In 1994 the album A Meeting by the River, a fabulous cross-cultural improvisation between Pandit Vishwamohan Bhatt and American guitarist Ry Cooder took out the Grammy for Best World Music Album. In accepting their award both men seemed awkward and hesitant in front of a global audience of millions. In a nervous, truncated acceptance speech, Ry Cooder leaned into the microphone and simply said, “…we’d like to thank Kavi Alexander who forced us to do this.” The men then turned their backs and walked off stage.
You would not have been alone in being a bit bemused by this mini-est of speeches. Such award ceremonies are occasions for tears and spontaneous jumping. For effusive expressions of gratitude to parents, mentors, collaborators and gods. But here, two excellent musicians of their respective countries spend barely 2 minutes on stage and deliver nothing but a backhanded compliment to someone no one had ever heard of. You would have been within your rights to wonder, who the hell is Kavi Alexander?
From Cooder’s indictment you’d get the impression he was one of those faceless yet powerful oligarchs of the record industry. A Clive Davis type perhaps. A larger than life character who lives a lavish lifestyle and makes or breaks artists with the snap of his fingers. Someone, clearly not averse to using threats to ‘force’ artists do their bidding.
Some of that is true. Kavi is a record label boss. He possesses that essential charisma that is able to convince strangers and musical opposites to sit together and create magic. And while you could argue he is a larger than life character, his lifestyle tends more toward the ascetic than the luxurious. His name is spoken with awe, often with the descriptor ‘genius’ appended, within the tight circle of music obsessives and musicians. And despite the smashing success of “A Meeting by the River” which has been hailed as a seminal work of ‘World Music’, “a must-own [and] a thing of pure, unadulterated beauty,” Kavi Alexander could walk down the street and never be recognized.
Kavi’s label, Water Lily Acoustics, is the toast of connoisseurs, audiophiles and lovers of obscure music and regularly lauded for the supreme sonics of its recordings. Indeed, in the tradition of some of the great specialist music labels, Water Lily Acoustic’s contribution to the global intangible cultural heritage of music is immeasurable. Yet if you ask Kavi to describe himself, he is far more eager to identify himself as a spiritual seeker, a Baul, even a “drunken madman.” And like the Bauls, he firmly believes the spiritual path is the truest way to appreciate music. Accolades, of which he has received countless, from critics, fans and musicians, are things to be amazed at or bemused by, but not to be trumpeted.
Indeed, listening to Kavi spin the tale of his truly remarkable journey from his school days on the west coast of Sri Lanka to holding court with some of the greatest artists of our time on the west coast of the USA, is to be drawn into the divine madness of Mullah Nasiruddin. To converse with Kavi you must be prepared to be regaled with fast moving, seemingly unconnected data points, mystical allusions, minute technical details of recording, references to famous mentors and friends all tied together with a barely controlled excitement and self-deprecating laugh.
There is a certain cosmic playfulness in the fact that his homeland’s former name, Ceylon, was derived from the Persian, Serendib, the root of the English word serendipity. The lesson of Kavi’s story is not how to succeed in the music business but rather evidence of life being a series of happy, unexpected, serendipitous but profound accidents.
The historic city of Batticaloa, built on the mud flats of a lagoon along Sri Lanka’s eastern coast and renowned for its rich Tamil cultural and spiritual history, hides a weird mystery at its heart. Fisherman swear that on particular nights if you hold an oar in the water at a certain angle you can hear the fish sing. When nights are quiet passers-by claim they too can hear the ‘chorus’, even from the shore. Legend tells of how a prince consorted with a mermaid and then abandoned her. And it is she who sings her sad song, calling for him to return. Serious minded journalists and scientists have conducted experiments and sunk microphones deep into the lagoon in search of evidence. Recordings have been made of something emitting a sound similar to that of dolphins, whales and frogs. While no one has yet provided an explanation, the singing fish are as much a part of the city’s heritage and pride as the city’s many temples, cathedrals, mosques and shrines.
