several days ago, when my family and I were in Frankfurt, Germany on the way home from a wonderful trip to India I received an email that Baba had died the night before, just hours after giving a final lesson to the friends, students and family members gathered around him. He died as he had lived, sharing his treasures with all who came to him. I know the news of his passing has spread around the world by now, but I still find it hard to believe. Yesterday was spent at a beautiful memorial service and a very sweet, gentle wake, filled with tears and and laughter. But I just cant seem to get used to the fact that he’s not around, that I cant go to class, that I cant stop by and visit. I can only imagine what his family must be feeling now. Yet, as Zakir Hussein said at the memorial, Khansahib was finally through with the suffering of his body and was “up there giving a concert for God, who must surely be marveling at the truly wondrous job He’d done in creating this great, great man, this miracle of music.”

much love,
Jai



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Jai’s Blog – May 15, 2009

When I was a young teenager just beginning to explore the ‘spiritual path’ I was more than willing to believe anything anyone told me. In fact I was thirsty for any words that would take me outside of myself, away from the Jai I knew and turn me into a bigger, better, and preferably blonder version of myself. I thought meditation, chanting, and holding my breath for as long as humanly possible would quickly obliterate the being I disliked so much and transform him (me!) into a golden orb of power and love. A god among men… I’m not sure, but it kind of seems like this was a very convoluted mixture of deep past life memories as a yogi in India and equally deep childhood traumas and wounds. So of course when a guru came forward with a written guarantee of enlightenment THIS LIFETIME if I just followed some very simple steps I positively leaped at the opportunity. Wow!!!!! I believed every word and ‘signed’ the contract.

Well, needless to say, this didn’t quite work out as planned and pretty soon I was wondering around India at the ripe old age of nineteen with no agenda, no guru and no worries. “Been there done that” is what I thought about the whole subject of gurus…

A few days later I stepped into a spiritual bookstore in New Delhi and began to browse the shelves that seemed to contain every book ever written about Yoga, Hinduism, Bhatia, Shanty, Shiva, Java, Mantra, Mantra, and Tanta. The bookseller gave me concise descriptions about each and every one until I finally asked him in awe how he had had the time to read all of these books. “That is the amazing thing” he laughed, “I haven’t read a single bloody one of them!” Oh boy, I thought, only in India…

Anyway, this bookseller must have been Lord Hanuman in disguise because he then proceeded to guide me to a hotel in the heart of town where Ram Dass was teaching, which led me to the glorious medieval village of Vrindavan where Krishna played with His Gopis, which led me to my guru, Baba Neem Karoli… (This is definitely making a long story very short!)

Anyway, I started this out by talking about beliefs. My guru never demanded that we ‘believe’ anything, just that we “love people and feed them” and always tell the truth. He never gave lectures or discourses but he asked us to give him our anger and to try not to worry, because he would always be with us. And he told us to sing God’s names. And when we were done singing to sing more, and more, and more…

We westerners laughed, joking that Maharajji was just trying to keep us out of trouble, get us out of his hair for a while. But inwardly each one of us could feel the subtle and not so subtle transformation-taking place.

Little by little, as our hearts began to heal, Maharajji’s ‘instructions’ began to occur on their own. And for myself this process has continued, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, as I’ve made my rather stumbling way through the back alleys of my life.

About fifteen years ago, over twenty years after Maharajji had left his body, I was in South India visiting my spiritual mother, who was taking care of Maharajji’s ashrams since his death. Though she herself is a being of great saintliness, she prefers to stay somewhat hidden from the public eye. So for now I’ll simply call her Ma. Anyway, one morning Ma said to me through an interpreter “Hurry up, Jai. Pack a small bag. We’re going to Rameshwaram!” Rameshwaram is an island off of the southern tip of India. Though very small, it is considered an extremely powerful place of pilgrimage, as it was here that Lord Ramachandra worshipped Lord Shiva after destroying the demon armies and the evil ten-headed king, Ravana. It was also from these soft sandy shores that the great monkey Hanuman made His death-defying leap across the ocean to bring Rama’s ring to His beloved Sita, imprisoned in Ravana’s blood-stained gardens. AND it was also a sixteen-hour train ride in a third class non-AC cattle car sleeping on a hard, vermin infested bench…. Oh well, my mother asked me to come and I was honored.

