story by J.W. Junker
In the Karakoram Mountains of extreme Northwest Pakistan, there’s a rickety, swaying footbridge high above the turbulent Hunza River. You wouldn’t expect to find a record producer FROM HAWAI‘I venturing across it, but world music pioneer David Lewiston has walked it, en route to recording folk singers in a remote valley.
“It was pretty scary,” David Lewiston admits today, sitting in the safety of his Maui condo. “But flying in was even worse. Back then, you took an old propjet to Gilgit, skirting 25,000-foot peaks. The pilot had to thread his way through a 17,000-foot pass without reliable radar. If you cleared that, you could see the landing strip down below, short by any standard and ending perilously close to a sheer rock face. ‘Inshallah,’ the pilot would call out, ‘If God wills it, we’ll be landing in five minutes.’ It didn’t exactly inspire confidence.”
It wasn’t the only time he risked his life: Over the last forty years, David has flown, sailed, hitchhiked, walked and commanded crazed taxi drivers into some of the planet’s most isolated locations in his quest to find music he enjoys. Forget the multitrack, multimillion-dollar recording studios; David has always preferred to rough it, to find the musicians where they live rather than make them come to him.
“I’m really just a musical tourist,” he says in his plumy Oxbridge English dialect, which makes him sound a bit more like a British professor and less like the bohemian citizen of the world he has spent most of his life becoming. “Journalists often call me an ethnomusicologist, but I’m not,” he says. “I prefer to listen to music rather than analyze it. I do this because it’s fun.”
He’s recorded choral singers in Georgia, Sufi mystics in Morocco, Peruvian string bands in the Andes and more—over 400 hours of high-quality recordings, which today fill his living room, floor to ceiling. Parts of his archive have been released on twenty-eight albums, many on Nonesuch, the first major label to treat world music as artistic expression that can be enjoyed by an international audience. Unlike most specialists in world music, David has never sought outside financing for his fieldwork. He has paid for everything out of his own pocket.
David is especially well-known for having made the first stereo recordings of Balinese music and for his work with the Dalai Lama’s Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs, recording traditional Tibetan rituals that date back to the fifteenth century. His interest in Tibetan music began in 1971 when he met Tibetan lama Trungpa Rinpoche. “What he said about the illusory nature of the ego was very attractive to me,” David recalls, “but what blew me out of the water was his extraordinary energy. For the first time, I was in the presence of a being who emanated compassion impartially. I just wanted to hang out with the lamas, not ask a lot of questions. Basically, I’m just a lazy bum.”