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: firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.
The Philadelphia musicians, looking for something different, had contacted him, but Alexander had to make a sample recording to overcome some analog skeptics in the orchestra. In this partnership, Water Lily didn't have its customary degree of control. Alexander's liner notes, for instance, were edited--especially the part where he complained about the degradation of acoustics in today's concert halls.
"I'm not used to working in a corporate situation," he asserts. "I'm Water Lily Acoustics, a one-man show. If I want to put a postage stamp of the Queen of Burundi on the cover of a CD, that's what I do. But I had to exercise a little give and take. And it was a good experience for me to have to interact. They were very nice to me and very happy with the work.
"I'm hoping that other orchestras will see fit to get in touch with me and have me do the same thing with them." He leans into the reporter's tape recorder, laughing, "L.A., are you listening?"
Any discussion with Alexander is liable to meander enthusiastically over the subjects of philosophy, history, ethnocentric musical bigotry and the meaning of beauty. On the slightest nudging, the conversation turns to the minutiae of sound--particularly the still-raging war between digital and analog technology.
Anti-digital to the core, Alexander only reluctantly gave in to making CDs rather than what remains his favored format, vinyl, early in the '90s.
"I said OK, life is about compromises. I'll bow to the monster, I'll sell my soul to the devil. I figured, hey, it's the music that matters and those who want my music aren't buying LPs, so I'll make it available to them in the form they want it in. I personally don't listen to CDs. I have four turntables upstairs and that's where I do my listening for pleasure."
Alexander Has More Culture-Blending Ideas
The Water Lily recording process was put to a new test with the Cooder-Hassell project. Unlike any previous album, it departs from the label's acoustical bias and includes electronic textures created by Rick Cox, who worked up enigmatic sounds and loops in the church. Those sounds were then recorded through speakers in the space rather than fed directly into the recording system, as they would have been at most labels.
With elements of jazz accented by pianist Jacky Terrasson, and Indian sonorities accented by Indian flutist Ronu Majumdar and Hassell's own Indian music studies, Hassell defines "Fascinoma" as "the things that I like and things that Ry likes, and damn the torpedoes."
"It was very unusual, as sessions go," said Cooder in December as he was working on editing the project. "If you go exploring, you want to keep turning the next corner and the next corner.
"Then you get the rough thing formed out and you sand and you sand a bit more and then pretty soon you begin to see what's there. Finishing any creative project takes quite a lot of handwork and labor."
Now part of the Water Lily loop, Hassell has joined Cooder as an occasional contributor to other releases Alexander has pending. Upcoming is a CD featuring flutist Majumdar, with Cooder laying down enigmatic electric guitar parts on two tracks, and a recording of flutist N. Ramani in Indian-oriented duets with Hassell.
And Alexander has ever more ambitious culture-blending ideas. A series called Orientology will mix normally discrete Asian traditions. Occidentialism would match Asian musicians with the Western classical repertory--for instance, Bach played by Indians with their traditional musical inflections intact.
"Of course, the purists won't like it," Alexander prophesies. "Even in a liberal country like Norway, the Grieg Society once kicked up a big row because Duke Ellington wanted to record a piece by Grieg."
He grins. "This is another thing I'm trying to do through these recordings, trying to make people understand that ultimately there is no East or West. There is only one human race, and we should be proud of what other people have achieved, because it is our common heritage."