BUILDING BRIDGES THROUGH CROSSOVER MUSIC

Sri Lankan-born Kavi Alexander has earned acclaim for producing music that transcends borders and cultures to reach the soul

Kavi Alexander is on an unceasing quest. He seeks meaning in madness, music in far off lands, love in a woman and wisdom in the heart. Espousing a world music philosophy, he also seeks to erase east-west boundaries. The first Sri Lankan to produce and engineer multiple Grammy-winning recordings, it is ironic that he is hardly known in the land of his birth. But he has left a footprint in international music – as a record producer, audio engineer and founder of a small, independent US-based record label that takes eastern and western acoustic sounds to the world.

Alexander has created a spectrum of recordings of unorthodox free-spirited crossover music between seasoned purists and traditionalists who have earned  acclaim. Ex-Beatle George Harrison once wrote to him saying how much he loved what he did. As an audio engineer, he has that rare ability to mix complex music in real-time with live performances. This has fostered cross-cultural collaborations with highly acclaimed classical eastern and western musicians. At the centre of it all stands Water Lily Acoustics – a private American record label that he founded in Santa Barbara, California in 1984.

Tabula Rasa –with V.M. Bhatt, Jiebing Chen, Ronu Majumdar, Poovalur Srinivasan and Sangeeta Shankar Label: Water Lily Acoustics

Even early in his career, Alexander was not easily daunted. He would approach the maestros of some of the purest forms of traditional Indian classical music during their concert tours in the US and persuade them to do collaborations with equally talented musicians from the West and other cultures across the world. His boldness paid off. He was the first to pair and record Indian musicians from both the Carnatic and Hindustani schools with their Persian, Arab and Chinese counterparts.

PATH TO SUCCESS
Vishwa Mohan Bhatt – one of the greatest traditional slide players in the world who invented an instrument called the Mohan veena – recalled how Alexander spun the idea in his head during one of his US concerts in 1992: “I was approached by the head of an American record label called Water Lily Acoustics, which specializes in “unplugged” music made with traditional instruments. He proposed recording an album with the American guitarist Ry Cooder.”

Cooder was an American folk and blues musician, songwriter, film score composer and record producer. A multi-instrumentalist, he earned a reputation for his slide guitar work and ranked eighth on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

Bhatt had been recorded twice by Alexander and was familiar with his work. Grammy-winning bassist and record producer and engineer Dan Schwartz of The Absolute Sound, who had been present at both of Alexander’s recordings with Bhatt, gave Rick Turner (the famous luthier and co-founder of Alembic) a cassette. Impressed, he played the tape for Ry Cooder, who was also fascinated with the sounds produced by the Mohan veena. Alexander succeeded in persuading Bhatt and Cooder to collaborate on a “crossover “album. The venue he selected for the recording was inside a church in Santa Barbara, California. The two brilliant musicians met one hour before the recording. They started work at midnight with Cooder on the blues guitar and Bhatt on the Mohan veena. Improvising as they played along sitting barefoot with their slide guitars on a giant Persian rug inside the church, they created music which they named ‘A Meeting by The River.’ The duo were accompanied by Cooder’s fourteen-year-old son Joachim on dumbek (a Middle Eastern drum) and Sukhvinder Singh Namdhari on tabla. Between recordings on a 3-D Blumlein-miked triode-tubed analog, Alexander fed them spicy homemade curries and fresh Indian tea to grow the vibe. They recorded the entire album in just one take, with no editing.

Maharani Gayatri Devi listening to playback… Kavi Alexander with sound devices 722 hi-res digital recorder and Royer ribbon mikes… at Rambagh Palace in Jaipur

GRAMMY FAME
‘A Meeting by the River’ earned rave reviews. The album reached a peak position of number four on Billboard’s Top World Music Albums chart. In 1994, it earned Cooder and Bhatt Grammy Awards for Best World Music Album. Bhatt became one of the few Indian musicians to receive a Grammy Award. The album is included in Tom Moon’s 2008 book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die: A Listener’s Life List. The album contains four tracks, three of which are credited to Cooder and Bhatt. Bhatt performed ‘A Meeting by the River’ at a music festival in honour of guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. He said of the song: “Music has no religion and no geographical or linguistic barrier. It speaks a universal language.” Alexander went on to produce and record four Grammy recordings (two of which were released under his own label, Water Lily Acoustics). Among them was the acclaimed collaborative album ‘Tabula Rasa’ by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Chinese erhu player Jiebing Chen and fusion banjo player Bela Fleck. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for the 1996 Best World Music Album.

Alexander has run the gamut in instrument combination – including everything from Carnatic saxophone with jazz flute to finger-picked steel-stringed guitar with Chinese pipa and bansuri with oud and trumpet. As his reputation grew, talented musicians like Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Martin Simpson were introduced to him for more fusion music with Indian and Chinese musicians. American musicians that he has recorded and produced include Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Larry Coryell, James Newton, David Hidalgo, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Jon Hassell. Six of them are multiple Grammy winners.

