The Rocks Off 100: Tyagaraja, Truly Mystical Musician

Welcome to the Rocks Off 100, our portrait gallery of the most compelling profiles and personalities in the far-flung Houston music community -- a lot more than just musicians, but of course they're in there too.

Who? Not all that many musicians around here aspire to live like monks, but Tyagaraja (nee Jonathan Welch) does. "I'm studying under a very serious path that comes from a Himalayan monk tradition dating back to 500 B.C., and my music has never been better," he says.

Tyagaraja, whose mystical folk-rock is in full bloom on this year's As Is, traces his interest in music back to his songwriter father ("an amazing lyricist") and also someone who was fundamental to a lot of people's early musical education.

"Really, my first love was Michael Jackson," he says. "I thought I was Michael. My mom bought me a little white suit coat for Easter one year, and I found a sparkly glove in her closet and that was it. I become Michael Jackson for the next several years. Even now when I need something more delicate and sexy on my voice, I just put 'A little more MJ on it please.'"

Nevertheless, Tyagaraja says he's never been compelled to perform other people's songs. After his band Million Year Dance won Album of the Year at the 2007 Houston Press Music Awards and split up shortly thereafter, he delved even deeper into the Eastern philosophy that always been interested him and became a certified yoga instructor. His mentor Sri Karunamayi (an "Indian divine-mother type") rechristened him Tyagaraja, "which I view as a mountain to climb," he says.

Home Base: "My home base for performances has been off and on," he says. "Khon's has always been very good to me and homey feeling. And I've always had good feelings at Cactus for intimate in-store performances. But honestly, I've never really felt at home there. I need a proper theater to do what I really want to do."

Good War Story: "Oh, I have lots of war stories," Tyajaraja says, but he'd rather teach a lesson.

"I think anyone that chooses this as a profession should be ready for battle," he opens. "But even moreso, there is a Dharmic warfare going on right now. You can see it very clearly, and it has been that way from the beginning of time.

He means a "war on resources," and continues: "We have companies like Monsanto creating poisons and making it harder and harder for organic farming, indigenous culture, and general healthy living to exist," he says. "That's my battle at the present moment - way more important than music..."

Why Do You Stay In Houston? "Honestly I don't know why I stay in Houston," Tyagaraja admits. "I've even tried to get a way several times and keep getting pulled back there. We [he and his wife] now know so many people and have so many quality friends that it is hard to truly get away. Even now we live in Austin and I feel like we are in Houston 75 percent of the time," either playing shows or having meetings, he adds.

"It's quite a livable place."

Music Scene Pet Peeve: Tyagaraja is reluctant to name a peeve, and instead encourages everyone in the music community to stick together.

"If anything, if there are problems we should look at them as a community seriously, instead of complaining about it and never taking action," he says. "I would mainly say that the biggest problem with the Houston music scene is not the scene, it's the culture, and the audience that needs to adapt and finally realize that Houston is a place where fine art, music, dance, and many other forms of art exist.

"The scene needs more support from the city and the audiences," he continues. "And that is growing but it's going to take time...

Five Desert Island Discs:

"Off the top of my head," he cautions.

  • Anything by Abda Parveen (Sufi singer)
  • Pandit Jasraj (classical Hindustani singer)
  • Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon
  • Tibetan Mantra Chanting
  • Tool, 10,000 Days

Best Concert You Ever Saw: "Hmmm... wow..." stalls Tyagaraja. "It would have to be my Hindustani vocal teacher's concert. His name is Pandit Suman Ghosh, he lives in Houston [and is] one of the most amazing Indian vocalists in the world. Beyonce has nothing on this guy."

First Song You Fell In Love With: "That caused me to want to write music and put on my own performances was 'Comfortably Numb' by Pink Floyd," he says. "When I saw that movie [Pink Floyd The Wall] and heard that song I thought, 'If music and art can be like this, I want to be a part of it.'"

Tyagaraja and Benjamin Wesley perform at 7 p.m. tonight at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, www.mcgonigels.com.

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