Water Lily Acoustics

Franco Vitaliano

"Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don't open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument." -- Jelaluddin Rumi, Sufi mystic, and poet.

The Persian mystic Rumi, living as he did in the thirteenth century, could have had no inkling of today's new esoteric musical tradition; i.e., the high end. But had he done so, he might have been tempted to amend those poetic lines to say, "Instead, just listen to the music." After all, isn't this what the high end is supposed to be about? Unfortunately, the high end seems in danger of degenerating into a group of hopeless techno nerds, anxiously engaged in swapping around cables, components, tubes, and other related paraphernalia in their slippery search for The Absolute Sound.

This audio-anxiety causes many in the high end to "wake up empty and frightened," fearful that their elaborate system is somehow not performing at its best. These anxious audiophiles then begin reading high end magazines from cover to cover, looking for answers to their gnawing questions. Worse, most of their colleagues -- and dealers -- do nothing to discourage them from vainly trying to buy expensive audio indulgences from the high end priesthood.

Some, however, have managed to escape from the inner circles of this dog-chasing-its-tail audio hell. They realized that their elaborate high end rig was, in fact, a unique musical "instrument," and not an expensive end unto itself. With this realization, they suddenly heard once again their own inner music, and profoundly understood it's all simply about listening.

However, "listening" is not such an easy thing to do these days, as the recording quality of many CDs outright sucks. No matter how enlightened you are, Enlightenment is still not so easy to come by! Fortunately, there is a kindred spirit who can provide a fount of recording wisdom, and excellent performances. It is Water Lily Acoustics (Tel. 805-968-8188), an iconoclastic, independent recording label founded and run by Kavi Alexander.

Born in Tamil Eelam, which is located in the Indian ocean, and now a resident of Santa Barbara, CA, Kavi traveled a long, circuitous path to his California Dreaming. Kavi first emigrated to Paris, and then to Sweden. In Sweden, he spent a number of years working as an independent producer/engineer for a Swedish company doing American jazz. In 1981, he came to the U.S., and subsequently started Water Lily Acoustics in 1984. Kavi probably had no real choice in his life quest, as his full Indian name, Kavichandran, which his mother made up, means "Poet of the Moon." His very foresighted mother, whose name is Lily, also contributed her name to his company.

Water Lily's recording techniques are the philosophical and practical antithesis of modern day digital techniques. Recording sessions are done exclusively on a pure analog Studer transport which has been converted to a 1 inch, two-track format. The heavily customized Studer has custom built triode tube electronics by Tim de Paravinci (which Tim also donated to Water Lily.) In addition, the Pearl bi-directional mike capsules used by Kavi are also a custom de Paravinci tube design.

Although analog throughout, and using all tube electronics, no hiss is to be heard anywhere on Water Lily's CDs (unless you crank them up ear-bleeding loud.) Kavi firmly believes that the best digital recorder, the 20-bit Nagra, still can't hold a musical candle to his Paravinci-modified analog Studer. And as Water Lily's CDs are now released only on gold alloy (at no additional cost to the customer), all the digital nasties are even further tamed.

This alloy amelioration was confirmed by Francis in a back to back comparison between the same Water Lily recording on a silver CD and a gold disc. All of Water Lily's golden CDs also include extremely well written liner notes that extensively detail the origins of the music, its traditions, and provide in-depth Bios of the performers. Finally, Kavi monitors all the recordings via VMPS FF-1 speakers, and Stax Lambda Signature Pro electrostatic microphones. 100 watt EAR 508 MK II monoblocks and Belden Teflon twin-axial cables complete the amplification chain.

Some might consider analog, "made by hand" recordings to be a relatively quaint notion. But when totally digital modern CDs (e.g., HDCD) and Water Lily's stone age analog recordings are played head to head, one immediately realizes that despite the seductive allure of highly advanced technologies, they are no substitute for caring human beings at the recording console.

Kavi's analog adage is wonderfully borne out on everything that Water Lily does, with the natural acoustic of Saint Anthony's Seminary chapel in Santa Barbara, where he exclusively records, usually reproduced in all its sonic glory. Alexander had gone through several other church venues before settling on St. Anthony's because of its "fantastic acoustics," as well its geographical isolation from California Freeway mad traffic. From this special chapel have come a string of consistently great recordings of Asian master musicians playing the music of India, Iran, Arabia, and China, and often with a good dose of American jazz and blues blissfully mixed in.

For example, the 1993 Grammy Award winning CD for Best World Music album, "A Meeting by the River" [Water Lily Acoustics, WLA-CS-29-CD.] This album features Ry Cooder on bottleneck guitar, and Indian musician V.M. Bhatt playing a string instrument of his own unique design, called the Mohan Vina, which somewhat resembles a slide guitar. This is a stunning album. When the two players' stringed instruments emerge from their silent black backgrounds, as in this album's eponymous cut, the plucked, strummed, and slid notes come together in a joyful meeting of East and West, with no fear of their being culturally misunderstood by the other.