Its apt that it was in Batticaloa, this place of spiritual mystery, that Kavichandran Alexander was born, in the late 1940s, into a well off and religious Tamil Christian family.
A spiritual upbringing was something Lily, Kavi’s deeply spiritual mother, insisted upon. “My mother’s ideal for her first born son was King David, the “Psalmist of the Lord”, with the emphasis solely on the Psalmist aspect, one dedicated to the sacred life and singing the praises of the Divine”. Thus, Lily aptly named her son Kavichandran [Divine Poet]. Every Sunday the boy was taken to the Methodist church. While the sermonising never grabbed him, “the music got to me. My mother played Carnatic violin and sang with her beautiful voice, hymns in Tamil. There was also a Mrs. Pillai, who had studied Carnatic music in Tamil Nadu, with a leading expert, playing the violin, while a Mrs. Ariyanayagam, played an electric organ. The seeds for blending musical styles had been planted!”
In Colombo, Kavi was enrolled into that country’s version of the Doon School, St Thomas College in the capital’s famous Mt. Lavinia suburb. Though the school fast-tracked the best and brightest of Sri Lanka’s young men to careers in business and politics, Kavi didn’t fit in. He was a bit of a rebel; a square peg that resisted being wedged into the round holes that elite post-colonial society had drilled for their sons.
“My father had no idea of who I was. He was not artistically inclined, but was a very strict and righteous Jaffna Tamil, obedient and devoted son to his parents, dedicated brother to his sisters and a dutiful and loving father to us, his children. I was a wreak as far as he was concerned. But my dear mother understood, as she was an artist. I was getting into trouble, the usual boarding schoolboy juvenile stuff. I started the school’s Rocket Club, but it got shut down because it was considered too dangerous, as I was attempting to concoct combustive solid fuel! So, I decided to put a kitten into a box and tied that box to a very, very large kite and ‘launched it into space’.” Though this episode saw him caned it didn’t break him. “I simply could not conform to formal education. I hated the English poetry they taught us.” Eventually, he wrote to President Kennedy and volunteered his services as an astronaut figuring he now had some experience of rockets and space launches.
If Kennedy was the dominant political figure of the era, it was the pelvis gyrator from Memphis, Elvis Presley, that was the true inspiration for the post World War II generation. Kavi was no different. Music was already playing a big part in his life. In addition to the ill-fated Rocket Club, Kavi also formed the school’s first Radio Club, through which he gained rudimentary “insight” into valve-based circuitry and the ability to read circuit diagrams. He was forever climbing tall margosa and mango trees to lash long bamboo aerials high up, so as to get better reception of short-wave signals.
“Radio Ceylon was a wonderful station. I used to listen to Tamil film songs as well to Cliff Richard and the Shadows. But mostly American stuff, such as Elvis, Fats Domino, Jim Reeves, Connie Francis & Bill Black’s Combo.” The music of M.S. Fernando, the ‘Sri Lankan Chuck Berry’ and Godfather of the local Baila music scene, impressed him as well. “While I was listening to Elvis from Sun Records in the US, unbeknownst to me at that time, this uniquely Sri Lankan music, was being religiously documented and archived by Sooriya Records, the subcontinent’s very first and only independent record label! If there can be a Sun Records in the US, well then, certainly there can be a Sooriya Records in Sri Lanka, both recording their very own Roots Music!”
In 1963, Duke Ellington visited Colombo and played a sold out show as part of his Far East tour. Kavi had no idea what jazz was at that time. “The Message of Jazz had not yet reached me. Things were very strict at school and home. But there was a local guy who had ducktails and rolled up sleeves and wore his hair with a ‘Yankee bump’, the local term for Duck Tails. I was fascinated by his Elvis derived style and swagger, but it was the voice of The King, his music, heard over the radio, that really moved me deeply.”
