The story of Garaj Mahal

                                                                 (the greatest band the world never knew!)

                                                                                                                       garajlogo1

                                            Announcement:

                                           After 11 years of touring, nine albums recorded and roughly 1000 shows played, 

                                           the  East/West Coast band Garaj Mahal has put an end to its appearances.     

                                           There are currently no plans for future shows.

                                           - Kai Eckhardt,   August 14, 2011



Open letter to the fans of Garaj Mahal:

Before closing these doors, I would like to take the time to thank you our many fans all over the United States and Canada for whom we had the privilege to perform since the year 2000.    You made us feel welcome and came out to hear us play rain or shine, over and over again.  Some of you helped us carry our gear in the rain or snow and in some cases we were allowed to surf your couches for the need of saving a hotel room expense.  You know who you are and we will always love you for that. You supported  a truly original band, born in a tiny club in San Francisco that ended up spanning the entire continent many times over to come to a venue near you.   

Oddly, it was not the music, but everything else that brought the project to a premature end.   Anything new in this world is vulnerable until a critical mass is reached.  To get over the hump is the hardest part, while most people are beginning to understand that Art is not a top priority in the materialistic world.  But it is nevertheless important. 
Garaj Mahal reached for complete  freedom of expression in a post modern jazz sense and we got away with it for 11 years.  That was a privilege, an honor and a surprising feat given the times we are in.   We would keep doing it under more humane circumstances, but for now we have called it quits.   For those of our fans who will be saddened by these news, I have taken the time to honor this band properly and to share the journey with you through this letter.  It's a long one, so kick back and take your time. 

 Foreword:

Art can be the best entertainment, but entertainment is not the best art.   The best of the real stuff in music requires an effort.  Not only in the performer but also in the listener is this effort required.   Due to laziness and general brainwashing,  people with short attention span would easily get turned off to our music.  The longer people concentrated on following the flow of this music the more they'd  get out of it all the way to some serious inspiration.  We didn't play dance music  but people danced to it anyway.  That was special and unique about us.    Garaj Mahal certainly deserved wider recognition and a fair shot in the arenas of establishment.  We gave it a solid try always swimming upstream.   Afro-Pakistani-Klezmer-Gospel-Germanic-Roots funk with Indian influences and a serious jazz sensibility.   This ensemble was abosutely fearless (except when it came to smelly hotel rooms and long drives)... 
Those of you were at the best gigs will agree: there was nothing normal about us,  except perhaps for the normal dose of funk to be delivered.

Some of our children in the families of Garaj Mahal  will soon reach college age.  Yikes!   Just as small corporations get swallowed by bigger ones in this world economy, so members of Garaj Mahal  received offers they could not refuse.     Night ranger, Scott Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham,  Chico Freeman,  Trilok Gurtu, Steve Kimmock  and Marcus Miller found their talented sidemen in Garaj Mahal.
But Garaj Mahal itself being the combination of all those talented daredevils really played the best new music.  We worked all year round in all regions of the US.   What we had was originality and new ideas combined with 10 years of playing together to the point of telepathy.  Look around you and examine carefully how many acts today are banking on grooves and harmonic patterns of the past.  And how many are leaning one way or another against the accomplishments of an artist who made his or her  mark in days long gone?  The vast majority of acts is in some form “retro” oriented you will notice.  

But the truth won't go away.  No rist, no growth.   You walk the same path, think the same thoughts, make the same dance moves.  Take that into consideration.   We are no longer in the days of Saturday Night Fever.   You're living in the past because it's safe.  But like a drug it comes with side effects.  In this case it's the side effect of premature aging!  Garaj Mahal's music was rejuvinating instead.   Forget about the recordings.  You had to be there upfront when it happend!   More of you should have come out and taken advantage.  You deserve  spanking!   (Just kidding).  

