06 April 2018

Kavi Alexander: a poet of sound

“The alchemy of the masters moving molecules of air, 
we capture by moving particles of iron, 
so that the poetry of the ancients will echo into the future.”

I’ve seen Kavi Alexander seated under the coccolaba tree at Sooriya Village, apparently one of the only two such trees in Sri Lanka, the other being at Peradeniya.  With long hair and a longer beard, greying, Kavi looked quite ascetic. Except he’s wearing a t-shirt and shorts.  

Sooriya Village attracts a lot of people who either in appearance or life are sadhu-like, so seeing Kavi seated there did not pique my curiosity, not even when he would stand up to greet people with hands clasped in the form of worship. 

Udena Wickramasooriya had told me about him months before. I couldn’t remember what he told me. That’s because I am not into music the way Udena is. However, when Udena says ‘you must meet this guy’ about anyone, I make a mental note of it.

So Kavi Alexander was there. He had been there for more than a week. He even had a press conference which I was not too keen to attend. There are auspicious times for certain things and they can’t be forced, I firmly believe.

One auspicious morning, I said ‘hello’ to Kavi. He duly stood up and greeted me. And then we talked for what seemed like hours.  

Kavi Alexander was born in 1949 and spent his early years in Ratmalana and Mt Lavinia. He attended St Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia.  Perhaps it was all there already in his genes for his mother played the Karnatic violin, but apart from that first memory Kavi distinctly remembers going to church with her and listening to the radio: ‘I was glued to Radio Ceylon; I wanted to put up antennas all over to improve reception.’

Improving reception or rather obtaining the best reproduction of sound turned out to be his lifelong passion, but he didn’t know it back then.  

Kavi left Sri Lanka in 1968 and went to Paris. He was a hippie, he says. In Paris, he realized that his life would be in the arts. Perhaps in poetry or in sculpture or something else, he wasn’t quite sure.

‘I got an opportunity to play in the cast of the “Hair” production in Paris. As it turned out I was the only one who didn’t take the clothes off. I was very Asian in that way. I wore a traditional white Indian outfit. Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France at the time, Tissa Wijeratne, came for one of the performances with his wife and complimented me on this. He said “Kavi, you are the only one who has not lost it!”’

‘Hair’ had been running for a year by the time he joined the cast. All the dressing rooms had been taken by that time but two musicians, one French and one American, had invited Kavi to share their dressing room.  

Wherever he went he made friends, apparently.  He moved again, this time to Brussels. Maybe he was restless but in all likelihood, he followed his heart. That’s what took him to ‘Mudra’ an experimental school run by the French choreographer Maurice Béjart.  Béjart, the son of a French philosopher has spent some time in India where he had encountered Yoga and had been, in Kavi’s words, ‘flipped out by Bharata Natyam’ which had later inspired him to produce the ballet ‘Bhakthi’.

The six months he spent at Mudra was a life-changer for Kavi. He had turned up in jeans and believes that Béjart had probably felt that Kavi was passionate and deserved to be given a chance.

‘It was an amazing experience. This is where I learned that if one wants to succeed one has to have an iron will and be incredibly disciplined. The idea behind Mudra was that it was not just dance but everything associated with dance; lighting, make-up, carpentry, everything. The first lesson actually was yoga! Anyway, I found my purpose there. I wanted to start a record company. I wanted to record the music I love. And I decided that it had to be in the USA and no Europe.’

Interestingly, Kavi, while still a schoolboy had written to John F Kennedy, volunteering to be an astronaut.  

‘The story got distorted of course. There are friends from that time who still tell me “you are the bugger who wrote to Kennedy and got a reply!” That’s not true. Kennedy never replied.’  

Kavi set up his record company, Water Lily Acoustics, in 1984.  Not surprisingly it was an uphill battle.  

‘I was scraping by. The company was always undercapitalized. Maybe the turning point was when I went to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in California. I went to his school and said I wanted to record his concert.  He looked me up and down. He agreed. So the next day I went, set things up, and recorded. He wanted me to put it out. That was the first record. It was a gift, in fact. Now I could say ‘I recorded Ali Akbar Khan!’