The James Dean film, “Rebel Without a Cause” spelled the end of his school ordained uniform. He wanted Varsity jackets, Levi’s, and basketball shoes, none of which was obtainable locally. When he saw “A Hard Day’s Night” and was electrified by The Beatles, Kavi began to sport drainpipe trousers and Chelsea boots. He let his hair grow over his collar. A young relation, newly returned from Swinging London, startled to see a local Beatles fan, asked her mother, “Who is that?!”, to which the mother replied, using the proper Tamil word denoting a paternal uncle, “That is you Sithappa!’. The child retorted “Beatle Sithappa!”, a nick name still used by some of his relatives to refer to Kavi to this very day. Little did Kavi know then that one day he would receive a fan letter praising his work from the Beatle, George Harrison.
Through a friend of his mother, Kavi discovered the USIS library in Colombo, which had an extensive collection of American roots music. Especially the blues. Over the months he immersed himself deep into the ethos of the Mississippi Delta, listening to the blues of Son House, Bukka White, Leadbelly, Odetta as well as gospel music.
Sensing that Sri Lanka was never going to big enough for him to reach his as yet unarticulated destination, like so many of his generation, he turned his eyes overseas. “I knew there was a wild world out there. And though Sri Lanka had been a British colony I didn’t want to go to Britain. I wanted to go to Paris and be a Beatnik.
That was my inspiration.”
Before leaving for Paris, a dear friend, Dr. Ranil Senanayke, today a leading expert of ecological issues, gave him a copy of an LP. This was the very first LP Kavi ever owned and most symbolically, as if to predict the future, it was the classic jugalbandi recording of Ustad Bismillah Khan and Ustad Vilayat Khan. Recorded at Abbey Road in London, with stellar sound, it was Kavi’s first exposure to true high fidelity acoustical sound.
And so, it happened.
He arrived in Paris in the summer of 1968 just as the student-led riots were dying down. But what exactly was a 19-year-old Tamil boy with an artistic bent to do in Paris? The politics of the riots didn’t mean much to him. It was to be in the city’s artist community that he would quickly find a home.
“I met a wonderful man, Phillipe Rothan, who had a dedicated music room in his apartment. And a fantastic stereo and an immense record collection. He had ‘dropped out’ from the Sorbonne and gone to India where he had studied Sanskrit and Tibetan. He was a massive influence on me. He turned me on to Bach, Miles Davis and Hindustani music, while I in turn, turned him on to Carnatic music, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Ritchie Havens and others.” Phillipe introduced Kavi to the French poets Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Saint John Perse and Rene Char and together they devoured other works of literature, “all the while drinking fine wine from Baron Rothchild and ingesting herbal extracts from the kings of Afghanistan, Nepal and Morocco.”
Life was good.
“I got a wonderful job in the French production of HAIR! It wasn’t a big role but I got paid very, very well! I had access to lots of books and records and I lived like a beatnik.” Artistically, the most important experience for Kavi was auditioning for the great French choreographer Maurice Bejart in Brussels, Belgium and being chosen to be among the very first batch of 20 students, to enter his newly founded school Mudra. The intensity of Bejart’s creativity and his rigorous discipline made a deep impression on Kavi.
Kavi met a woman, fell in love and got married. Inspired by the hippie dream they travelled back, overland from Europe to Sri Lanka, with vague ideas of setting up a farm near Batticaloa, but quickly realized the dream was completely unrealistic. In short order they returned to Paris where Kavi’s vision was starting to come into focus.
“I really wanted to start a record label. I felt that this was a way to bring my love of science and art together. In Paris I had gotten seriously into collecting records and purchased my first stereo. I really started listening to Indian, Arab, Turkish, Persian and Chinese music. I found the UNESCO released recordings of Alain Danielou from many Eastern cultures and his books on the true and secret Indian spiritual paths… and Deben Bhattacharya’s recordings. His books ‘Songs of the Bards of Bengal’ and ‘Songs of Krsna’, made me realize that this is what I should do. I consider Deban Bhattacharya and Alain Danielou my gurus, because it was they who inspired me, to pursue my path. I became a total devotee of the Mother Goddess, the divine feminine, Kali. It was through the writings of Danielou and Bhattacharya, that I intuitively linked into the deep powerful spirituality of the Blues, Jazz and poetry and music of the Bauls.”