On a more serious note, it was the lucky combination of four individuals who were highly educated in music while coming from vastly diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, all sharing a thirst for something unique of very high quality in the intimacy of real improvisation.   The output was a genre defying sound that was highly transformative yet danceable,  serious yet funny.    We were motivated like there was no tomorrow.  We got up on stage every night as if it were our last gig.  Can I get a witness?   One should also consider that two of Garaj Mahal’s original members had gathered  years of experience in the ensembles of musicians that were themselves founders of bands that changed forever the direction of improvised music: The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report.   Then we had Eric Levy coming in with Gospel, Alan Hertz with Zappa and Sean Rickman with Hendrix.  Try to reacreate this band somewhere else!  That was the musical jackpot as far as I was concerned.   We werent' non traditional.   We were multi-traditional.
How is it possible that the American music scene didn't realize what it had while it had what it had?  The anwer you can find poetically in Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi":  Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone!   

 Garaj Mahal  managed to elegantly  integrate Indian and Pakistani classical music elements  into a tapestry of smoldering grooves.  That's right.   We toured in the most liberal and the most racist of US  environments.   We were blown away by the warm hospitality of peace loving festivals and we were confronted with the racism galore in some of the remotest places.  Garaj Mahal had a knack for appearing in consertative parts of the country:  
The bible belt, the deep South, Wyoming, Idaho, South Dakota, Alaka...  But ultimately we held everybody in our hearts who came to the show regardless of their religion, ethnicity or social status. 

During long van rides we checked out African music and Klezmer, we listened to everything from Coltrane to Zappa, from Segovia to Kim Burrell, from Outcast to Wesley Willis.   We may have been one of the very few bands that ever saw an entire house dance to a song in 11 and 13 (In the USA that is…)  Listen to Eric Levy’s epic Klezmer-fusion compositon Ishmael and Isaac!  Our fans where amazing as they stretched their limits together with us.  We know for fact there are people in this country who will move to this music all night long until the break of dawn.   Inspiring with no regrets.  We saw the sun come up from coast to coast playing shows African Style with 6 hours of groove mayhem that just would not quit.  We received the privilege and honor to deliver the music for Allison and Alex Grey painting their epic works of art at the full moon gathering last year in the Pacific North West.    We played up in Alaska in the month of February!  The ski towns of Colorado, Vail, Crested Butte, Aspen, Breckenridge, Durango and the hot desert (Joshua Tree).

It has been a true privilege playing for you all  and we will cherish these memories forever.  Thank you musicians:  Eric, Fareed, Sean, Alan and Kit, DJ Fly, Raskai, Nicolas Baron, Anyu and Torsten.  Our teams and family:  Christian W, Theresa and Brian, Simon says, Blue Mountain,  Brain A, Lee Selig, Lee Crumpton, Scott Burg,  Bryce, Jesse,  Tony Fishman, Turtle and Rachel,  David Hind, Master P,  Jan Levy, the Haques, Scatchmo and Megan, Trevor, Tina and Chris, Allison and Peter,  sister Enid and Doris, Esther, Shanon,  Phil, Dan and Pilar, Marc and Lindsey, Stephanie and Steve, Timmy and Becca, Rabbi Joe, Rachel, Krishna, Zappa, Andrew and Jessica, Myron K,  Deke and the upstream crew,  Karli, Earle, Keith, Karen, Rob and Reba, Yanny, Sir Dance-a-lot,  Arty the Party, Siegfried, the brownie queen,  Tom Favara, Bennie, Penn, Joe C, Lauren, sister Marion and countless loyal friends and supporters for over more than a decade.  

