By Jim Murphy
Published: November 9, 1995
Call it karma or chalk it up to sheer luck, but things have a way of working out for Stephan Mikes. For example: Ten years ago, while he was living in Jupiter, Florida, Mikes paid $300 for a secondhand sitar, then shelled out a few extra bucks for a beginner's instruction book. It was the fulfillment of a desire that had been sparked two decades earlier when Mikes first became aware of the sitar through the East-meets-West musical experiments of such bands as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Yardbirds. "They were using it kind of as an effect, but it was enough to grab me as a teenager," notes Mikes, who has played an assortment of instruments in rock bands dating back to the Sixties. "I've always had an affinity for playing lots of different things. I got a hunch I could do it."
Keep in mind, the sitar is an incredibly complicated instrument, with nineteen strings, sliding frets for endless tuning variations, and a tonality that's based on a completely different scale than that of Western music. Even the physical dimensions of the sitar are sufficiently intimidating to scare off most neophytes. Measuring about four feet in length, the instrument can be properly played only when the musician is seated -- often for hours at a time -- in a half-lotus position, an extremely demanding posture that requires considerable flexibility. Yeah, whatever, figured Mikes, who took his newly acquired sitar and started plinking out what he knew best -- blues scales. "I thought I was doing fine that first week," he recalls, "and having a blast."
Here's where the karma kicked in. Three weeks later, as Mikes was sitting in a meditation class, in walked none other than Roop Verma, a master sitarist who studied under legendary Indian musicians Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan (remember, this is all taking place in Jupiter). Verma noticed a sitar propped against a wall and asked who it belonged to. "I said, 'It's mine,'" recounts Mikes, "and from that moment on we were hooked up."
Verma went ballistic the first time he heard Mikes's blues-inspired noodlings, but agreed to provide the aspiring sitarist with classical instruction in return for recording time in a small eight-track studio Mikes had set up in his house. It was a win-win situation: Verma got to record four albums' worth of material; Mikes, after four years of intensive training A "It took me two years just to learn how to tune [the sitar] properly," he points out -- became proficient enough with the instrument to make a living from it.
Indeed, Mikes, who moved to Miami in 1992, is, as can best be determined, South Florida's only professional sitarist (which means he makes enough money through performances and recordings to support himself, his wife, and their two-year-old daughter). In addition to appearances in predictable places such as ethnic restaurants, coffeehouses, and bookstores, Mikes has wielded his sitar in such unlikely spots as the rock dive Churchill's Hideaway in Little Haiti, trendoid dance clubs on South Beach, and, improbably enough, at local conventions and home shows. "Somebody said, 'Oh, you should check this out, they're looking for music,'" Mikes explains of how he lined up his first home-show gig. "I was really dubious, but I called the guy up and he was interested. We did the first one, and it just blew me away." How's this for good karma? In his first appearance at the South Florida Home Show, Mikes sold close to 150 cassettes. "This is, like, real Middle America-type stuff," he observes of the home-show crowd. "And they liked it."
Middle America, schmiddle America. The fact is, by playing an instrument that developed well outside the melodic boundaries of Western music, Mikes may be the ultimate crossover artist. For proof, look no further than his third and most recent release, The Good, the Bad and the Karmic, on which Mikes successfully fuses the sitar's distinctive sound and winding Eastern melodies with a wide range of musical styles. "Medium Rara" builds upon Haitian Vodou drums; "Andean Dub" incorporates a strong reggae pulse; and several cuts are rooted in Afro-Cuban rhythms. The name of the album derives from the fact that, as Mikes explains, when panpipes and a moody synth announce the title track, "the image we had was, like, a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western."
Despite such humorous overtones, Mikes -- who converted to Hinduism around the same time he started playing the sitar -- is careful to note that the instrument has serious spiritual implications. "[Playing the sitar] is actually a meditation," he observes. "When you're in training you're practicing like seven days a week, eight or ten hours a day, so it's a spiritual practice just doing scales." So Mikes is especially wary of what he calls "the cheese factor" when he in blends various musical styles with the sound of the sitar. "People may misunderstand to a certain extent because they see me doing things like this, and if they're coming from a very spiritual place, they may think it's blasphemous," he says. "But that's the chance you take. Every form of music is a combination of things that come from other places."
While he prefers to fashion world music hybrids, Mikes is also adept at playing ragas -- meditative, improvised pieces traditionally associated with the sitar that can last up to two hours. But dogma is simply not in the classically trained musician's repertoire. "Take what you want out of it," Mikes shrugs. "This is my philosophy. You can use it as background, or if you really want to get deep into it, the levels are there. Of course, the feedback I get from the people who buy the albums are a wide range of remarks: From 'Gee, it's real relaxing background music,' to 'Wow, man, I did some 'shrooms the other night and got into it real heavy.'"
Considering all of the styles in which Mikes has dabbled, there is one glaring exception, which may be explained by Verma's initial reaction to Mikes's fumbled audition a decade ago. "The blues is one I haven't done yet," he admits. "But I've experimented with it, so probably I'll have a blues piece on the next album." It figures. With Mikes, what goes around comes around.
Stephan Mikes performs from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. at CocoWalk, 3015 Grand Ave, Coconut Grove, every Sunday in November.