Earlier this summer, in a conversation about local music and musicians, a friend told me she plays keyboards for a singer who sounds like “a cross between Jeff Buckley and Freddie Mercury.” And I, being tired, irritable and of unsound mind, barked back, “He better be DAMN good! Cos’ those are two of my favorite vocalists. I saw Jeff Buckley twice in New Orleans and…” blah, blah, blah (Editor’s note: Insert self-righteous rock-crit blather here).
The singer my friend was describing is named Tyagaraja (pronounced: “tee-aga-raja”). And as I heard first hand this summer at Julydoscope, an event where he and his band performed an inspiring and enthusiastically received set, the singer does indeed have a special voice, a powerful voice. But just as nobody else sounds like Jeff Buckley, who during his short life was compared to Robert Plant, Liz Fraser and Edith Piaf, nobody sounds like Tyagaraja. He sounds like himself.
From onstage at Julydoscope, Tyagaraja, aka Jonathan Welch, told the audience he grew up in Hutto, a small rural town in Texas. Shortly after the end of his first marriage and his previous band, Million Year Dance, he experienced a crisis and awakening that would lead him to the culture and spiritual practices of the Far East, specifically India, a world away from the small town where he was born.
Tyagaraja doesn't presume to have answers to life's deeper mysteries, but is willing to share his experiences, including his mistakes, and what he believes he has learned thus far. All of this is incorporated into his music and its presentation.
Tyagaraja's on- and off-stage clothes, hairstyle and bindi-decorated forehead are all part of a physical costume (for lack of a better word) that speaks to his profound inner transformation. He doesn't presume to have answers to life's deeper mysteries, but is willing to share his experiences, including his mistakes, and what he believes he has learned thus far. All of this is incorporated into his music and its presentation.
Rock and roll has a long history of embracing indigenous spiritual rituals in the context of live performances, especially music festivals. My first and only Lollapalooza concert circa Check Your Head-era Beastie Boys began with an onstage prayer and blessing by a group of Tibetan monks. Writing about the influence Rastafarianism on dub “sound system” performances, author Michael Veal describes a similar manifestation of the spiritual and the Bacchanalian in 1960s era rock festivals. He writes:
…for every high-intensity amplification system used, there was also an Indian spiritual guru, African traditional drummer, or Native American rain chant..." Tyagaraja and his band are carrying on this tradition in their own contemporary and uniquely Texan way.
A spiritual journey
So how did this alienated self-described “theater nerd” from Hutto begin his spiritual journey?
Tyagaraja says that his training as a yoga instructor led him to explore the roots of that practice. The well-loved 1946 book Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda was, as it has been for many Westerners, an early source for information and inspiration.
“Nothing externally pushed me…,” Tyagaraja says. “Just this inward desire to become a part of the oneness.”
"In 2007 I went to India and stayed for a two-week silent meditation retreat," he explains. "Then I traveled for three months as part of [Indian spiritual leader] Amma Sri Karunamayi's U.S. tour. I did the tour again in 2008. It was really intense work, basically like a spiritual roadie. We were loading in and out of vans every day, 16 to 18 hours of work each day... it was a very militant lifestyle."
Tyagaraja recounts much of that leg of the journey on his blog, where he also provides a lot of practical, down to earth advice for gigging and touring musicians.
During the first tour, Tyaga met his soulmate and now wife, Indian classical dancer Gunjen Mittal. A member of Houston’s Avantica Academy of Odissi Dance, she often appears with him in performance, dancing, and giving a provocative spin to his blues and Southern-rock inspired music.
After this grueling period of dharmic grunt work, Amma Sri Karunamayi gave Jonathan Welch a new name, which is not an uncommon way of acknowledging the personal and spiritual transformation a student has experienced. The word "tyagaraja" combines the Sanskrit word “tyaga,” meaning sacrifice, with “raja,” which means king, and is also the name of a well known 18th and 19th-century South Indian composer who in his lifetime wrote thousands of devotional songs.
Calling Texas home
And yet, after all of his international traveling, Tyagaraja has chosen Texas and the cities of Austin and Houston for his home. He and I agree that Houston’s multicultural make up, the diversity of its residents including a large Indian population, which perhaps isn’t apparent unless you’ve visited and lived in this city, is one of its strongest attributes.
“As a person who continually seeks culture and knowledge of any kind of origin,” says Tyagaraja. “I really need that (diversity) in order to thrive.”
Tyagaraja’s band consists of a core ensemble augmented by several guest musicians from Houston’s indie-rock, Indian and blues communities, including violinist Hilary Sloan, guitarist Keegan Daleo, sitarist Aaron Hermes, drummer David Garcia, keyboardist Jeremy Nuncio, and bassist Mike Poulos.
Tyagaraja’s father Michael Don Welch, who lives and plays in Austin, holds down lead and rhythm guitar duties. He plays with a distinctive and deep tone, providing some scorching lead lines and solos to the music. These players and many more appear on Tyagaraja’s most recent recording Open Book which is available for streaming and purchase on Bandcamp.
In early November, Tyagaraja will curate a special weekend Art Music Life festival, presenting music, yoga, healthy eating classes, and opportunities for social activism. A tour of India will follow after that event through January 2012. For that tour, Tyagaraja and Mittal plan to collaborate with a group of music teachers in Pune to present music, dance and performance art throughout metropolitan India.
Tyagaraja's previous India tour included performances in Pune, Bangalore, Rishikesh and Delhi. A Kickstarter campaign to help with that tour is in the planning stages. Until that campaign is up and running, you can contact Tyagaraja through his website for more information about the India tour or the October Art Music Life Festival.
“Everything is on the website,” says Tyagaraja, referring not only to upcoming projects but to the story of his own spiritual journey. Just like his voice, his journey is his own; it’s not necessarily a blueprint for anyone else looking similarly to leave a small town and perhaps, in the words of Van Morrison, “sail into the mystic…”
But that doesn’t mean his story isn’t inspiring or at least interesting. “I don’t try to push my teacher stuff on anybody,” he says. “I think people should find their own teacher.”