In those days I had been re-reading the Ramayana and finding many deep truths and spiritual messages in the ancient words of Tulsidas. But where earlier, when I had actually been sitting at the feet of my guru, I had basked in the living reality of the story, now I found myself relating to it almost psychologically, as a glorious tale of archetypes, a grand enlightened mythology, but surely not literally “true”. All this changed very rapidly when we landed on the shores of the holy island. First Ma took me and my fellow travelers (mostly Indians with perhaps two other Westerners) to an old broken down ruin a little ways outside of the town. Seagulls were swooping down around the rubble looking for treats as a few elderly pilgrims made their rounds, mumbling prayers, turning ‘japa’ beads. “This was Bibhishan’s palace” Ma said with a slight glance in my direction. My inner world trembled and I knew that something ‘strange’ was beginning to happen to me. Bibhishan, Ravana’s brother, a demon who loved God with all his heart and soul, who stopped Ravana from killing Hanuman and who was coronated by Rama Himself as the new King of Lanka. One of Shri Ramachandra’s eternal companions. The energy in those old stones was palpable…

Next Ma took us to a dirty pool of old brackish water and, sitting down on the ‘ghat,’ said that this was where Lakshman, Rama’s brother used to bathe. She added that Maharajji, who was once called Lakshman Das, used to take his baths here as well. Then to the forest where Mother Sita worshipped the snake goddess. Then to the point high up in the hills where Rama made His battle plans. And finally to a very large indentation in the ground carefully tended by a seemingly ageless ‘pujari’ who was lighting incense and singing prayers. “What’s this about”, I wondered. Ma seemed to hear my thoughts. “This is Hanuman’s own footprint! You know, the force of His leap was so great that the very mountain upon which we are standing was smashed into the earth, that all the animals, even the mighty elephants, fled for their lives, and that all the trees and plants and flowers were pulled across the sea behind Him like the tail of a giant comet!” My heart was pounding in my chest. Archetype? Myth? No, I thought, this was true history, a divine ‘lila’ that occurred for the salvation of all. I felt it and knew it with my whole being. Tears sprung from my eyes.

Truly, this was one of the most wonder-filled and awe inspiring journeys of my whole life. But I must be honest and say that that inner knowledge, that TOTAL belief, seems to wax and wane inside of me. Sometimes as I sing I SOOOOO much feel the presence of Radha and Krishna, or Shiva, or Hanuman, and at other times my songs are taking me deep into the caverns of my own heart, my soul. And you know what? It really doesn’t matter that much to me at all. I understand that my mind is a limited mechanism and that the spirit within can only comprehend the miraculous realm of the spirit. One time, at our winter Kirtan Camp in Guatemala, a woman said she was having trouble because she was an atheist and we were spending all of our time singing to this blue god and that four-armed goddess. I laughed inwardly and wondered what on Earth she was doing there! But we talked for a while about the practice of Kirtan, how healing it is, how heart expanding and joyful it can be. And I remembered something I had read once in a novel about a rabbi in Israel after World War Two. He simply could not believe in a God who would allow the Holocaust, but he “still believed in the power of prayer”. In some ways this makes no sense, because who answers the prayers? But on another level it acknowledges an alternate world where our thoughts, conditionings and comprehension are really very small. Beliefs? I suppose they have some value. But for me the heart is much more important. How can I keep my heart open? How can I tell the truth? How can I be a good daddy and a good husband? Well, Maharajji told us to sing God’s name and to feed people. Couldn’t be more simple, could it?

much love,
Jai



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Jai’s Blog – April 28, 2009

A friend asked me this evening why don’t I do some kind of ceremony before leading a kirtan. I thought about this for a while and said why would I want to do a ceremony before the ceremony? For me the kirtan IS the ceremony, the invocation, the dance of feelings, the Great Cosmic Drama of Devotion!

He also asked me what I thought about the Bhakti movement in the west. I said I didn’t really think about it at all. There was silence on the other end of the line…. Clearly I needed to say more. Bhakti is about a deep, intimate relationship with God, not a ‘movement’. It’s enough for me to just try and nurture my own heart of devotion, one day at a time. And this is what I hope and pray for others.

Back to that first question about the ceremony. I do perform a small puja at home every evening, but its so simple and so quiet, and I love it.  But if we’re talking about CEREMONY, well, I have a story to tell…

About twenty years ago I was in India, visiting my Guru’s ashram in the Himalayas. After a few very quiet weeks I got the inspiration to make a pilgrimage to Badrinath, way up in the mountains, thirteen miles from the Tibetan border. Badrinath is one of the four main pilgrimages places of the ancient Vaishnav path, established by Adi Shankara in the ninth century. As I was packing the car, making sure I had enough blankets, sweaters and hats to not freeze to death on the journey, my Indian mother came running up to me with a package. “Here Jai, please take this blanket and this thermos of milk to Bhagavati Mai, a great woman sadhu who makes her home up in Badrinath on the banks of the Alaknanda river. When I asked how would I found her, Ma simply smiled and said “Maharaj-ji will guide you”.

So twelve hours of driving over tiny curved roads, overlooking thousand mile drops into the vast, rocky cliffs below, japa mala turning ‘RAM RAM RAM RAM RAM RAM”, taxi driver falling asleep at the wheel, making wrong turns…. OH MY GOD!!! Would I make it there alive???? Well, it turned out that the driver’s drowsy wrong turns actually saved us from a snowy avalanche and a slow, freezing death! Wow, was someone looking out for me? After a sleepless night in an icy and extremely ‘rustic’ guesthouse we hit the road again, and as the morning sun rose above the great Himalayas we arrived in holy Badrinath.

