Issue 9.1: February/March 2006

The Musical Tourist

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.”

photo courtesy David Lewiston
TashiJong, India, 1998

Even the Dalai Lama has acknowledged David’s laziness. “He asked me if I had any training and I told him I’d been initiated but didn’t practice,” David remembers. “He just laughed and told me I was lazy. He said he was lazy too, but I was even lazier!” Lazy or not, since that first meeting with lama Trungpa Rinpoche, David has taken at least a dozen trips to India to record Tibetan ceremonies.

David was born in England in 1929 and studied at Trinity College of Music in the 1950s. His epiphany came when he heard the music of Thomas de Hartmann, a Russian composer long associated with the Greek-Armenian mystic Gurdjieff. “It was like nothing I’d ever heard,” he says. “It took me deep into myself, making an unforgettable impression of profound peace. Suddenly, I realized ‘Oh, there’s something other than the Western classical tradition!’ After that, everything else just fell into place.”

After graduating with a degree in composition, David moved to New York to study with de Hartmann. Then, as now, the city was vibrantly alive with music of all kinds at all hours: Ali Akbar Khan playing till 3 a.m. at the Indian Tourist Office, The Clancy Brothers singing and drinking ’til 2 at a Greenwich Village pub, young Bob Dylan mesmerizing his audience at his first New York appearance—a show David proudly remembers hating. But as stimulating as the live music scene may have been, the recording industry then was even more conservative than it is now; any music outside of the mainstream was left for the fanatics or the academics.

“In 1966, a friend introduced me to an album of Balinese gamelan,” David says. “I was fascinated by the music but frustrated by the low quality of the recording. Back then, even in New York, there were no good recordings to be had, only brief snippets on discs that treated the music as exotic curiosities. That made me hungry for more.”

In today’s world, music from just about anywhere can be found immediately; forty years ago, that just wasn’t the case. To hear more gamelan, David had to take time off from his day gig at a financial magazine, go to Bali and record the music himself.

photos courtesy David Lewiston
Bir, India, 2000

His trip there came just a year after the unsuccessful communist uprising in Indonesia (dramatized in the film The Year of Living Dangerously), and there were only about twenty westerners on Bali. Fifty thousand people had been killed. “There was a lot of apprehension when I arrived,” David recalls, “but once people saw I was sincerely interested in the music, they really opened up.”

Back in New York, David found himself walking up Third Avenue, when he spotted a Sam Goody’s record store. To his surprise, inside he found a recently released Japanese shakuhachi album called A Bell Ringing In The Empty Sky on a New York label called Nonesuch. “This was just what I’d been waiting for. I wrote them a pitch letter about my Bali recordings. I didn’t know anybody there so I just addressed it ‘To whom it may concern.’”

A couple of days later, he got a call from the head of the label herself, Tracey Sterne, an innovative executive who, like David, had wide-ranging tastes in music. “She called herself the coordinator even though she was in charge of the entire operation,” David says. “There’s no point in being pretentious; you’ve either got it or you don’t, and she really had it.”

In 1982, David moved to Maui. “I had just returned from India and was re-establishing contact with friends,” he recalls. “One had moved to Maui, and told me it was paradise. She suggested
I come out and see it. And she was right, so I stayed.” Having jettisoned journalism to focus full-time on recording, David continued his musical travels from a base on the Valley Isle.

Health problems have slowed him down in recent years, and you can hear a poignant wistfulness as he describes how clear the high Himalayas look from Darjeeling after the monsoon washes away the September dust. But while he may not be up for another three-month trek to India, David recently packed up his gear and made the thirty-minute flight over to Honolulu to record Indian slide guitar master Debashish Bhattacharya, who visited the Islands last November.

Although there is a vague plan to release at least one album from the sessions, the main motivation, as always, is pure pleasure. “Debashish is a consummate Indian musician,” David says. “There are tens of thousands of musicians in the world, but only a handful are worth dropping everything to go hear. Artists of this caliber are always worth spending time with.” HH