By this time Kavi was not only immersed in the music itself but in the sound quality of the recordings he was listening to.
“I quickly realized that the quality of sound on the recordings of Asian classical music, recorded in their native lands, was very poor, compared to the quality of the recordings of Western classical and jazz music.” Though the EMI recordings from India were sonically, mostly of very good quality the mastering, plating and pressings were poor. The conditions in Dum Dum (outside of Calcutta) were dismal. The vinyl was recycled and thin, but as EMI was selling to a very small market who did not have expensive equipment, it sufficed. The LPs from India were also plagued by surface noise and warps. The American and French labels on the other hand, like World Pacific, Nonesuch, Ocora and Chante du Monde released superior sounding LPs, but their catalogues were restricted to just a few artists. The Indian EMI catalogue by contrast, was vast. And though the quality of the processing and the vinyl was poor, the recordings themselves were often excellent.
But before he was able to act on his growing impulse to set up the Indian Shellac Company, the proposed name for his fantasy record label, he followed his wife to Sweden, even though it seemed the wrong move at the time.
They planned to record in India and come back to Paris and release records. She would handle the business side of things. ”She was a good finance minister! I was just a Baul!” But in Sweden their marriage fell apart. “We should never have left Paris! I missed Phillipe. I was deprived of the rich cultural life and my support network.”
Not only did Kavi’s marriage die but so too his dream of the record label, as now there was no one to manage the business side of things. However, not one to give up, he approached Amigo Music in Stockholm and negotiated a deal to produce recordings of touring American jazz groups. At the time many American jazz musicians lived in Scandinavia. Kavi developed close friendships with several, such as the trumpeter, Thad Jones and made plans to record them. With Amigo’s blessing, he recorded Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which included a very young Wynton Marsalis, in a theatre in Stockholm. This became Kavi’s first commercial release.
Though Kavi didn’t think much of it at the time, the album, Art Blakey in Sweden went on to get noticed by audiophiles for its fine sound and with it the name, Kavi Alexander. Great Mother, Kali, used the experience to move him further down the road. Though the experience in Sweden fell short of his own expectations, the Blakey LP proved he had a talent for recording and was the start of his reputation. He left Sweden for America, the land of so much inspiration, in late 1981 more determined than ever to set up his own record label.
“I really wanted to give these Eastern virtuosos the quality recordings they deserved. I wanted to do it properly and give their recordings the technological superiority and sonic excellence, which their Western counterparts’ offerings possessed. So, I decided to go to the US to try to find someone to finance my dream.” Prior to his departure he requested the priest of the small town where he lived, to bless his recording equipment which he did in the very chapel where Kavi had been honing his recording techniques.
At last, thirty years after falling in love with Elvis, Duke Ellington and James Dean, and writing a letter to the American President, Kavi was in America.
“America was my destiny in a way. All the labels I loved were in America. I thought I’d find a business partner and create a label. I had done a lot of research and so as soon as I landed in New York I called Alan Silver, the founder of Connoisseur Society, a fantastic label that I admired. He was very gracious and invited me to his apartment and showed me his custom gear, some of it designed by the recording engineer Peter Bartok, son of the famous Hungarian composer and used to record Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in New York.”
Though a virtual unknown Kavi felt no lack of confidence in pursuing what to many others would have seemed an impossible dream. “A lot of these record guys were immigrants. And they were passionate about the artform. Maybe they saw something in me they recognised, because they all welcomed me. For example, Bhaskar Menon, who made all sorts of people from the Beatles to Pink Floyd famous, landed the top job for Capitol Records/EMI and was based in Los Angeles. Whenever I visited him you could smell curry, prepared by his own Indian cook, wafting around his office!”
Though nothing came of his meeting with Allan Silver, the Divine Mother was active again.