“MUSIC HAS NO RELIGION AND NO GEOGRAPHICAL OR LINGUISTIC BARRIER. IT SPEAKS A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE ”

Alexander has a penchant for doing recordings inside churches. “I don’t record in churches just for the reverb,” he says. “When musicians are surrounded by a sacred space, it affects their performance. I once recorded a blind Vietnamese musician, who instinctively brought his hands together as soon as he entered the church. He told me through the translator that he could sense the spiritual atmosphere. I believe that in my own humble way, I can help spread that atmosphere by recording this music and sharing it with others.”

PATH OF SELF-DISCOVERY
Alexander’s childhood was spent in a typical Sri Lankan home in the 1950s. His parents were Tamil Christians. He had a reserved Catholic father and a musically inclined Methodist mother who took him to listen to her play in church. He would later name his record label after her. He went to a boarding school at a young age, and longing for a less stifling environment, left for Paris aboard a ship in 1968 to live as a free spirit, becoming part of the counter-culture movement sweeping Europe. On the sea voyage to Paris, Alexander had a whirlwind romance with a young woman. He recalls her fondly, describing her as his saving grace during the long journey. He thereafter travelled the world on musical recording adventures. He dabbled in acting – doing a short stint with the musical ‘Hair’ – and was called to play a sadhu in a movie. In Brussels, his creative restlessness led him to study dance. But his true genius lay in music. Driven by a profound inner vision, which set him apart from his colleagues in the recording world, he undertook projects that earned him accolades and respect from some of the greatest musicians in the world. Alexander pioneered collaborative recordings of Indian classical musicians (both Hindustani and Carnatic) with their Chinese counterparts. He has recorded Jiebing Chen on the erhu with Vishwa Bhatt, and Wu Man on the pipa with Lalguddi Krishnan on the violin. Other collaborations have included Arab, Persian and Turkish musicians. Alexander has recorded Hossein Alizadeh – the undisputed master of both the tar and setar – in collaboration with Carnatic virtuoso N. Ravikiran playing the gottuvadhyam (an instrument similar to the Saraswathi veena, but played with an ebony slide). He has paired Jazz guitar legend Larry Coryell with the revered Dr. L Subramaniam. He has also done a recording with the reclusive and legendary beauty Gayatri Devi – the Maharani of Jaipur – inside her famous palace.

In the UN General Assembly, New York, seated next to a representative from the Ecuadorian Embassy. Alexander Attended a concert in the General Assembly Hall, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of the last great war and the founding of the UN

FIRST COMMERCIAL RECORDING
It was in Sweden in the mid-70s, working for an independent label called Amigo Music, that Alexander made his first commercial recording. It featured Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers with a young Wynton Marsalis. In Sweden, he also found that the “audiophile” record labels that had started to mushroom all over mostly offered sub-standard music. He began calling the American audiophile labels – including Telarc, Delos, Mobile Fidelity – to convince them to record the extraordinary orchestras of Eastern Europe for very reasonable sums. He had heard the St. Petersburg Philharmonic led by the legendary maestro Yevgeny Mravinsky on a Melodia recording way back in Paris and had been transfixed. He dreamt of recording this great orchestra one day. Among the American companies he contacted while in Europe was Sheffield Lab, one of the early pioneers of direct-to-disc audiophile recordings. On leaving Europe and finding his way to the US in 1981, he tried to get ensembles to record for Sheffield Lab; he initiated contacts in East Germany and Czechoslovakia (in the cities of Dresden, Leipzig and Prague). Alexander was among the many audio engineers who brought pop and jazz projects to the company wanting to produce and engineer recordings of European and Russian philharmonic orchestras and other smaller ensembles. He tried to convince Sheffield Lab to license orchestral recordings. When he approached the Russians on behalf of Sheffield Lab and asked for the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, they refused and offered the Moscow Symphony instead. The only projects that he initiated from Europe that came to pass were the Moscow Symphony recordings and the Kodo Drummers.

Later, Water Lily Acoustics became the very first American company to record the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in Russia. Alexander would go on to record some of the greatest symphony orchestras. These included the Philadelphia Orchestra (maestro Wolfgang Sawallisch), the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra (maestro Yuri Temirkanov), the Saint Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra (maestro Aleksandr Dmitriyev), and the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra (maestro Zoltán Kocsis). He thus became the first Asian to record these grand symphony orchestras in their capital cities. He has also produced and recorded music for six A-list Hollywood movies.

