Hans Utter. Photo courtesy Hans Utter/Rick Borgia.
Sitting atop a small mat onstage at the Crest Tavern, a sitar nestled on his knee, Hans Utter plays as if lit with an inner fire. His fingers coax pitch-bending swerves and melodic, microtonal clusters, all set against the poignant drone of the instrument, as he answers a poet’s haikus in a subtle call and response.
The music is mystical, sensuous and stream of consciousness, drawing on the power of the sitar, with its startling ability to show endless invention. Music and words collide, the string-bending sometimes an animated whisper, at other times a lament reminiscent of Delta blues.
Improvising to a set of haikus at a Columbus bar isn’t the usual place you’d find Utter (rhymes with looter) and his sitar. Normally, the 39-year-old virtuoso can be found performing around the world, playing concerts before large audiences in London, Seattle or New Delhi. At other times, he performs at festive Indian weddings around the country. But the poetry-sitar pairing at the Clintonville bar is indicative of his adventurous streak. In fact, following the poetry collaboration, he picks up his guitar and jams with some of the city’s best musicians, mixing jazz with elements of Hindustani raga, creating melodic arcs that grow longer and more involved, the spirit of the sitar running like a riptide underneath it all.
“The poetry, I think, worked well with sitar—there were a lot of colors to play off of,” he says about the performance a few days later. He is sitting in a Cup O’ Joe in Clintonville and a smile spreads. “With guitar, I don’t consciously set out to play in an Indian style, but that music is so much a part of me, it just tends to come out. I used to be a professional guitarist, but now I mostly play sitar. And Indian concepts color everything I touch.”
“Hans is a dedicated musician,” says Ballu Khan Varsi, an acclaimed multi-instrumentalist living in India who has performed with him. “He will have a permanent place in the Hindustani music tradition.”
“He is a true musician who has an innate understanding of the nuances of this music,” says Indra Lal Dhandra, a renowned sarangi player in India. And Jim Feist, a tabla player in Cincinnati who has performed with Utter, calls him a consummate musician. “Hans has done a wonderful job of bridging the music of the West with Indian music,” Feist says.
Utter tends to deflect the praise he’s received. He’s more comfortable joking about the wacky sitar scenes in the film The Love Guru starring Mike Myers. But the truth is that with the sitar, Utter found his calling and pursued it with single-minded devotion. He felt a fire in his head for the music of India and acted on that by moving thousands of miles away and entering a foreign culture even as he learned a new language.
“I went to live in India when I was 23,” says Utter, who grew up in Worthington. “And my parents were befuddled by my decision. They didn’t know what to think. I basically stayed in India for six years. At some points, my parents were praying for me in church.”
Utter had gone a few years earlier to the University of Iowa to study writing, with the ostensible goal of becoming a novelist. But at college he met Ravi Shankar and saw him perform. He also studied Indian religions and opened his eyes to the mysteries of another culture and mythology. Then, one day, a professor did something that blew Utter’s mind: He wrote Utter’s name in Hindi. Suddenly penning the Great American Novel was no longer the Holy Grail. And playing in jazz bands and groups such as the Shamed Insane and Animals in Confusion in high school made strange sense. It was all a preparation for a musical destiny to be found in India.
“That was it,” Utter says. “This professor wrote my name in Hindi. Then he told me what it meant. ‘Hans means swan. And Utter means north.’ He suggested I go to India. Well, the professor arranged for me to get a visa and soon I was headed to Benares.”
Instead of going on a structured study abroad program, Utter planned his own journey.
“I had never been outside the United States except for Niagara Falls. I was totally naïve,” he says.
After arriving in Bombay, he was completely overwhelmed. His plane ticket had taken him to the opposite end of the country he needed to be in. He was supposed to go to a language school in the north in Landour. So he had to traverse the entire breadth of India to get to his destination. After a three-day train ride to New Delhi, he was approached by a tour operator who spotted an easy touch and sold Utter a package tour—a 10-day trek in the Kashmir Mountains.