“In Paris there was a record store that always put aside Indian records for me. When I returned from Sri Lanka I went in to see what was new and the guy told me about Weather Report, the jazz fusion band. On the cover of one of their records was a picture of guy who looked familiar. I said to my wife ‘I bet he’s a Tamil from the Caribbean.’ At that time he was drumming with Cannonball Adderley and Weather Report and was making good money. His name was Dom Um Ramão.
“When I arrived in New York, I went to his Black Beans studio where he had a basic 4 track recording system. In the same loft just two doors down, I discovered another old friend from Paris, Giorgio Gomelsky. We had met when I was dancing in HAIR and he went on to manage the Rolling Stones and play a huge role in the flowering of rock and roll in Europe. I wasn’t really into that sort of music but Dom and I hit it off and as he had to go on tour he put me in charge of his studio which was really a huge loft and more a place where musicians came to practice and jam.”
“One day, soon after Dom left me in charge, who walks in but Dizzy Gillespie. I could not believe it! I got the courage up to speak to him. ‘I love your music,’ I said. I had read his autobiography and so I knew that when he had toured in India he befriended a street kid in Calcutta and bought him shoes and some clothes. I told him how much I loved that story. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ he said and then he pulled out a morsing and played a song the boy taught him! I developed an incredible friendship with Dizzy that lasted until he died. He was a fun-loving jokester and very humane.
“At other times Tito Puente, Sarah Vaughan, Abdullah Ibrahim and others came into jam. Gerry Mulligan, the sax player and his wife Bianca loved my home cooked Sri Lankan curry and they returned the favour with homemade lasagne.”
As great as it was mixing with the jazz world’s elite Alexander was still restless and determined to start his label. At the suggestion of a friend, he moved on to Chicago with plans to record that city’s jazz artists. In Chicago he met the legendary speaker designer, Harold Beveridge. “I had been writing to him for years and he knew of my work with Blakey and my intention to set up a label. He said he’d help me with that if I came to California to help him with his speaker business. But like me, Harold was no businessman. Though his speakers were state of the art, his business failed.”
Without much money, Alexander was given a space in the Santa Barbara factory of a Burmese nuclear physicist, Dr, Sao Zaw Win who shared an interest in high end audio kit and who went on to create his own audio products company, Win Labs. It was there that at last, his dream began to flower.
“After my dear mother died I had decided to change the name of my label to Water Lily Acoustics in her honour.” Though the company was not legally registered yet, with his usual chutzpah, Kavi managed to convince the Nagra distributor in the US, to loan him a $25,000 tape machine, which he then dragged up to Marin County to record the legendary Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.
Over the years Kavi had been reading up on all sorts of subjects from Eastern philosophy and music to the science and techniques of recording. The two-mic recording technique developed by English recording pioneer Alan Blumlein and a preference to record in natural, non-studio locations such as churches and concert halls endowed with good acoustics, formed the core of his approach. When asked about the general philosophical principles of his approach to sound recording he sums it up as “Simple mic techniques, high quality gear, short signal paths and absolutely no processing of any kind at any stage, with little or no editing.”
Once again, with nary a thought of rejection, Alexander approached Ustad Ali Akbar Khan with his proposition to record him.
“I asked Khan Sahib to give me a chance to show him what a Blumlein recording with just two mics and very high-quality gear can do to capture his sound. He said, ‘Come record my concert in 2 weeks’ time,’ which I did. When I later played the tape back to him at his home, I was waiting for him to throw me and my Nagra out. But after listening for a while he said, ‘Hanh, its ok. Put it out. I don’t want any money but limit the release to only 1000 copies.’”
The recording was the first release on Kavi’s long dreamed of record label. It was well received by a small community of aficionados and gave him enough encouragement to continue. And over the intervening years he has recorded and released several other recordings of Khan sahib’s music.
“I recorded him 3 times in ten years. In the beginning he was always very stern and would say things like ‘Hanh. You’re late’. But after 10 years he opened up. He had been testing me and I finally passed! After that he was extremely tender and kind. We used to drink whiskey together and talk for hours, when he would tell me great stories of his legendary father Baba Allauddin Khan Sahib.”