ALEXANDER IS DRAWN TO AND SEEKS OUT ARTISTS WHO REFLECT TRUTH THROUGH PURE ENERGY, PUTTING THEIR SOUL INTO THEIR MUSIC

WATER LILY LABEL
It was in 1984 that Alexander decided to start his own independent record company, making the Bay area of Santa Barbara, California his home. With the US attracting some of the best musical talent in the world for concert tours, he began to approach legendary Indian traditional musicians when they visited the US. The first to grant this privilege was none other than Ustad Ali Akbar Khan – one of the most renowned sarod maestros. He graciously gave Alexander his first recording for his first release. “That recording was a gift from him,” says Alexander. “He saw that I was passionate and didn’t have any money, so he said, ‘Ok. I’ll record for you. No money. Put it out.’”

From there, the Water Lily label expanded as did Alexander’s creative mastery as an audio engineer. Talented musicians, producers and sound engineers with a passion for music helped develop the label along the way. As Alexander’s reputation grew, so did his bond with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and a love for Indian traditional music. In an interview, he said: “He was like a father to me. For a young person lost at sea, to have that kind of mentor, a true master who takes interest in your pathetic life, it was an incredible gift! It is men like Ustad Ali Akbar Khan that I admire and look up to.

You have to keep in mind that Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and Ustad Imrat Khan had all been court musicians attached to the courts of some of the great maharajas of India, who in turn, at one time, were among the richest men in the world. Thus, these master musicians carried themselves with great dignity and possessed courtly manners. They would come to my recordings dressed elegantly in silk, draped in priceless pashmina shawls, adorned with gold rings set with diamonds, pearls, coral and turquoise, and perfumed with sandalwood oil, or musk, or amber. They would sit on exquisitely woven Persian rugs, in a Catholic church with beautiful stained-glass windows and embark on journeys deep into the night. And this unfolding is what I would try to capture.”

MUSIC WITH SOUL
Alexander says he is drawn to and seeks out artists who reflect truth through pure energy, putting their soul into their music.“In my work, I draw my inspiration from the men who had gone before me and paved the way. I record what I think would be inspiring… and yes, I am partial to certain instruments and their unique sounds… My approach has no fixed “game plan,” he once said. Among the names he holds in great esteem are Dr.Padmabushan Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Padmabushan Professor V. G. Jog, Padmavibushan Pandit Jasraj, Padmabushan Dr. N. Ramani, Ustad Imrat Khan, Ustad Zia Fariddudin Dagar, Padmashri Dr. L. Subramaniam, Padmashri V. M. Bhatt, Padmashri Kadri Gopalnath, Padmashri Ustad Rashid Khan, Chitravina N. Ravikiran, Swapan Chaudhuri and Guruvayur Dorai. The greatest inspiration for Alexander’s fusion albums is Baba Allauddin Khan. Trained in many forms of Indian and European music, Khan invented several new instruments for his Maihar Band.

Alexander has always tried to push the envelope, both in terms of the music he recorded and the recording-mastering chain he employed. In fact, Water Lily Acoustics was the first record label to issue one-sided LPs. Teed Rockwell, who studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians, wrote in Stereophile magazine: “On the one hand, Alexander is a strict purist when it comes to recording, never letting any processing interfere with the natural sound of acoustic instruments. For years, he has recorded with custom-built triode vacuum tube electronics, without noise reduction, equalization, compression, or limiting of any sort. Economic realities require him to release his music on digital CDs, although his personal music collection consists of nothing but vinyl analog records.

ALEXANDER’S INSPIRATION COMES FROM INTERNATIONAL MUSICIANS FROM DIFFERENT TRADITIONS, CULTURES AND LANGUAGES

But he has done everything he can to reduce what he considers to be the unacceptable compromises of digital recording. For a while, he released CDs made with a gold alloy because the gold was less susceptible to corrosion and thus had a more reflective surface. His record label, Water Lily Acoustics, absorbed the extra cost because he wasn’t willing to produce anything less than the best. Today, he makes his recordings available as Super Audio CDs (SACD) and has released the first Indian Classical CD in this format.”

CULTURAL FUSION
Alexander’s inspiration flows when international musicians from radically different traditions, cultures and languages – sometimes never having even heard of each other – gather together to compose and play music. He brings them together in a church and then records them for four to five hours non-stop with the best natural reverb he can find. This gathering of musical magic is allowed to flow as each master of different instruments seeks exquisite patterns in their different musical vocabularies. The result is often spectacular.

With friend Angelika who was his translator and expert guide to the city of Saint Petersburg, Russia. Angelika is listening on Grado 1000 headphones, a very early model with phase reversal switches

“These albums are like a journey on a train,” Alexander once said. “In a single train car, there might be a banker from Switzerland, a pickpocket from the south of France, a prostitute from Madrid. You talk with all of these people during the train ride, even though you’ll never see them again. But the few hours you spend with them can be a very enriching experience if you’re interested in the human element. Some of these albums are more successful than others, but I want to take that risk. And the musicians are obviously pleased with them, because they keep coming back to do more.”

Though the music he has produced has brought him fame, Alexander is a humble, spiritual man in tune with nature. He empathizes with simple working people and remains open to creating music that transcends borders and cultures.