And before letting go of this adventurous  episode in life I wanted to share a few memorier and set up a gathering place for our fans.  Feel free to share any memories with us as  we will come back to read your comments.  And please:  If you see any of us coming to a venue near you, please come by to say hi! 
For those who want to know how Garaj Mahal was born and how it ended, here is the story from my subjective perspective (Yes, Garaj Mahal is down to one active member and I don't have the talents of Keller Williams) :

                                                                       On tour with Garaj Mahal

The idea to form a new band originated from drummer Alan Hertz and his friend Christian Weyers who became the band’s first manager. 
Our first incarnation was: 
Kit Walker on Keys, Fareed Haque and myself.
In the year 2000 a series of informal jam sessions lead to a show at the
Connecticut Yankee where 50+ passionate audience members made the band go “viral” after 800 names where submitted by our small but mighty local fan base.   We each picked our top 10 favorite names and held a meeting to determine which of the 40 names would stick.
Garaj Mahal beat out names like “All purpose mayonnaise gardeners or “Pink Pony”.
The fan who submitted the name “Garaj Mahal” was later identified as Bay Area resident Ted Silvermann who received the privilege of being on the guest list for life.

 

                                                                                                 kit

 

                                                            Kit Walker, keyboard maestro and founding member of Garaj Mahal

 

We gained momentum spontaneously as our shows where often discussed on the Steve Kimmock discussion list, drawing on the fans  of the Grateful Dead who in turn came to KVHW shows, the band “Kimmock Vega Hertz and White”.   With Christian Weyers’ determination to turn us into a National act the first tours spread into the Pacific North West.  From Arcata to Eugene and on to Portland and Seattle.   Then East to Tahoe, Utah and Colorado and finally  to the South, the Midwest and the East Coast all the way up to Canada.    We recorded our first album “Gasoline Angel”  of which only a few collectors items where made available.   After some internal changes, Eric Levy took over the keyboard chair and the band began to tour vigorously between 80 and 100 shows each year.  One of our greatest fans Theresa Reed evolved from fan, to head of merchandise to Garaj Mahal’s manager after Christian Weyers landed a gig in the corporate world.   Theresa Reed is also known as “the mother of Garaj Mahal”. And she took very good care of her “boys”. 

 

                                                    

                                                                                          Garaj Mahal,  the second edition. 

 

                                                              blakesberg                                                                                                

                                                                   Left to right:     Eric Levy, Alan Hertz, Fareed Haque, Kai Eckhardt

 

To say we were road warriors is an understatement.   It was understood by everyone that help from the mainstream  would not come anytime soon as we did not fit any format with the exception of one radio station:  XM radio and the show: “Beyond Jazz” hosted by the fabulous Michelle Sammartino.    Garaj Mahal was like a multi-ethnic fusion cuckoo laid in the nest of the jam band scene.  The price we had to pay for being explorers was low budget touring and frequent excursions “over people’s heads”. Our first touring vans where rentals and after we busted the credit card Fareed found us our first touring vehicle which we named the “Sketch Van” During one of our trips it rained heavily and the roof was leaking.  Alan’s idea worked.  We bought a kiddy pool at Walgreen’s and tied it to the roof of the van preventing our gear from being damaged.     

 

                                                                       fareed_on_roof   

                                                                                      Fareed fixing leak on sketch van with kiddy pool 

 

We hurled across the freeways for 1000s of miles sometimes braving 2 metropolitan rush hour phases a day.    Average drives where easily 5 to 6 hours  and the monster drives where 32 hours from San Francisco to Chicago,  sleeping upright feasting on Subway Sandwiches.  We were all passionate about this music and thus put up with these conditions for the privilege of throwing down the funk night after night.
The dedication translated slowly but surely into a solid national following on the club and festival level with die hard fans calling themselves the “Garaj Mahalics”.      Fareed  and Eric lived in Chicago and Alan and myself in the SF Bay Area.  We could never rehearse and so we developed the ability to do that in the van on the way to the gig.   We would write  a tune and in our minds, rehearse it by singing and tapping, and perform it live the following night.    Later on we crammed instruments into the van.  Levy with his Casio keyboard (killin’!) Haque with his acoustic guitar, Hertz with his sticks and me with the pignose battery powered mini amp. 

