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The Twain Shall Meet

East-West boundaries are erased in the world music philosophy espoused by Kavi Alexander and his Water Lily Acoustics label.

August 25, 1999|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the rare and fragile realm of independent record labels, the struggle to survive is subject to serendipity. For the Santa Barbara-based label Water Lily Acoustics, a decisive moment came six years ago with the arrival of Ry Cooder, famed guitarist-producer, and, it turned out, Water Lily fan.

Kavi Alexander, an Indian Sri Lankan, founded the label in 1984 as an audiophile company dedicated to world music. Cooder heard and was wowed by the label's recordings of the virtuosic Indian slide guitar player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and asked for a musical meeting.

Which is how it came to be that one night in 1993, Cooder drove up to the small, Mission-style chapel of St. Anthony's Seminary in Santa Barbara, where Alexander, 50, records his projects direct to his customized two-track, all-tube, analog recording system. Cooder and Bhatt were introduced in front of Alexander's two looming tube microphones, set up in the configuration devised by early stereo pioneer Alan Blumlein in the '30s, and found things to talk about, musically.

The resulting East-meets-West sensation, "Meeting by the River," earned rave reviews, won a Grammy and a National Assn. of Independent Music award, and became, by far, the hit of the Water Lily catalog, with sales now topping 200,000.

Suddenly, Alexander's label was on the map, holding fast to a musical corner of his own devising.

"One of my goals," says Alexander, an engaging character with flowing black hair and beard, "is to spread Asia [into] the Western world--not just Indian music, but the music of the Arab world and the music of Iran, China and Japan and elsewhere. My main interest is in the classical forms of the music, not that I wouldn't record some really good folk music. I'm always trying to promote it in whatever way I can, by recording it or by combining it with people like Ry, so that a larger audience will get to hear it."

In the last two years, Cooder has returned occasionally to the church studio as a producer and contributor. His latest Water Lily project is a just-released Indian-influenced, art-music-plus-jazz disc called "Fascinoma," which he produced for trumpeter and new music composer Jon Hassell. What keeps him coming back is the creative freedom inherent in Water Lily projects: "If there's no map or anything like [it]," Cooder says, "you just have to be willing to strike out together, to go somewhere."

Water Lily Grows in Modest Digs

From all outward appearance, the successful arrival of Water Lily has not spoiled Alexander or his label. He continues to run the company out of his modest apartment in the UC Santa Barbara bedroom town of Isla Vista. It's a space densely packed with high-end audio gear that, when it comes time to record, he hauls to St. Anthony's. The apartment walls are speckled with covers from his numerous releases and additional framed Grammy nominations, its staircase an obstacle course lined with boxes of CDs, ready for shipping or lavishing upon visitors.

A self-taught sound engineer and fanatic, Alexander found his way from Sri Lanka to Europe as an independent sound man, then landed in Chicago for a brief period. In the '80s, he made his way to Santa Barbara, where he went to work for a high-end speaker company. It wasn't long before he hatched Water Lily Acoustics, with specially designed and built "old-fashioned" equipment from another sound fanatic, Tim de Paravacini, of Esoteric Audio Research in the United Kingdom.

Alexander's initial impulse was as much archival as anything else. "The original agenda was to record the master musicians of Asia properly," he says, "so this legacy would not die. The Western classical legacy is very well-documented. That's not the case in India. But another agenda was to present the best of the West and the best of the East--recorded well."

After the Cooder-Bhatt phenomenon, Alexander, still a one-man operation, pumped the unexpected profits back into recording ever more musicians. He now has dozens of albums in the can, and goes back to the church studio whenever he senses a ripe opportunity. He usually releases about five titles per year, including several with Bhatt in cross-cultural duets--since Cooder, the collaborators have included banjo wizard Bela Fleck, Taj Mahal, Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Dobro player Jerry Douglas.

Alexander still writes virtually all the Water Lily liner notes, often quoting Sufi poet Rumi along the way. He rides his bicycle to cafes in town to drink tea and ruminate, and has only recently entered the computer age, using the hunt-and-peck method of typing to keep up with his e-mail (http: music@waterlilyacoustics.com).

This year's Water Lily crop has included two Indo-jazz projects, featuring flutist James Newton, Indian saxophonist K. Gopalnath, guitarist Larry Coryell and violinist L. Subramaniam. On the Western classical side, Alexander lugged his equipment east to record the Philadelphia Orchestra, the first non-digital, all-tube recording of a major orchestra in 20 years.

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