After hearing Tibetan flutist Nawang Khechog play at a dinner for the Dalai Lama, folk music legend Joan Baez was inspired to compose a poem of appreciation.
"Up above the thunderclouds and beyond the wildflowers, up where the air is thin, Nawang sat silently in a cave for seven years occasionally playing his flute at sunset," she wrote. "Before the notes evaporated and were transformed into an evening mist, they were heard by the mountain goats, which stopped chewing and turned their heads to listen because the god-like melodies filled them with wonderment and made them want to dance."
Since the late 1980s, this esteemed Tibetan artist has been mesmerizing audiences with his "god-like melodies." Frequently invited to open talks by Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, Khechog's soothing music helps set a meditative tone at these events.
Peter Kater and Nawang Khechog
"I play peaceful flute songs," he explains. "I set the mood to be calm and I chant the phrase, 'May all be kind to each other, may all be kind to each other.' I've been chanting this simple phrase for more than 20 years, and I've had the honor of 10 Nobel Peace Prize winners endorse it."
Born to a nomadic family in Eastern Tibet, Khechog fled to India in 1959 as a 6-year-old, to escape Chinese oppression. A visiting yogi had convinced his father that it would be devastating for their family to remain in Tibet.
Once in India, he was educated at a boarding school established by the Dalai Lama for refugee children. And at age 13, he decided to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Then, sponsored by the Dalai Lama, he lived as a hermit in a mountain hut for four years.
After arriving on Maui earlier this week, Tibetan flutist Nawang Khechog experienced a medical emergency requiring immediate hospitalization. Native-American flutist R. Carlos Nakai will replace him on the concert bill with pianist Peter Kater.
* Peter Kater and R. Carlos Nakai perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the McCoy Studio Theater at the MACC. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 day of show (plus applicable fees).
Drawing on his years as a monk and hermit, Khechog creates hauntingly beautiful compositions that mix sacred Tibetan chants with ethereal horns.
In the introduction to Khechog's book "Awakening Kindness," Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes: "Nawang Khechog is a dedicated student of the Dalai Lama and I have worked with him several times through the PeaceJam program as he has shared his philosophy of kindness with the youth of the world."
"My most important hope is that people find a peaceful feeling, serene and calm," Khechog concludes about his music. "And I try to inspire and help people understand the value of love, compassion and kindness."
Khechog has collaborated with a range of leading artists from New Age star Kitaro and classical composer Philip Glass to Laurie Anderson and Phish's Trey Anastasio, as well as Maui-based, Grammy-nominated pianist Peter Kater.
The two musicians have recorded a serene album together, "Dance of Innocence," and performed at a number of concerts, including at Carnegie Hall and before 50,000 at a Tibetan Freedom show at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
The duo were slated to make their Maui debut on Friday in the McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, before a medical emergency curtailed the plan.
Acclaimed Native-American flutist R. Carlos Nakai will replace him on the bill, inspired by thoughts of meditative tranquility and peace.
The program will feature a solo set by each artist and then a longer collaboration, according to Kater.
A multiplatinum selling musician, Kater has been honored with a number of New Age Grammy nominations, and scored TV programs and films, including the documentary "10 Questions for the Dalai Lama," which also featured Khechog's serene flute playing.
"We've been collaborating for a long time," says Khechog. "Most Tibetans play traditional music, but I play my own feeling. I love playing what I feel, and in the West you call it improvisation. To me, if you improvise, you have to feel the music."
Paying homage to the golden age of '50s exotica and lounge music legends like Martin Denny, The Waitiki 7 are breathing new life into the classic genre combining ace musicianship with fresh arrangements, a contemporary edge and a passion for beguiling tropical jazz.
At the band's core are three musicians from the islands- percussionist and exotic bird caller Lopaka Colon (who plays with Henry Kapono and is the son of original Martin Denny percussionist/bird caller Augie Colon); jazz drummer/vibraphonist Abe Lagrimas Jr.; and bassist/bandleader Randy Wong, who is trained as a classical musician and studied musicology at Boston's famed Berklee College.
The rest of the group includes Latin Jazz Grammy nominated flutist/saxophonist Tim Mayer, pianist Zaccai Curtis (who plays with Grammy nominated trumpeter Christian Scott), vibraphonist Jim Benoit and violinist Helen Liu, who has a doctorate in musical arts and has served as an assistant concertmaster.
Since 2006, the group has won the Exotica Album of the Year award at the annual Hawaii Music Awards, and this year they won Adult Contemporary Album of the Year for the latest CD, "New Sounds of Exotica."
Growing up on Oahu, Wong was a family friend of Arthur Lyman, Martin Denny's famous vibraphonist.
"I grew up hearing him play the vibes, but I didn't know what he was doing was exotica," recalls Wong. "I didn't know there was a whole genre. Exotica was a huge thing in the '50s and '60s and it has big local roots. It was like an early world music hybrid. It's awesome, but nobody in my generation really knows about it."
The original exotica sound drew on Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian and Puerto Rican influences, often combining Hawaiian melodies with swing and jazz and Latin percussion.
"It became sort of cliche, but the real stuff that Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman and Augie Colon played was great," he continues. "Lopaka's dad, Augie Colon, originated the idea of bird calls in exotica, and that sound became associated with exotica. We're so fortunate that Lopaka can do the calls. He did it with Pure Herat, but I always thought those calls belonged to another music. With Waitiki, he's in his natural habitat."
Since their formation, the band has received rave reviews. Most of the musicians studied jazz and contemporary music in Boston, which has influenced their approach to modern exotica.
"We bring a lot of that language and vocabulary to the table," Wong explains. "But at the same time we're young and we want to dance and have fun. You don't have to be a jazz aficionado to understand the music. But if you're deep into jazz or Latin music the players in the group are heavy hitters. Our pianist and sax player are real Latin musicians. Our violinist has a Stephane Grappelli-type sound, and we have a great flautist."
Such is their appeal that even when they've played in the heart of the Midwest, fans have flocked from all over.
"We played Kansas and people drove there from across the country," he reports. "They came from California, Nevada, Chicago and South Carolina because they wanted to see this music live."