We soon developed a knack for funny tunes with corky lyrics and strange raps.  Those where largely born out of the delirious state of mind we reached after spending so much time in a crammed space moving at 60 miles an hour day after day after day.    Luckily our fans liked the funny side of Garaj Mahal as much as the sophisticated music we were earnestly trying to develop.    Any serious jazz aficionado would reach a moment of “WTF” listening to our songs that could suddenly take a “left” and go into the band chanting “poodle poodle factory, poodle poodle factory, poodle factory, poodle factory…a case of South Indian Rhythms adapted to Alan Hertz’s wits.  Our success started to modestly increase and soon there was a demand for Garaj Mahal at festivals all over the nation.   We were able to by a nice vehicle, a Chevy Express V8 3500 second hand  from Enterprise.  She was a beast.  Reliable, powerful and lily white like a rustic German female.  We named her “Heidi” and she would be with us for the next 300 000 miles.

 

                                                                                                Oakland, CA 6:30 am flight out. t_and_heidi

                                                     Theresa Reed-Hayle.  "Mother of Garaj Mahal" and longest standing  manager. Beginning of the tour. .  

                                                                 
Usually Hertz and I would fly to the location of the first gig, in example Chicago and Fareed would pick us up.   Traditionally I would leave my house in Berkeley at 4 am to catch the airporter to SFO where I would meet Alan and later Eric who eventually moved to the Bay Area.   Most of the time we were still up from the night before, a combination of staying up late and packing for the road. By the time we’d get to our destination we had caught a nap on the plane and were ready for the day.

                                                                                 Our lunch on the road very often was this:

 

                                                                         subway

 

We used to joke about getting an endorsement from Subway Sandwiches.  That could have saved us.  But we were to busy eating the sandwiches and had no time for schmoozing with corporate reps.   Rush hour awaits.  Here the typical scenario rolling into Chicago on a Wendnesday afternoon.

 

                  chigaco trafficheidi in snow

                     Rolling into Chicago on a Wednesday Afternoon...                               ...or  rolling through the Rockies during  the Winter time. 

                    On occasion we would see amazing things as we rolled into the city.  Here is a lucky snapshot of a man downtown Chicago who had a special                         love affair with street pigeons. This photograph was later immortalized on the cover of “Woot”

                                                                     pigeons

 

                                                                       cables

Setting up the stage was not an easy undertaking as many inputs and outputs had to be carefully wired.  Pictured here: Eric Levy’s old school setup back in the day before he went “digital”. 

 

                                                                              hertz setting up

 

                                                                                                   Setting up the gear for soundcheck

 

                                                                                fans

                                      

                                                                                                               Mission accomplished. 

                                                                                   hi fives            

                                                                                                                 

                                                                   
 Eric Levy after the show rolling up cables and having a snack with Master P. who was Eric's cousin Paul, Garaj Mahal's manager after Theresa. 

Heidi and I had a special bond.  At the time my second child was born and the economic pressures increased significantly.   As a way to earn extra money I was put in charge of the load in and load out.  Everybody in the band helped with schlepping gear as we could not afford roadies.  Our contract specified two loaders present at the venue.  They were not always there, especially at 2 am after the show.  I got myself a brace for my spine and got the job done.   During that time I became known as the “Tetris Master”.   Hertz was also great at tetris and sometimes took over the job.  We had so much gear to fit into the back of Heidi that loading the van became a game of “Tetris”.   It was always the hardest time of the day for us because we were  tired from playing the show and fans would often hang around trying to involve us in small talk while we were busting our  backs to get this gear loaded.   It was also prime time for drunks to get a piece of the action.   We had a whole system of watching the gear as it was piled up in the street while, idiot checking the stage for stuff left behind.  Loading  was an unglamorous contrast to our glorious  stage personalities. During that time I came to respect the hard work roadies do.   I am glad my spine is still holding up as I write these words.    

                     We were both!   A successful a Jamband:                                                                         And a successful  Jazz quartet!

        

                                                                                                                                   

                                                   

                                            We were no primadonnas.  This is me doing my job @ 2:30 am somewhere in the US of A. 

              tetris_emptytetris_full

 . 

