PRINT January 1997


Water Lily Acoustics

Disgusted by cheap recordings of classical Indian masters, Kavichandran Alexander, proprietor of the tiny, Santa Barbara-based label WATER LILY ACOUSTICS, wondered how musicians could be satisfied with the compressed, equalized, noise-gated, digitized, doctored product that was their sole sonic legacy to the future. So the Tamil entrepreneur founded Water Lily to record them himself—in a church, not a studio, using custom-built analog equipment, with no sound effects, no mixdown, and no overdubs. His first release was Ali Akbar Khan, whose stature among Hindustani musicians rivals that of Ravi Shankar. Far less famous was the young Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who plays Hindustani music on a lap-slide guitar with drone and sympathetic strings. But Ry Cooder heard Bhatt’s music, and came over for a late-night jam. The result, 1994’s A Meeting by the River, earned the label a Grammy before it had a fax machine.

Water Lily’s latest, Tabula Rasā, is another happy convergence. It features Bhatt and the banjo-bending Béla Fleck, who tempers Alexander’s now-or-never production techniques with those of Nashville. It also includes an Indian percussionist, a flute-and-violin duo, and Jie-Bing Chen, Chinese champion of the magically graceful bowed, two-stringed erh-hu. The six musicians sat down in twos, threes, and fours, each session yielding another well-cut gem. Fleck marries flavors at every turn, whether matching mountain banjo to a Chinese tune, tiny showers of notes to an Indian theme, or a newgrass composition to Indian percussion.

These encounters are what Alexander says he seeks: “You’re on a train in Europe, somebody comes into your compartment. He could be a gypsy or a banker, you don’t know. You’re on the train in India, a woman gets in with a basketful of chickens; some guy’s got a goat under his arm. You sit down and have a dialogue. That’s how life is!”