In addition to Khan sahib, Alexander has recorded a virtual Who’s Who of world music masters, not just from India but China, Africa, Iran, Turkey and many other countries.
One of the many remarkable things about Water Lily Acoustic releases is the unusual and seemingly unlikely pairing of artists. Black American blues men with Hindustani classical artists. West African griots with African American gospel singers, bluegrass banjo players with Chinese Erhu. Indeed, Water Lily Acoustics was the first label to pioneer collaborations between Hindustani, Chinese, Carnatic and Middle Eastern musicians.
“Water Lily Acoustic is the sonic Silk Road, linking the Orient and the Occident, bringing together their precious musical traditions. I am a two humped Bactrian camel, record producer and recording engineer, surviving extreme heat and cold! Making chai by the road side and warming myself by the fire beneath a night sky laden with stars, while a wondering bard sings the impassioned poems of a Sufi saint… The night is permeated with the fragrance of roses… “
Beyond Water Lily Acoustics, Kavi’s reputation as a recording engineer has led to a number of projects outside of his primary emphasis on Eastern classical music: recordings of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and the Saint Petersburg Symphony, The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Hungarian National Philharmonic, as well the American violin virtuoso Ruggiero Ricci playing a centuries old Guarneri del Gesu violin, all for Water Lily Acoustics.
As a hired gun, Kavi has recorded 45 titles of the leading Chinese classical virtuosi for the Taiwanese record label Wind Music. A boxed set of four of these recordings has been recognized by UNESCO for its contribution to the cultural heritage of humanity. He was also invited by a Greek Orthodox monastery on Holy Mt. Athos, Greece, to record their choir and to train a young monk there, in the art of making purist recordings. Kavi has made the very first and only audio recording inside the mausoleum of the Persian Sufi mystic and poet Jalaluddin Rumi, in Konya, Turkey. This unique recording is the direct result of a dream Kavi once had, in which Mevlana appeared to him and instructed Kavi to go to Konya and record Mevlana’s sacred poetry.
But without a doubt, the most famous, of the nearly 200 recordings Alexander has made to date, is the Grammy Award winning A Meeting by the River.
“I had recorded Vishwamohan Bhat when he was still young. Ry Cooder heard one of my recordings and was suitably impressed by my recording and by Bhatt’s skill on his Mohan Veena. So, I proposed the idea of recording him with Vishwa ji and he agreed to give it a try. Vishwa ji had no idea who Ry Cooder was, and was very sceptical. I am sure they both had doubts, about recording with an unknown musician and with no rehearsals whatsoever. But I was persistent. So, one day they both came to this Catholic church and sat on a Persian rug, placed in the stone floor, in front of a Baroque alter, with sun light streaming through stained glass windows. And began the magic carpet ride!”
Kavi has sourced a beautiful church in Santa Barbara, which had great acoustics. “It was here that most of my recordings were done. Water Lily Acoustic is one of few record labels which used a custom, all valve recording chain (mics, mic preamp and one inch two track recorder). The late British audio design genius, Baron Tim Paravacini built this formidable recording chain for me. Meeting by the River was recorded with this unique, one-of-a-kind valve recording chain.”
Near the end of our series of fascinating conversations I make an offhand reference to his practice of using a church to make many of his recordings. Instantly, the easy going, rambling, laughing Kavi gives way to a deadly serious one. “This no joke! Recording this music is a very serious affair. It is a spiritual ritual invoking Ma Kali and to offer Her Praise. Without Her blessings, nothing…”
And it’s true. His frequent references to the Great Mother are just the most tangible expressions of his true aim, which is spiritual. Open any Water Lily Acoustics CD and you’ll find the phrase ‘in the beginning there was sound’ a reference to the Aum the central creative and connective energy of the universe. Though the name itself is an homage to his mother, Lily, the water lily or lotus’s place in Hindu mythology as being not only a symbol of creation but of divine perfection is most apropos. It is that illusive divinely perfect sound that Kavi Alexander has been chasing all his life.