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SOUNDS UP THE COAST : Sounding True : Label producer wins over audiophile aficionados by taking musical eclecticism to a new and pristine level.

April 08, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kavi Alexander, who founded the audiophile record label Waterlily Acoustics six years ago, isn't one to play by any rules other than his own.

A self-professed bohemian, the Isla Vista-based Alexander moved around the globe from his native Sri Lanka, fueled by love of music, poetry and the search for truly high fidelity.

He decamped in New York to work for percussionist Dom Um Ramao and then in Chicago to work briefly for a small record label. He landed in Goleta to work for a high-end speaker company.

Out of that humble warehouse, Waterlily Acoustics was born. Years later, the label has built up a reputation and profile among aficionados of both audiophile sound and pristine recordings of Indian music by such masters as Ali Akbar Khan and L. Subramanium.

The label also features recordings of such diverse sources as West African griot music, gospel, and the Latin-jazz hybrid of Strunz and Farah.

Recently, though, the label suddenly found itself thrust into a wider circle of influence with an album more popular than all the others combined. "Meeting by the River" features the renowned slide guitarist Ry Cooder, in a seamlessly cross-cultural meeting with the Indian virtuoso V.M. Bhatt, who plays a custom instrument that is essentially a revised slide guitar.

The meeting and the buzz about the album took Alexander by surprise. An unlikely record company mogul, Alexander is engaged in a headlong pursuit of purity. In his case, that involves recording special music in the rarefied atmosphere of a church rather than a studio.

In an interview in a downtown Santa Barbara restaurant, Alexander sipped tea and explained that "the church seems the best choice (for music), even better than a concert hall, because it is a place of worship."

He usually sets up camp in the chapel of St. Anthony's Seminary in Santa Barbara, but Alexander's recording sessions don't always fall within the normal guidelines of what goes on in a Catholic chapel.

"When we did the Strunz and Farah album, 'Misterioso'," he recalled, "we had this Mexican percussionist who had all this Meso-American percussion stuff. So we had these two ladders with all this stuff hung between the ladders, these sea shells and other things, right in front of the altar. At night, we turned out all the lights and lit these candles."

Grinning, he added: "Anyone who had come in the church the next morning would have been convinced that some wild pagan ritual had taken place there."

Waterlily Acoustics is also a dogmatically non-digital company. A firm believer in pre-digital technology, Alexander uses strictly tube recording equipment, mostly built by an eccentric English specialist, Tim de Paravicini.

Give Alexander a platform to talk about the pitfalls of the digital world, and he'll gladly comply.

"I am convinced that both solid state and digital do serious damage to the sound of acoustic instruments, when they are processed through those kinds of electronics. There is a lot of documentation that can prove this.

"Now, with some types of music, it doesn't matter. If you're recording synthesized music, there is no question of fidelity. But if you're recording a Stradivarius or a beautiful sarod that is over 200 years old, like Kahnsab's (Ali Akbar Khan), there is no other instrument that will sound like that.

"You want to make sure that you preserve that with the right timbre and the right overtones. To do that with the current technology that we have, we have to go to analog. There is no other way."

He leaned forward, adding: "If you listen to the Ry Cooder album, you can hear that there is a liquid quality to it. I wish you could hear the original master of that. The CD is not a good representation."

If Alexander had his druthers, he would avoid the CD format altogether and release albums only on vinyl, but feels that it's important to get the music into the CD-oriented music market stream.

Despite the fact that his label has long appealed directly to the audiophile movement, Alexander feels like a fish out of water within that world:

"The only analog movement as such that exists is that of the so-called audiophile. But their reasoning is wrong, you see. It's a sort of an ego thing: 'Come and listen to my woofers . . . see how wonderfully they reproduce this race car or some helicopter from a Pink Floyd album.' "

The Ry Cooder connection came through well-known guitar- builder-to-the-stars, Rick Turner, a fan of Alexander's recording projects. When Turner heard a recording of V.M. Bhatt's Indian slide guitar music, an album called "Saradamani," he knew that Cooder would be interested.

In fact, Cooder was so interested that he suggested a duet. Alexander was thrilled at the prospect. Alexander confessed: "He's been a hero to me secretly, for a long time. One thing I liked about Ry was that, instead of trying to be exotic and bringing somebody from the rain forest, he found it right here in America."

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