But any such misunderstanding would have been quite unlikely, for the two men shared a common cultural bond. It turned out they both possessed a deep affection for the centuries old writings of Jelaluddin Rumi, the Persian mystic and poet. Their shared poetic passion would also come to play a significant role in the shaping of this album. Although the entire "Meeting" CD was unplanned and unrehearsed, Cooder decided that it should at least have a semblance of a framework.

A loose thematic structure was therefore outlined, and fittingly enough, it was inspired by one of Rumi's poems from the "Mathnawi," a compendium of his works. This particular parable is about a frog and a mouse who meet on a river to discuss the world, but in a language unhindered by the rules of grammar. And thus "A Meeting by the River" was spawned, its musical origins owing as much to Cooder's seminal 1976 recording, "Chicken Skin Music," as to the metaphorical musings of a mystical thirteenth century poet.

That there is no sonic misunderstanding on this Grammy disc is also a tribute to Kavi's microphone placement techniques. He had tried all the usual (and not so usual) miking arrangements before eventually deciding that the classic Blumlein array of two coincident figure eights crossed at a 90 degree angle yielded the best results. But at Water Lily, this technique, like all the others employed, must always serve the music master. Kavi has no use for many of today's so-called "audiophile" records. His attitude is that many in the high-end recording business have forsaken the music, and instead, been hopelessly bedazzled by new technologies. As Kavi says, "If the music isn't there, then who cares if gold was used in the connector cables?" True musical wealth, he believes, lies in the performance itself.

One example he often cites of our recording Paradise Lost is a Muddy Waters vinyl LP from 1963, "Folk Singer," [Chess CH-9261]. Kavi says the sound quality of this more than three decade album is "staggering," and "formidable." When he listens to this LP with a state of the art system, Kavi head-shakingly wonders, "How did they do that?" His deep respect extends not only to the recording techniques of these old, and unfortunately forgotten, masters, like Emory Cooke, but also to the musical genre itself. Little surprise, then, that blues, especially the Muddy Mississippi kind, have a sweet spot in the Water Lily discography. Kavi's admiration of this uniquely American musical tradition can be found in another grits in the curry musical mixture, "Mumtaz Mahal," ("Jewel of the Palace") [WLA-CS-46-CD.]

This album features N. Ravikiran playing the Chitra Vina (a 21 metal-stringed lute), V.M. Bhatt again on his Mohan Vina, and the great Taj Mahal doing vocals and guitar. When Taj Mahal starts singing in "Come On in My Kitchen," you wonder how the Delta Blues musicians got along all these years without their own Chitra and Mohan Vinas. Indeed, at the end of this CD, Taj is heard saying to V.M. Bhatt how he was able to get some of Taj's bluest chords perfectly right. Taj also says that he never could get his Western musician friends to do what Bhatt just did.

But what is most remarkable about his admiring comments is that Taj, Ravikiran, and Bhatt, up until the time they sat down to create this completely spontaneous album, had never met before! As in the "Meeting" CD, "Mumtaz Mahal" carries within it the kernel of a much larger truth: Music is a truly universal language. So, rather like the mouse and the frog of Rumi's poem, a Hindustani musician, a Karnatak musician, from the island of Malagasy, and a Delta Blues man who had carried on the oral traditions of the West African Diaspora had somehow all gotten together, and carried on a profound, unrehearsed musical conversation about the universal human condition.

Alexander firmly believes "This mix of (musical) cultures paves the way to the future." So at the same time Water Lily is preserving the old music in its purest form, it is also "trying to create encounters that can be a stepping stone for the new music." Thus, Water Lily is a unique operation, in that it is both a transcriber of our global musical heritage, as well as a creator of what might prove to be our new musical future.

Alexander is obviously a risk taker when he sets up these sessions, bringing together musicians from disparate cultures, and musical backgrounds, and many of whom have never met before until the Studer began rolling. Kavi seems unusually interested in establishing creative atmospheres where anything is possible. But yet, there is an overarching structure to this seeming session randomness. That structure is defined by the historical background of a particular region, and the idiosyncratic nature of the music which consequently arose. Seen in this context, Water Lily often attempts to stimulate, or rekindle, the vital essence of a music which sprang from a unique set of past actions and geopolitical circumstances in a particular part of the world.

For example, Water Lily's, "At the Court of the Chera King" [WLA-CS-34-CD.] Here, an ensemble of nine musicians play unusual, quite beautiful music, which has its origins in an area of the southwestern peninsular seaboard of the Indian subcontinent. This region's ruling dynasties were collectively known as the Cheras. This section of the world had many religious influences visited upon it, including Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and lastly, Islam. The region was thus rich in its spiritual traditions, as well as materially rich from its far flung trading in spices, muslin, hardwood, monkeys, and precious stones. (It was said that even the Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem was a beneficiary of these exotic goods.) Naturally, the cultural cross contacts brought about by its long trading history also injected a steady stream of secular ideas into the society.

