Meet Kavi Alexander: Isla Vista’s Resident Musical Pioneer

Mathew Burciaga/Executive Managing Editor

Madeleine Lee
Staff Reporter

“Young lady, what are you doing reading Playboy?”

To that, I have no response. But for Kavi Alexander, a self-professed vigilante of hippie culture and a child of the sixties himself, this was an ironically conservative inquisition for a man who has, in the last sixty-seven years of his life, seen far more than the average Isla Vista resident.

As a West Coast transplant by way of Sri Lanka, Paris, Belgium and a brief stint in New York, Alexander has spent many an afternoon people-watching at the Isla Vista Food Co-Op since he first moved into his Abrego apartment, lined by palm trees and beer pong tables, in 1987. It was there, on the food co-op patio littered with fliers for upcoming yoga brunches and kombucha sales, that Alexander painted the picture of a life that is in fact, despite all its early spontaneity, dictated by two things: an old 1960s issue of Playboy Magazine and a pair of speakers.

It was the magazine that emerged first, a much-coveted underground commodity of the rigid, all-boys boarding school Alexander begrudgingly attended in Sri Lanka. Hidden in desk drawers and under mattresses,Playboy was the minimally-dressed window into the chaos of the western world.

“It wasn’t in the pictures, obviously, that I found inspiration,” Alexander said, “but in the interviews and the short stories they used to include. There was one feature in particular that I remember on the Beatnik Generation. I read that article and it was like there was no looking back, really.”

Alexander then did what all sleep-deprived students occasionally dream of doing — he dropped out.

“I left the school behind, much to my parent’s unhappiness of course, but I couldn’t have been happier to go,” Alexander said. “It was the ‘60s, and I fled to Paris because I wanted to be a part of it all — everything.”

Alexander remembers what it was like to be young in Paris, and immersed in the music of the 60s — his friends calling him Bob Dylan, because he toured the city with a stack of LP’s tucked under one arm, and seeing Leonard Cohen by chance for free one evening. A couple years later, he found himself in Belgium, itching for something new. On a whim, he showed up to an audition, held by the famed dancer, choreographer and opera director Maurice Béjart, whose Ballet of the Twentieth Century had gained him enough clout to found the Mudra School in Brussels in 1970. It was a school for those who wanted to learn every aspect of ballet performance, from choreography to music to narrative.

Something about his tenacity caught Béjart’s eye, however, and Alexander was one of only twenty-one students admitted that year. After only a few months of study, though, Alexander ran away to Paris for a second time — but this time with a vision.

Inspired by Béjart’s work, that often melded western dance with eastern influence, and his own enduring love for music, Kavi delved into the world of music production, working briefly for firms in Europe and New York before finally landing in Santa Barbara.

“I owned a pair of speakers in Europe that were made in Santa Barbara,” he said. “That’s where the connection first began.”

And so, in 1984, Waterlily Acoustics, Alexander’s homegrown record label, was born. Celebrating its thirty-second anniversary this year, Waterlily Acoustics is known for its unique method of music production that is in many ways a reflection of his own simplicity and soft-spoken demeanor.

“Music, really good music, doesn’t need a lot to make it that way,” Alexander said. “I choose to work only with truly talented artists that I know are capable of creating the best sound on their own. Everything else falls into place naturally.”

Inspired by his Southeast Asian roots, Alexander began by reaching out to Indian musicians, the first of which was Dr. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, whose concert entitled “Sarod” became Waterlily Acoustic’s first released album.

“I was fortunate enough to record Khan three times before he died in 2009,” Alexander said. “He was like a father to me. He was by far my favorite artist to work with.”

From there he branched out, elaborating on Béjart’s melding of east and west by initiating collaborations between artists on both sides of the globe. One such recording, a highly improvised collaboration entitled “A Meeting By The River” between legendary American guitarist Ry Cooder and Hindustani guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, won a grammy in 1994. As a testament to Alexander’s keen ear for musical talent, Cooder and Bhatt performed the Grammy-winning album with little rehearsal, having met only an hour prior to the actual recording.

Alexander went on to pair the greats of Indian music with artists from China and the Middle East, quickly establishing himself as one of the pioneers in the field of melding the two diverse musical cultures together. He also continues to record classical symphonies in Santa Barbara, St. Petersburg and beyond.

In his personal life, Alexander has abandoned the chaos of the sixties for a quieter existence — kind of. As a resident of Friendship Manor, a senior living home in IV, Kavi does his best to spend as little time there as possible, preferring the everyday bustle and sunshine of Isla Vista and making several pauses during our interview to greet friends among the eclectic crowd of food co-op regulars. (“This is one you should be interviewing as well,” Alexander said as he pointed to every passerby.)

He’s currently waiting to hear back on a possible residency in Tucson, Az., at the Musical Instrument Museum, where he believes he’s finally found a new group of people as committed to musical archiving as he.

In whichever direction the wind blows Isla Vista’s very own Bob Dylan, Waterlily Acoustics and the sixteen-year-old boy behind it all, who found enlightenment in the pages of a Playboy Magazine, adventure will surely follow.