After settling into my hotel room I began the daunting task of finding out where I could find Bhagavati Mai. After all, I had an important package to deliver. One by one, the people who I asked simply pointed their fingers to the jagged cliffs above the raging waters of the Alaknanda. There in the distance was a figure sitting in stillness, wrapped up in a very high tech looking ‘space blanket’ (remember them?), reading from a large golden-brown book, which was propped up, on the rocks. Every few minutes another sadhu would step up to this figure and gingerly turn the page of the book. As the day grew warmer, that same sadhu gradually removed layer after layer of blankets, finally revealing an elderly but statuesque woman with short grey hair wearing what appeared to be a used burlap sack as her only garment. As unassuming in appearance as this woman was, her energy seemed to permeate the village, sitting in total stillness, without moving, ALL DAY LONG!!!! From a distance I began to feel my mind and my heart become more and more inwardly focused. Her PRESENCE was like a soul magnet, awakening the deep heart call of all who walked within the shadow of those rocky ledges.

Finally, after many long hours, the sun began to set. And now began the breathtaking scene that became permanently imprinted in my consciousness. With the help of her attendants, Bhagavati Mai stood up and lit a very large ‘aarti’ lamp, with gigantic flames shooting up into the night sky. Dusk happens very quickly up in the mountains and very soon just the traces of a blood red sun were dancing between the fingers of fire as Bhagavati Mai slowly turned in circles offering her reverence and light to all the mountains, rivers, Gods and Goddesses of the Himalayan range. This is where words fail me. The colors, the high pitched sound of her voice, the chill of the night winds, the whirling flames from her lamp, the awe inspiring spiritual energy of this great being. Cecil B. deMille couldn’t have even dreamed of anything more spectacular. I stood by the side of the road and as she passed I extended my hand and gave her Ma’s package. Bhagavati Mai looked into my eyes; rather she looked THROUGH my eyes, and kept singing in her strange alien-like voice. Perhaps she was singing the Srimad Bhagavatam, for this is what she had been reading all day out on her hard and lofty perch. Then she was gone, into the night…

Now this was a ceremony!

The next day I rather timidly went to visit this sadhu in her ashram, an old run down little shack on the side of the road. She welcomed me like a long lost son and wept at the wondrous gift I had brought, a blanket and some milk. Then through her tears she cried that the gates of the great temple of Badrinath would be locked until her dearest friend, Siddhi Ma, came to visit. We sang and sang for the rest of that day and night, eating sweet cream of wheat and drinking strong chai and calling to the spirits of eternal love and liberation.

much love,
Jai



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Jai’s Blog – April 14, 2009

Most people in the United States experience a huge wave of anxiety this evening, with the dreaded tax monster demanding his dinner tomorrow. For me this day has quite a different meaning. Partially, I suppose, because I’m ALWAYS late doing my taxes, but mostly because today is the birthday of my teacher and mentor, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. I met Khansahib (as we call him) 40 years ago and began studying with him almost immediately thereafter. My first area of concentration was instrumental music, specifically the 25 stringed Sarod, but later my attention shifted to Indian vocal music. As an 18 year old new student I was fanatical in my practice schedule. However, I’m embarrassed to say that over the years, I’ve become a very inconsistent and totally undisciplined disciple, sometimes preferring John Lennon to Raga Yeman! But never once in all these years have I taken Khansahib or his teachings for granted. His unbelievable dedication to his students and to the great ocean of MUSIC has been breathtaking, and the amount of people he’s touched and influenced is beyond count. I really can’t imagine my life without having met and studied with this great man. If I could sum up in one sentence (which is actually impossible) what he’s given me, I’d have to say a deep reverence and awe for music, not just Indian music, but all music, as a way of life and as a way of touching the infinite. Music as spiritual salvation. Intonation as the mystical inner quest.

But Khansahib has also been a friend and mentor on many other levels. When both my parents died, one after the other, he guided me through some simple, ancient and somewhat humorous rituals to help me in my grieving process. When I had ‘girl problems’ he laughed and reminded me of what was important in life. And when I had a baby after so many years of not wanting one, he welcomed little Ezra Gopal into his vast musical family. There was even a time when I taught electric guitar (Jimi Hendrix!!!) to his son Alam.

All of this makes me feel rather bittersweet today because Khansahib is quite ill and weak and very sad as his life begins it’s final chapter.

I just wish I could give back to him one hundredth of what he’s given to me, to hug him and tell him how loved he is. And perhaps even to sing him a lullaby…. But in my heart I touch his feet again and again, and every time I pick up an instrument or open my voice to sing, I pray that I am honoring and loving him in the way he deserves.

much love,
Jai



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