Today Water Lily Acoustics is a Grammy Award winning record label and has recorded theg reat masters of both the West and East. Kavi is a purist, a perfectionist. He wanted and succeeded in capturing the music he loved in its purest form, especially the music of the Eastern world. 

‘I realized that the great Eastern musicians had seldom been recorded properly, with care and attention on sound quality. The recordings that existed were of poor quality. 

Kavi has to date recorded Indian greats such as Padmavibushan Ustad Dr. Ali Akbar Khan, Padmabushan Professor V.G. Jog, Padmavibushan Pandit Jesraj, Padmabushan Dr. N. Ramani, Ustad Imrat Khan, Ustad Zia Fariddudin Dagar, Padmashri Dr. L Subramaniam, Padmashri V. M. Bhatt, Padmashri Kadri Gopalnath, Padmashri Ustad Rashid Khan, Chitravina N. Ravikiran, Swapan Chaudhuri, Guruvayur Dorai and T. H. Subashchandran. He’s also recorded the younger artists, for example Dr. V. Balaji, Pandit Ronu Majumdar, Sukhvinder Singh Namdari, Abhijit Banerjee, Druba Ghosh, J.G.R. Krishnan, Thiagarajan Ramani, Shweta Jhaveri, Viji Krishnan and Sangeetha Shankar.

He has also recorded South American, Asian and African musicians, symphony orchestras including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the Saint Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, and the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, in addition to prominent North American and European musicians, many of whom are multiple Grammy Award winners.

Music from recordings released by Water Lily Acoustics have been featured in the sound tracks of six major Hollywood films: Dead Man Walking, Two Days in the Valley, Primary Colors, Angel Eyes, One Hour Photo and Meet the Fockers, and also the Bon Jovi documentary ‘The Circle.’

He has also paired musicians from diverse cultures, and the very first to pair and record Indian musicians of both the Karnatic and Hindustani schools with their Persian, Arab and Chinese counterparts, a trend copied by others much later.

Kavi, for all his success, has pretty much the persona one is likely to assume when seeing him for the first time, seated under a tree, minding his own business, but quick to get on his feet and greet with hands clasped whoever says ‘hello’ to him.

‘I live a hermit’s life. I live in the USA but I didn’t know about 9/11 until two weeks later.’

He’s been away for decades but he’s still very much rooted in Sri Lanka.  

‘I eat red rice imported from Sri Lanka, so I get all the minerals from my country.’

And yet, there’s one dream that remains unfulfilled, he says.  Kavi has for years wanted to record pirith.  

Manik Sandrasagara came up with the idea around 2005. This was during the war. We corresponded. Manik told me that it was all insane. He felt that as a Tamil and the first Sri Lankan to win a Grammy, if I recorded the Buddhist chants it would have some impact.  I had already recorded Quranic recitations and wanted to go to Ethiopia to record the Coptic liturgical chants. I found sense in what Manik said. I knew about the different Nikayas, but wanted to bring them together in some way, record them all, put the records together in a single box with four compartments. Something like that. CD’s, booklets.’

It never happened. Official sanction was hard to get. Kavi realized that it was a minefield and that one needed to be a politician to get things done. Manik died. Kavi gave up.

Kavi has been in Sri Lanka for almost a month now. He stays at Sooriya Village, upon Udena’s invitation. He conducts workshops, talks about music and recording, traveling once to Batticaloa which is due to circumstances his ‘ancestral place.’

My parents were from Jaffna. They came to Trincomalee by sailboat. It had taken them three weeks. Then they took a bullock cart to Batticaloa. Unfortunately they both died in the cyclone of 1978. Batticaloa is beautiful. I love the place. I visited my parents’ grave.’

He’s happy being here, this hermit who travels the world looking for great music which he can record for posterity, this sound-man who ironically is as much about silence as he is about music, this archivist of musical alchemy.  He’s all about love, a different kind of love one might say. 

Water Lily Acoustics has a website and the home page has a verse from Rumi which says a lot about the idea, the work and the man.  It’s an appropriate ‘end point’ to this piece about this timeless man. 

Love is that which never sleeps,
nor even rests, nor stays
for long with those that do.
Love is language
that cannot be said,
or heard.