“What I didn’t know was that this was a really bad time to be in that region, that Kashmiri insurgents were killing people left and right. When the clerk at the hotel I was staying at heard about my trip, he stared at me and said with no hint of irony, ‘Remember, my friend. Bullets have no eyes.’ ”
Not surprisingly, during the trek guerrillas at one point surrounded Utter, who was trembling with terror in his tent. His guides amazingly talked their way out of a kidnapping. But the next tourist (coincidentally named Hans) who came through the area wasn’t so lucky. He was beheaded.
There were many other Indiana Jones-ish adventures in India over the years. A gaggle of monkeys attacked Utter as he was exploring Buddhist cliff caves in Orissa, one savagely biting him in the leg and others pulling his hair out. And while on a trip through south India, Utter’s train was taken over by militants. “I seem to have these near misses,” Utter says, “which added to the excitement of it all.”
At first, he was attracted to the exoticism of India. “India gave me loads of personal freedom. I was surrounded with an expatriate community ranging from serious scholars and spiritual seekers to hippies who had been there since the late ’60s and successful novelists and filmmakers,” Utter says.
“I was practicing sitar and also writing fiction, and reading Kerouac, Hemingway, Henry Miller and Denis Johnson,” he adds. “And I was meeting great artists like Pete Seeger and the novelist Pankaj Mishra. I was living outside the modern world and its parameters. India was like stepping back 2,000 years. Yet, I could still find an air-conditioned bar if I wanted to.”
Utter lived in India between 1993 and 1998. He made periodic forays back to the U.S. to earn money, but he promptly would return to India. He took time to explore the Himalayas, spent time on fairy tale lakes and lived in mega-cities such as Calcutta and New Delhi. All of the experiences ended up in his sitar playing. And even now he goes back as often as he can to commune with the intense beauty, mystic nature and throbbing pulse of the country that forever changed his life.
“I’ve reached a point where I feel as much at home in India as I do in America,” he says. “Going back to India is like plugging back into the power source of the root of the music. And in the past four years since I’ve been performing in India, I’ve also connected with the old masters of the music. And that’s been exciting.”
One wilting late August day, Utter brought his sitar to my house to play a morning raga and demonstrate the range of the instrument. As he started to pluck the strings, there was an autumnal, almost melancholy feel to the music. With its gorgeous drones and subtle, swelling, bent-note melodies, it seemed to slow down time. Satyajit Ray’s Apu films, scored by Ravi Shankar, came to mind. The soundtrack brought to life the sorrows and joys of its main character. Raga means “that which colors the mind,” and the music I heard that morning was certainly full of shifting moods and timbres.
A few weeks later, I saw Utter perform at a yoga center in Cincinnati. Dressed in an off-white churidar (traditional silken Indian pants) and a long blue Indian shirt known as a kurta, Utter looked the part of the sitar master. And he played the part, too.
The ragas that night, propelled by the tabla, were revelations of beauty and sadness co-existing in slurred, trembling notes. In its sometimes heaving intensity, “Charukeshi” evoked light and dark moving in a direction of pure longing. But in “Madhukauns,” over the syncopated rumbles of the tabla, the music was fierce, angular and savage with a scale alien to Western ears.
After the concert, Utter said, “Each time I play that piece, I learn facets of it. As I go deeper within myself, I discover new emotional depths.”
For Utter, the first key to unlocking the mystery of the sitar was finding a gifted teacher or guru. And in that he was fortunate. He apprenticed with one of the greatest sitarists in the world: Ustad Shujaat Khan. “At first, Shujaat Khan didn’t want to take me as a disciple. He said he didn’t take Westerners. He asked me why I wanted to learn this instrument—because I already played guitar,” he says. “But he eventually took me. He said I had an innate gift for the music. He taught me so much. Sitar is passed down from guru to student. And it encompasses training in both music and the mind.”
From Khan, whose musical origins go back seven generations, Utter learned the mental discipline with which to approach the sitar and how to find the so-called “deep self” that is so crucial to playing the instrument. “It’s all about centering yourself fully in the present moment,” Utter says. “And that requires confronting who you are.”