Alexander fantasized about all these incredible events in this part of the globe, and the effects they probably had on its peoples. He thereupon decided to put together an impromptu musical collage, a tone poem, spontaneously woven together from all these diverse, historical influences.

Like "Meeting," and "Mumtaz," the Chera King album was done with no prior rehearsals whatsoever, and the nine musicians, save two, had never met before. And at the epicenter of this improvisational assemblage lies Ms. Shweta Jahveri's heart piercing voice. Once more, Water Lily's painstaking approach pays off in sonic spades. Female vocals, always an excellent test for digital CD stridency, are never harsh, no matter how intense Jahveri's upper register vocalizations. You can also clearly delineate each exotic instrument on this exquisite recording, their sultry overtones, and their individual timbres, and without them all being mashed together into a fearsome digital melange. (And by the way, Chera King's first cut, "Temple Dancer," with its amazing ensemble of sounds, is a great test for imaging.)

This type of constant, complex musical improvisation, so common throughout Water Lily's global repertoire, may be unique among record labels; its only counterpart perhaps being jazz recordings. In the west, we tend to think of jazz as being the definitive form of spontaneous, highly individual, musical invention. But actually, it shares that innovative distinction with all performed Eastern music. To many Western musical ears, accustomed as they are to the multi-part compositional strategy in use today, the monophonic heritage of the eastern world may sound strange, rigid, and even doctrinaire, with no possibility of bringing a novel and invigorating interpretation to a piece. But none of these historical, western-imposed stereotypes are true, especially with regards Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam.

The Sufi, via dance and music, seeks to experience through spiritual ecstasy the higher order truth that all religions ultimately lead to. Each Sufi performer is expected to create something new from what is received. This very special music therefore represents an innovative, intensely personal tradition. Indeed, so powerful is it, that Sufi Dervish dancers have been said to die while in the throws of their ecstatic experience.

You can hear the awesome power of Sufi music for yourself on another great Water Lily CD, the Melevi Ensemble of Turkey performing "Wherever you turn is the Face of God," [Water Lily WLA-ES-50-CD] The Melevi tradition, which has always been one of aesthetic refinement and inner development, not only encompasses the writings of Rumi, but also seven centuries of other Melevi poets, as well.

Speaking of Rumi; while it may seem that Sufi music is radically unlike secular jazz, one could argue that as American jazz has its roots in religiously-charged gospel music, these two musical traditions may not be so far apart after all. So once again, the poetical mouse and frog meet by the river, and find common ground for an intriguing discussion.

Water Lily continually challenges its producers, performers, and listeners alike. All involved are presented with the task of exploring the musically unexpected, and the personal unknown. For listeners, its CDs often present musical experiences which can confront, and perhaps transcend, their experiences, knowledge, and ingrained expectations.

For all these reasons, Water Lily is a unique enterprise, and like so much else in the high end, the label reflects the passions and tenacity of its founder. Kavi Alexander has brought together a special assemblage of music and talent, the likes of which, and some of which, may never come together in quite the same way again.

So do yourself a favor, and get some Water Lily CDs, and discover why love of music conquers all.

A Partial Water Lily Catalog Listing:

Ry Cooder and VM. Blatt, "A Meeting by the River," [Water Lily WLA-CS-29-CD].

Hamza El Din, "Lily of the Nile," [Water Lily WLA-AS-11-CD]

L. Subramaniam, "Kalyani," [Water Lily WLA-ES-19-CD]

The Court Musicians, "At The Court of the Chera King," [Water Lily WLA-CS-34-CD]

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt & Jerry Douglas, "Bourbon and Rosewater," [Water Lily WLA-CS-47-CD]

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Sukhwinder Singh Namdari, "Saradamani," [Water Lily WLA-ES-23-CD]

Martin Simpson and Wu Man, "Music for the Motherless Child," [Water Lily WLA-CS-49-CD]

Taj Majal, V.M. Bhatt, and N. Ravikiran, "Mumtaz Mahal" [Water Lily WLA-CS-46-CD]

The Melevi Ensemble of Turkey, "Wherever you turn is the Face of God," [Water Lily WLA-ES-50-CD]

Dom Um Romano, "Saudades, [Water Lily WLA-CS-16-CD]

Simon Shaheen and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, "Saltanah," [Water Lily WLA-ES-51-CD]

Ustad Imrat Khan, "Ajmer," [Water Lily WLA-ES-17-CD]

Copyright 1997, Franco Vitaliano, All Rights Reserved

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