With his long, scraggly hair and beard, and his intense bloodshot eyes, Kavi Alexander looks more like a sadhu than a recording engineer. If he were wearing a loincloth, instead of a black shirt and slacks, he could be sitting cross-legged by the side of the Ganga chanting mantras. But he has more than appearance in common with the sadhus, for he is driven by a profound inner vision, which has both earned him respect and set him apart from his colleagues in the recording world.
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. 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.
But although Water Lily Acoustics has made superb recordings of non-European traditional music (including not only Hindustani and Karnatik music, but also music from China, Persia, Arabia, and Japan), it has another equally important mission. Preserving the past is not enough for Alexander; he also wants to set the stage for the music of the future.
He does this by gathering several musicians together from radically different traditions, then recording them for four to five hours in a church with the best natural reverb he can find. Usually these musicians have never heard of each other. In some cases they can’t even speak each other’s language. But during those hours they search until they find overlapping patterns in their different musical vocabularies, and the result is often quite beautiful. The most famous of these albums was the Grammy award-winning A Meeting by the River, which combined Indian slide guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and tabla player Sukhvinder Singh with American guitarist Ry Cooder. A few years later Tabula Rasa, which featured Bhatt with Er-hu (a two string Chinese fiddle) and fusion banjo player Bela Fleck, was nominated for a Grammy. But these combinations are only the beginning in a list that includes Karnatik saxophone with jazz flute, finger-picked steel-stringed guitar with Chinese pipa, bansuri with oud and trumpet, and many more.
“These albums are like a journey on a train,” says Alexander. “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.”
Perhaps his ability to combine disparate elements came from his own richly contradictory heritage. His parents were full-blooded Tamils, both Christian, but his father was Catholic and his mother Methodist. His mother refused to convert to Catholicism, so his grandfather agreed to let her stay Methodist on condition that she raise her first-born son as a Catholic. Kavi’s mother behaved like any obedient Indian wife i.e. she meekly promised to obey the patriarchal command, and then followed her own conscience. Consequently, Kavi was baptized by an Irish Catholic priest, then attended Methodist church services until he was old enough to go to an Anglican boarding school. “My mother created my first name Kavichandran, which means Poet of the Moon, but she did not want me to be a Bohemian poet like Baudelaire, drinking absinthe, chasing girls, and smoking hashish in Paris. She wanted me to be a Psalmist of the Lord, like King David. But what she got was a cross between a Shiva Yogi and a Whirling Dervish.”
Kavi Alexander is indeed a spiritual wild man, with equal amounts of spirituality and wildness. He is fiercely protective of his own aesthetic values, frequently exploding into obscene invective whenever he encounters anything—food, music, architecture—that does not meet his rigorous standards. If anyone expresses a contrary opinion, however, he relaxes and smiles, acknowledging politely that, of course, anyone is free to disagree with him. And although Lily Alexander may not have raised a son who became a Psalmist of the Lord, he did name his recording company after her, and continues to see music as first and foremost a spiritual expression. He sees his greatest inspiration for his fusion albums to be Baba Allauddin Khan, who invented several new instruments for his original Maihar Band, and was trained in many forms of Indian and European music. And the liner notes for most albums on Water Lily Acoustics contain a quote from the great Sufi poet Rumi, or sometimes one of Kavi’s own poems.
“I don’t record in churches just for the reverb,” says Alexander. “When the 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.”
Water Lily Acoustics recordings are available at www.waterlilyacoustics.com.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.