                                      

                                            We loved our job so much,  we kept it going after the work was done:  Garaj jamming at the Hotel after hours. 

                                                                 payday

            At the end of a tour it was time to get paid!  Anybody got  receipts from expenses?  After a few hours of sleep off we went to the next city.                                Somebody had to keep 'em honest like Anderson Cooper.  Thank you Theresa!


v

  A change and a new direction: 

 Garaj Mahal’s music developed over the years from looser jams to elaborate compositions put together with a lot of thought and care.  We always stretched out live, but there is a real evolution in our music from the first to the last record. But as much as the music evolved the touring was always a real challenge throughout the Bush/Cheney years.    Venues and festivals struggled to stay in business.  The enthusiasm of the fans and joy of playing music made up for it.  But the chronic  grind of the touring took its toll.   With conditions just a notch up from where we were it could have worked for many more years.   Band members began to look else where for supplemental income as children grew up at home and the demand for survival cash steadily increased.  After Kit Walker in the early days it was was drummer Alan Hertz who left the combo after recieving  an offer to tour with Scott Hendersen on a regular basis.  Good steady money and a higher level of touring was offered.   Alan was ready for a new direction in his life and there were even rumours of KVHW returning.
My old friend and colleague Sean Rickman at the time stepped in subbing for Alan and then ultimately took over the drum chair in the band.  There were new possibilities as Sean was an excellent drummer and superb vocalist alike.  

 

                                                                 garaj with sean

                                                                                 Garaj Mahal with Sean “the Rick” Rickman

As our sound changed our fan base punished us at first which was somewhat expected and understandable given the fact that Alan was loved by the jam band hippies much before any of us other players came onto the scene.   We also changed booking agents and lost a good portion of our old market, especially the South.  On the other hand we gained new fans and developed a stronger presence in the jazz scene such as the Blue Note in NYC or San Francisco Jazz Festival.   It took us a few years to get back on track and finally the ball was rolling again. 

                                                                     blue note

                                                                             Garaj Mahal at the Blue Note in New York City 2010

 

Fareed Haque was always a very active and strong personality and like all members in Garaj Mahal,  his life came under pressure stretching him thin across a full time University job, a couple of solo projects and increasing family responsibilities.  This ultimately lead to his departure at the end of 2010.  As we knew he was irreplaceable,  Sean, Eric and myself concentrated on developing a new sound rendering  Garaj Mahal a Trio instead of replacing Fareed with another guitar player.  We understood that our fans may not accept the change in personnel and therefore we decided to rehearse a new set and clean up our act with a new studio recording, booking agent and publicity team.  I invested thousands of dollars out of pocket into the transition and we had all our ducks in a row ready to roll.  And then it all came apart at the seams.

After the New Years show 2010/11 in Ymir, BC near Nelson the trio crossed the US at Nelway into Spokane.   5 minutes after midnight a gust of wind hit the back of Heidi (our Chevy Express loaded with gear) sending us into a 360 spin on black ice, off the road and down a hill towards the tree line….with me behind the wheel. We came to an abrupt halt in a snow bank unharmed.  But the rear window was blown out and the roof damaged.  The temperature was 15 degrees Fahrenheit outside and we waited for 3 ½ hours tilted at a 45 degree angle for rescue.  

 

                                                                                 Heidi  would never make it home.  Luckily we did.

  

                                                                   wipeout

 

It took the tow truck another hour to get us out of the ditch and we were able to drive without window into Spokane.  The next day Heidi died on the way to Seattle as her engine seized up due to a hidden oil leak caused by the crash.  We were towed by AAA 100 miles into Bellevue, Washington where Heidi was pronounced dead.  We moved our gear into a rental van and drove to San Francisco non-stop in 15 hours leaving 8:30 pm and arriving at noon in the Bay Area.  

