Swiss-Canadian multi-intrumentalist Kalyan Mitto shares his insights and love for music on a summer day in Corfu.
I pick up Kalyan Mitto (I think of him always with his full sannyas name) at the Corfu Buddha Hall where we had just enjoyed the singing group by Deva Premal and Miten, and head to my favourite coffee shop with the view over the beach of Arillas to one side and that of Agios Stefanos to the other. The wind blows the awnings and shifts the shadows of the sun on our table.
I first met Kalyan in 1981 when the Pune Ashram had just closed and the Osho commune in Zurich started expanding at a supersonic rate, taking up all the flats, even his, of the four-storey house at Limmatstrasse 123. However, I do not remember him as a musician at that time.
“I was in our commune band. Maybe I was hiding a bit behind the bass guitar, but music has always been in my life,” Kalyan assures me. “When another bass player who I thought was better than me joined the band, I started to play the flute; when a flute player came I moved on to another instrument, I do not remember which…”
Kalyan’s music studies started at an early age, at 7 with the recorder, then the cello from age 8-17. From one day to the other he locked his cello in a cupboard, dropped out of school, bought himself an electric guitar and went to work on a farm for a year to the loud protests of his parents. He eventually agreed to finish his studies and take his baccalaureate under the condition that he could have his own flat. At age 18 he had already met a sannyasin during a Rebirthing group and was struck by her shiny eyes; and now the owner of his flat became also a sannyasin. Eventually, at age 22, he took sannyas. He says he feels very lucky to have found Osho at this time because he was longing for a satisfactory direction in life.
The way music and in particular classical music was taught, brought him to desperation. It felt like being in a straightjacket. Moreover, when he played his own improvisations at home, he was stopped by his mother with exclamations like: “How dare you! You cannot play like this!”
In 1987 he left his tedious job at a bank, pocketed his savings and moved to Pune. He studied psychic massage with Sagarpriya – and played the bass in Buddha Hall. There were other, probably more professional, bass players around but Milarepa and Miten often asked him to step in. Asked why they invited him, they said: “You have ‘something’ in the sound and feel…” This made him reflect and step out of his innate lack of self-confidence.
“I decided that Music was going to be my future, whatever the cost. Osho’s insistence to go for what we want, against all odds and against all judgements has given me the courage to take this step – I felt that Music for me was inescapable! After I had taken that decision even money came my way unexpectedly and I was relieved from all worries about what I should learn to make a decent living.
“When Pramada (Mike Edwards) turned up with his cello I discovered that there were more ways to play this instrument. I asked him to give me some lessons, bought his travel cello off him (I still have it) and locked myself in my room. I started my very own deconditioning process, ‘unlearning’ my old playing habits, carefully analysing my posture to regain the flow in my right arm and body. I did this for 5-6 hours a day for months and often I would just play one note…
“At that time also the rudraveena came into my life. Osho often said that it is the most meditative instrument. It is a very quiet instrument; not loud, but you can hear the deep sounds in the gourd which is right next to your ear. So many overtones! With these instruments I learned to listen and through listening I learned to allow myself to go deeper and deeper into sound. Each sound has the possibility of infinite expansion. It was an almost scary discovery! And more and more I came to experience what invites these moments of infinite listening and depths. This is the basis of what I do and what I teach now.”
Clearing the Past
It appears that all past hurts have come to appeasement through an event which was organised by his family for the 80th birthday of his mother. To honour her artistic work the siblings organised an exhibition of her paintings (being a ‘mother’ she never had the opportunity to show her creativity in public) and Kalyan was going to play the cello: a musical interpretation for each individual painting. While he played, the paintings were presented to the audience by dancers, one by one showing them off in the lights. During this performance his mother understood what Kalyan’s music was all about – she could relate his improvisations to her own visual experiences. And the appreciation from the public about the musical interpretation, which was related directly to her, sealed her understanding.
