Fairfax, CA – Noted for his heartfelt renditions and upbeat barn burners of classic Kirtans (Sanskrit chants from ancient India), and recently his instrumental album Gauri’s Lullaby, as well as hosting a sold out online Kirtan camp, Jai Uttal is excited to announce today’s release of his new single, “Behind the Walls”. The track was inspired by his years of working with the inmates at California’s legendary penitentiary, San Quentin, and the horrible novel coronavirus outbreak currently taking place there. The song is available in all audio formats here, and on YouTube here.
While Jai first performed in prisons in the early 70s when touring with his good friend, noted spiritual leader Ram Dass, it wasn’t until more recently that he began performing at San Quentin. Working with the interfaith program, ‘Chaplain of the Heart’, Jai and a small group of musicians led semi-regular Kirtan programs in the San Quentin Chapel. These concerts began in 2011 and the response from the incarcerated men was incredibly enthusiastic. Because of the connections and friendships he made in the prison, Jai felt particularly disturbed about the disaster happening ‘Behind The Walls’.
For this release Jai is connecting with the group Re:Store Justice, and asking listeners to donate to their advocacy programs. Of Re:Store Justice he notes “they do incredible work with the prisoners while they’re inside the system as well as when they’re released. The folks who run it are completely committed to reforming the prison system from the inside out. In fact, one of the founders has been incarcerated and really knows what is needed in there. Please check them out and, if you feel so moved, please make a donation. Everyone is important, every human being deserves medical attention and care in times of deep crisis.”
The film Mantra: Sounds Into Silence featured one of Jai’s kirtan concerts in the prison. Jai notes, “the director also interviewed a bunch of the guys and it’s amazing to hear how completely transformative the Kirtan experience was for them. I also found out that on death row my CDs are the most requested by the residents of that deeply depressing wing of San Quentin Prison. I am so glad that my music can offer some solace to them.”
Jai has written an extensive artist statement about the single, he says:
“I first started singing in penitentiaries around 1973, when I was touring with Ram Dass. We would go into the prisons and I would sing and share a Kirtan as part of his presentation to the inmates. I found those experiences intense and profound. But it wasn’t until decades later that I began to go semi-regularly into San Quentin prison to sing for the inmates and share with them the practice of Kirtan, as part of an interfaith program that had been in place for some time.
Standing outside of San Quentin can be quite intimidating, with its many huge gates and high walls, but, once inside, in the sanctuary of their small chapel, with a room full of enthusiastic men, that trepidation completely disappears. Of course, it took me a while to find my way to be authentic and real with the men; to not see them as ‘other’. But once that happened, I found a community of brothers there who were so incredibly committed to their spiritual practices and to finding inner freedom within the confines of their incarceration. Their dedication and deep spiritual longing was completely inspiring to me.
So, I went again and again with a small group of musicians and, after a while, I saw that these men, who at first seemed so hard, we’re melting and smiling and singing and expressing so much emotion. In fact, many of the men got off of their seats and danced like wild Bengali Bauls. After one of the kirtans, a man came up to me and said “This is the REAL San Quentin! This is what you have to tell everyone. Nobody believes this. THIS is the REAL San Quentin. We are all brothers here.” With tears in his eyes, he referred to the prison as “The House of Healing”.
So, when I heard about the intense Covid surge inside the prison and how little the authorities we’re doing about it, I was affected very deeply, and personally concerned with the plight of some of my friends there. It’s amazing to me that what’s happening behind those walls is going unnoticed by most of the residents of Northern California. In fact, the devastation that’s occurring because of the virus in so many penitentiaries has just been a footnote in the national news. San Quentin was pretty much infection free until an incomprehensible decision by the prison board transported a bus load of men from a prison in Chino, California, to San Quentin, in Marin County, California. Many of the transportees carried the virus, some already showing severe symptoms. With almost no medical facilities or possibilities for quarantine, the virus spread like a wildfire and began to decimate the San Quentin population. This is still happening.
So I decided to write and record this song, ‘Behind The Walls’ and release it as soon as possible so people could know what’s happening in their backyard. (San Quentin is about a ten-minute drive from our home!). Thank you so much for listening to my song and reading my words. Much love, Jai”