                                                                                               The sun is about to  sets on us

                                                               

     

At that point I had taken over the road management plus accounting for the band after Fareed left.   I  paid out every one’s salaries except my own which went into paying for the rental van, a missed flight for Sean to DC and the hotel expenses while we were in limbo.  My family was glad to see me alive and un- injured, but I came home penniless, starting the New year with no salary.  It was imperative for us to start working right away as the new trio which ended up not quite happening.   Eric Levy received an offer from the famous rock band Night ranger he could not refuse.  If I were in his shoes I would have taken the gig  too at that point.  Thus I never gave him a hard time about it.  Sean and I were troopers.  We were going to keep Garaj going without Eric, and Eric Levy gave us his blessings.  And so we did. We found an awesome keyboard player from Cairo/ Egypt who was about to move to the States, holding and American passport.  His name is Osam Ezzeldin and he had won a full scholarship to Berklee College of music which ultimately earned him his citizenship. 
Before rehearsing with Osam we decided to go to Germany to make a little money and keep the Garaj open.  My old friend Torsten de Winkel from Germany is an excellent guitarist who was in Pat Metheny’s band for a while.  He learned the Garaj Mahal music in 2 weeks and played the shit out of our tunes.  We had two guests with us at one of the shows: German Iranian vocalist Amy Zahedi and Frankfurt based guitarist and producer Mike Burn. 
Those shows where the last concerts Garaj Mahal would ever play.

 

                                                                  garaj with torsten

                                                                          
                                                                  The  last incarnation  with the Rick, Kai and  Torsten de Winkel,

                                                                                                


There are some videos of this band on youtube to be found here: 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ay3PWtA9ksA
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYZBrlhLOjU&feature=related

Of course it was not our intention to quit, but as fate decided, Sean Rickman was recruited into “Tribute to Miles” featuring Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.  I could not contest against all those masters and the opportunity for Sean to get on the map in a major way.  And so once again I took the back seat and said my prayers for my own survival.    Sean was keen on Garaj Mahal continuing after his interlude with Marcus Miller’s project, but when we began to discuss details it became clear that there was not enough common ground between us to make it work.   Sean had strong ideas about a unifying concept around vocals and a specific style while I hung on to the principle of equality and the right of every member to choose what to write and what to play.   I gave Sean's idea a fair consideration but ultimately there was not enough personal incentive for me to keep going.  I had sunk thousands of dollars into garaj mahal to make the transition as well as taking over the job of accountant and road manager.   Taxes alone were 15-20 hours of work for 2010.   I was not going to continue to put that much effort into a band without having my core values and ideas represented in a proportionate way.    I spoke to Eric Levy about this who was already in Nightranger at the time.    Eric tried to mediate a bit to no avail.   That was the end of the story. 
When the reality kicked in,  I felt down and out like an old used rag.   My wife saw me go through the changes and she remarked that it was like seeing me go through a  divorce.  A marriage of 11 years has ended.  I tried one more time to convince Sean to go for the equality and he came back with a second  idea of starting a whole new band with a different name.  I just couldn’t do it at that time.  I felt like my dog just died and I couldn’t  run to the store to get another puppy.  There is some pain involved here.  But there is also a positive lesson.   Fareed, Eric, Alan and Sean will all interpret this lesson in their own way over time and they will have their own version of this story to tell.  All the conflict boils down to economics and touring conditions and what it does to a person over time.   People who have an easy life don't get that. They don't understand the privilege.  We payed a price for our freedom to remain creative.   

Ok that's all folks. 
Now it's time to lay this baby to rest…. like  frozen dead guy  in Nederland or better: the phoenix bird who’s tears will heal the sick, 
...should it ever rise again from the ashes.   
                                                                                                         

                                                                 

                                                                          It's been a tremendous ride, an honor and a privilege.

                                                                                                                           My journey continues  here

                                                                            aufwiedersehen    

                                                                                                 Garaj Mahal  8/14/2011

             

 

                                                                                  

  Site Meter