Interview by Scott Preston
Although many Westerners have been fascinated by the sitar, Stephan Mikes one of the few who have undergone the years of rigorous one-on-one training in classical Indian music necessary to do justice to this ancient instrument. As a primary student of sitar master Roop Verma, Stephan is part of a teaching lineage that goes back over 600 years and includes Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. He combines his knowledge of Eastern music with the influence of Latin, Middle Eastern, Afro-Cuban, and Carribean rhythms to create compositions which are unique and compelling. In addition to the sitar, Mikes proficient on guitar, zither, mandolin, lap steel guitar and various types of synthesizers.
Since 1986, Stephan has been performing and perfecting his own distinctive technique on the sitar. He has released four highly-acclaimed CDs of his modern original compositions on the independent Akasha label; Before You See, The Good, the Bad and the Karmic, Dakini Beach and Secret Songs of the Sitar Player. He also has five specialty albums; Twilight: Evening Ragas, Sitar Christmas, Jewel of the Lotus: Sitar Meditations, Sounds of the Surbahar and East Meets South. Putumayo Records included Medium Rara from The Good, the Bad and the Karmic on their 1996 international release, Putumayo Presents: A World Instrumental Collection.
One of the few world music artists to transcend traditional boundaries, Stephan Mikes performs for a wide variety of events. He performed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and in Boston at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts for fundraisers sponsored by Giorgio Armani. In August 1996, Mikes played for former President Clinton’s 50th Birthday Celebration, connected via satellite from the Biltmore in Coral Gables. Most recently, Stephan has enjoyed enormous success as a featured musician for many top-rated art festivals throughout Florida and the U.S. (source – stephanmikes.com)
Cincy Groove: How was your experience at Spring Hookahville last year?
Stephan Mikes: I didn’t know what to expect going in, but it turned out really nice. People seemed to get off on it, I was wondering how they were going to react (to the sitar). I got to sit in with some great bands which turned out great. This Spring Hookahville will be kind of the same except it will be a little bigger and better. There will be the same setup with the side stage tent. I think I’m going to get together with ekoostik hookah beforehand to work some things out. What we did last year was totally off the cuff. Literally put together about an hour before their set. I’m really looking forward to it, its going to be fun.
Cincy Groove: What led you to start playing the sitar?
Stephan Mikes: Ultimately, it was because of George Harrison like many other people. I always liked the Beatles stuff and I started out playing guitar and playing Beatles songs. When I actually started playing the sitar I met this sitar master and dove right into the study of Indian classical music. I really ended up going all the way with it.
Cincy Groove: Who were some of your early influences?
Stephan Mikes: Well of course The Beatles, early on there was Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service which was a great band from the 1960’s from San Francisco. They were really a big influence, was really into them. Then later on a lot of folks from the jamband scene. Then of course everybody in Indian classical music. Living here in Miami I get a lot of influences from all the rhythmic cultures, Afro-Cuban, Jamaican. The Haitian rhythmic culture is insane, a very big improvisational system that they have. That all led me to a lot of the fusion stuff that I play today.
Cincy Groove: Do you have any favorite collaborations?
Stephan Mikes: My favorite thing I have done, I think its out of print right now, was this project with Bobby Thomas Jr who is the percussionist with Weather Report. The group was kind of an acoustic improv trio with a dobro slide guitar, sitar and clay pot drum. I think there’s a cut on my website, it’s called “When East Meets South”. It’s really one of the favorite things I have ever done and I hope we can get the group together again and go on tour with those guys.
Cincy Groove: Do you usually tour by yourself or do you have a group of that plays with you?
Stephan Mikes: It all depends, for instance last year at hookahville I brought a guitar player with me. Right now its in the works on how much of a budget hookahville is going to have to see how many guys I can bring up with me. I’m hoping to have a band for my last set at hookahville. I also just brought back a new instrument from India on my last trip there. Its kind of a hybrid sitar with a Stratocaster body. Its pretty insane.
Cincy Groove: What other instruments do you play?
Stephan Mikes: When I composing music I like to play sitar, bass, a little percussion. When I play guitar I like to play slide guitar these days. I also like to play a little mandolin.
Cincy Groove: Are there any newer bands that impress you?
Stephan Mikes: There are so many great bands in the jam scene today. Thats why I like doing some of these shows like hookahville. I like Umphreys McGee, The Macpodz who are a great band from Ann Arbor, MI. There’s a good chance I might sit in with them on a song.
Cincy Groove: It seems you led yourself very well to the jamband scene, because there is so much improvisation.
Stephan Mikes: I was reading this book, it was about the exposure of western musicians to eastern music. There is this quote from Mickey Hart, he said “Without Ravi Shankar and Indian music there would be no jamband scene as we know it, because it was the beginning of everything we did.” I always kind of thought there was this parallel there between the improvisational qualities of Indian music and what is happening in the jam scene today.