With tears rolling down both our cheeks at this beautiful anecdote, he added, “My understanding is that what hurts you the most is where your real strength lies.”
The Void is Scary
While playing for the evening meditation with Kalyan the other night I noticed that he was carefully listening to the sound of my seed-pods, feeling their rhythm and the little accents I gave them. As a percussionist I always felt that I was just filling in the gaps, like adding spice here and there – but had never experienced that I was giving a contribution to which the solo instrument wanted to tune in.
“The way I play is that I allow myself to be empty first, no thinking, like sitting in front of a tabula rasa. I become just a presence, utterly sensitive, 100% connected, just listening – and in the playing I give myself total freedom (any scale, anything is possible). It feels a bit like channelling, as if the emerging music has little to do with me. It is fascinating to see when another intelligence takes over, an intelligence with tremendous clarity – I try to integrate this also in my day to day life.
“But to sit in front of 100 people and not knowing what I will play next is scary. If a ‘wrong’ note comes, maybe a bit out of tune, I have to watch that I am not put off by it but to use it as part of the spontaneous composition. Yes, it is scary! One feels like a tightrope walker, the void is just beneath! I like to play various instruments; it feels fresh when I pick up a new instrument or one I have not played for a while. It is interesting to get to know the personality of each one. I like to dance with all of them, but the ones I know technically best are: cello, guitar and recorder.”
When he added that “Afterwards I mostly do not remember what I have played,” I quipped: “A bit like after a discourse by Osho. You are sure you have been attentive to each single word, but if someone asks you afterwards what Osho had talked about, you do not remember a word…”
Sharing Songs and Silence
I was also surprised that he had sung during the Evening Meditation, so I asked him when he had discovered his voice.
“For many years I have been playing as an instrumentalist on my own. Things changed when I was asked to play at a friend’s death celebration. I felt that it could not be just a concert; I wanted to include all of her friends. I picked up the guitar (it is the ideal instrument for a social event, joining harmony and rhythm) and we sang for her.”
When Punam came into his life, a singer and pianist with whom he spent seven years together, they created two CDs. And more singing opportunities arose, so much so that – at popular request – for the last 6 years he has been organising Singing Celebrations at his studio in Quebec and surroundings.
“First it was every two months, then once a month, and now I offer a Singing Celebration every two weeks for 30 – 50 people. Last year I played in 40 events and concerts – I surprised myself! I have a huge repertoire of songs, but I am not so concerned about what we are singing. What I am interested in is to convey the ‘listening quality’ and ‘musical sensitivity’. On the other hand, I must admit that the mantras which are very popular because of their exotic flavour are very powerful, so I also choose them. Then I teach beginners as well as traditionally trained professional musicians how to listen and how to be more loose in their performance.”
Kalyan pulls a CD from his bag and puts it on the table, his Masterpiece: ‘Soulweaver’ by Kalyan – it has a silver sticker on the front: “Finalist Visionary Awards” (www.covr.net) and the Malimba Records logo on the back.
The Next Step: Ready to Come Out
When I ask him about the future he says: “I think I am ready to come out of my hiding in Canada and play in Europe, too. It is now easier to accept recognition as I am not as shy as I used to be. Maybe Germany would be a good place for me and my work. I love to share through the intimacy of music. I would give concerts and Listening Workshops – listening is such a wonderful way of participating in existence…”
After having dropped Kalyan off and come home I switch on my keyboard, punch those knobs I had never dared to and play “One breath” at the rhythm of the samba. “I am allowed to do what I want! I can even change the words and the notes. So much freedom!” Thank you, Kalyan. Talking to you has been such a great gift for me.
You can see Kalyan play on YouTube
Touch the Sound: Concert and Singing Celebration with Kalyan Mitto and François Taillefer, percussion, on December 7th 2009
First fundraising concert in his studio in Canada for the Jhuni appeal initiated by his musician friend Chinmaya