When acclaimed South African musician Guy Buttery first sought out Dr. Kanada Narahari in late 2016, it was as his patient.
“It was a dark time.” Buttery recalls, “I had been bedridden for months and had been suffering from debilitating bouts of fatigue which no diagnosis or medication could help me get to the bottom of. When I first met Kanada, I was at the stage where even picking up my guitar to make music had become a joyless and taxing exercise.”
As Buttery’s searched for a cure, a family member recommended he see Kanada an Ayurvedic doctor who had relocated to South Africa from India and set up a practice in Durban. It was during this consultation, that the musician first experienced how Narahari infused the healing properties of Indian Classical music into his practice. Rather than treating him with a smorgasbord of pharmaceuticals, Narahari played his sitar and set Buttery on a strict daily diet of Raga’s to fast track his recovery.
Buttery was not only struck by his doctor’s musical talents but by the powerful healing properties inherent in his sitar compositions. When he left Narahari’s doctors room that afternoon, he asserts he was feeling decidedly clearer, lighter and stronger.
“Diving into Kanada’s music was definitely one of the reasons I'm still here today.” he admits. “The consistent tonal centre at the heart of Indian Classical Music, literally became my support pillar over this period. A central core of sorts in which to fall back on, strengthen and discover.”
Narahari as it turned out, was not only a prominent music therapist (and one of the only Ayurvedic doctors practicing in South Africa) but like Buttery, a highly accomplished musician with a devoted following back in his homeland.
Born in a small village along the Western Ghats in Karnataka, India, Narahari, at the age of nine, had enrolled to study Carnatic classical vocal and developed an interest in Hindustani Classical music with a particular passion for the sitar. While Buttery had secured his reputation as one of South Africa’s musical treasures, a multi-instrumentalist who commands sold-out performances both locally and internationally and more recently had been awarded the prestigious 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Music.
From this consultation, a friendship developed between the two musicians with Buttery soon inviting Narahari to join him in his studio. But it wasn’t all plain sailing in the beginning. While Buttery and Narahari’s sensibilities were very much aligned, there were a range of cultural and musical influences, nuances and inflections that first needed to be navigated and understood.
“I suppose we had to find a common ground.” Buttery says, before adding, “Which in the end turned out to be pretty "uncommon ground" for the both of us.”
It was after a few intensive sessions together that something exhilarating began to emerge. What began as a few idle improvisations soon evolved into feverish and lengthier jams. Whenever time permitted, the musicians would meet, descending deeper into the emerging sounds, while reimagining the realms that existed between their African and Indian heritages.
Over the next few months, the duo would rack up over fifteen hours of recordings in studio, and it was up to Buttery to shape the material into an album which they collectively titled Nāḍī, which Narahari translates from the Sanskrit as "The Channel" or "An Internal River".
During this period, Narahari bestowed upon Buttery, the moniker Guruji while Guy would refer to him, in affectionate return, as Panditji. Each time the musicians would meet, the studio space would be cleared by an impromptu ritual, with Guruji burning African Imphepho while Panditji would chant a Sanskrit mantra dusting Indian Agarbatti clouds over their instruments.
Once the room had been made hazy with this aromatic alchemy (with the ancestors welcomed in) the musicians would pick up their instruments and plunge into shimmering tides of sound. Reflecting on these sessions, Narahari recalls the immense creative freedom he felt throughout: “Guy and I tried to wander as much as possible, without any speculative, preoccupied ideologies or limitations. Love remained at the forefront of our journey together.”
“Those evenings we spent together in the studio” adds Buttery, “felt incredibly rich with purpose and a profound sense of freedom. While improvising, anything could happen and mostly did.”
On a first listen, the tracks on Nāḍī emerge as salty, humid invocations to the inscrutable depths and misty myths of the Indian ocean-- that vast body of water that stretches between, and laps the shorelines, of the artists’ respective homelands.
When asked to describe the sound him and Narahari refined, Buttery prefers to relay a series of evocative images.
“For me” he explains, “Nāḍī is a lighthouse, a beacon that resides at the bottom of the ocean.” As Buttery envisions it, “what once offered light to guide ships to safety, has been submerged and re-purposed by marine life as a coral-reef temple. Similarly, this sunken lighthouse exists as a concealed cenotaph, memorializing the ancient sea-routes and passages that once connected the two distant lands.”
On paper this may sound obscure but listening to the songs, it serves as an apt metaphor.
Across each meditative movement, listeners are able to relive the journey, immersing themselves in a series of incantations, replete with high dynamics, delicate African-Indian inflections and virtuoso string playing of an entirely new order. Further complimenting the fusion of musical dialects are a range of guest artists including Shane Cooper on bass, Thandi Ntuli on vocals, Chris Letcher on organ, Ronan Skillen on tabla and percussion and Julian Redpath on guitar, synth and backing vocals.
Now like the submerged lighthouse, the recordings stand as a monument, a marker and snapshot of this fortuitous meeting, a tribute to the healing gifts of Guruji and Panditji in performance. It’s a process that already, both musicians look back on with reverence and nostalgia.
Buttery ruminates in closing, that when he first met Kanada his illness correlated with the biggest drought South Africa had experienced in many years “…for whatever reason, whenever we would connect and make music together, the sky would tend to open. Even if it was just a few drops. This went on for months, until finally the drought dissipated and my health had been restored.”
By the time the heavens did open across the East Coast, a deep friendship had been forged and with it abundant musical offerings poured down. A treasured sample of which we able to share in every time we press play and immerse ourselves in the sacrosanct musical universe that is Nāḍī.