The sitar tested his knowledge of music, his resourcefulness, his patience, his temperament and his psychological endurance. “You have to put aside everything you know about Western music and come to the instrument with a beginner’s mind,” he says. “What you think are your musical strengths might be hindrances, and what might be perceived as weaknesses might be your strengths.”
“Ragas are assigned to different times of day and different emotions,” he adds. “The rules aren’t really arbitrary once you internalize them. The raga ultimately becomes pure expression. But with Indian classical music you have to find your own vision, even though the rules can be stifling. Western music is based on harmony and triads. But Indian music has no harmony. It’s purely melodic. It took me a long time to hear Indian music. Even when you’re tuning the instrument, you’re aligning it with yourself.”
Utter came to Worthington at age 7, moving from Tempe, Arizona. His father was a mathematician and his mother a reference librarian. He showed musical imagination early on, taking up the violin at age 7 and guitar at 13.
In high school, Utter got into bands and played punk and heavy metal. And he might have continued in that direction for years but for a chance encounter that turned into a mentoring moment. When he was 14, Utter ran into a hippie at the library.
“I was probably checking out a Mötley Crüe record and he said, ‘Hey, man, do you want to hear some John Coltrane? And here’s some John Abercrombie. And, dig, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.’ Well, this guy guided me to these records that I had never encountered in my musical world, which consisted of what I heard on the radio,” Utter says. “He introduced me to this East-West intersection and I was hooked. Soon afterward, I started listening to nothing but jazz. I listened to Wes Montgomery and Charlie Parker, the whole bebop thing.”
After high school, Utter went to Capital University to study jazz. But his passion for writing fiction drove him to transfer to the University of Iowa. There, he made friends with classmates from other countries, including one from Bangladesh who had some tabla drums and told him he could “mess around” with them. Around this time, he switched his focus to religious studies, after a short time majoring in French and comparative literature. By the time he left for India, it seemed as if his destiny always lay there.
When he returned to the U.S. in 1998, he was adrift—like a warrior who had passed through a six-year initiation, but had no plan for how to use his new gifts. He knew he wanted to play sitar music. Yet the concert opportunities weren’t coming.
“When I returned, I realized I had fundamentally changed the direction of my life as well as my identity,” he says. “So much so that I felt like an outsider in my own country.”
For a while, Utter worked for a telecommunications company that eventually went under. Another dead-end job depressed him. By 2001, he was seriously considering selling all his musical instruments and giving up the goal of being a musician. “At this point, I thought I had misspent my youth learning an arcane world music instrument,” Utter recalls. “Then, almost miraculously, the next day a call came through and a jazz band wanted me to play for them. And, gradually, with help from Shujaat Khan and other musicians in and out of India, the sitar gigs started coming from all over. Most of it was word of mouth. Now, I’ve come full circle, playing in Europe and India, with shows all over the U.S. as well.”
Not content to be solely a sitar virtuoso, Utter mastered the oud, a stringed instrument commonly used in Middle Eastern music, and he is a teacher of world music at OSU, where he’s set to get his doctorate in ethnomusicology this June. He and his wife, the Indian classic vocalist Utpola Borahri, also lead a Columbus world music band called Chakra. And Utter has written a book, Trance, Ritual and Rhythm, recently released by Indian publisher B.R. Rhythms, that is about an Indian tribe in the remote parts of the Western Himalayas. Known as the Jaunsaries, the people practice trance possession via percussion. They live in “constant contact with their deities, where music is a bridge between the mundane and spiritual worlds,” Utter says.
If most Westerners know anything about sitar, it’s from hearing Ravi Shankar or George Harrison, who introduced raga into the Beatles music with marvelous results. But the beauty of the instrument has a wide audience in and outside India. And the sound is evolving.
“I’m trying to the best of my ability to play what I’ve learned from my teachers. I’m trying to touch the beauty of the raga, to make it come to life,” Utter says. “The sitar can be the vehicle into the realm of the imagination. So playing it can become a journey into visionary realms. With this music, I feel I am carrying something back, bearing the flame of this knowledge. It’s like going to a cave and bringing back this treasure.”
Jory Farr is an author, freelance writer and Columbus Monthly columnist.