The year is 1971. A 15-year-old boy in Germany chances upon a telecast of The Concert for Bangladesh, taking place at Madison Square Garden in the United States. Despite the chaos of the day, so palpable even through the airwaves, this teenager senses a deep calm when Pandit Ravi Shankar and his band of musicians take the stage. At their own pace, not hassled by the energy of the audience, they tune their instruments. And then they start to play.
“This influenced not only me but thousands and thousands around the globe, in a way that we wanted to see India, where all this came from,” says the boy, now 62, and on a sofa at his residence in the diplomatic enclave of central Delhi. This is Walter J. Lindner, the pony-tailed German Ambassador to India.
After that concert, he had two impulses: one to stay with music, the other to visit India. He went on to train at the Richard Strauss Conservatorie in Munich where he learnt the piano, the flute, orchestra conducting. “Once you know the flute, you must learn the saxophone of course,” he says. So he did, and then the guitar and subsequently, the bass. Finally, having saved money driving taxis and trucks in Germany, he found himself at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Before Berklee, he visited India, backpacking through the country.
He recalls all of this having just returned from performing a guest-set as flautist with Grammy-award-winner Ricky Kej. This was as part of the opening ceremony of the first Gandhi-Mandela Peace Initiative at The Imperial Hotel in Janpath, where Kej and Lindner met for the first time during sound-check. They developed a relationship online, when Kej followed him on Twitter and invited Lindner to play.
His diplomatic career has taken him to around the world, and Lindner has made sure to connect with musicians of the region, through every posting. It’s been only three months since he arrived in India, but he’s already identified Sufi singers including Lok Sabha MP Hans Raj Hans, with whom to jam.
On the first floor of his official residence, Lindner has had the wall between two rooms taken down. In this space, he’s set up a for a personal music studio. A huge Apple computer sits in the centre, with speakers, mixing equipment, and what feels like hundreds of wires. They’re all plugged in neatly, waiting for collaborators to find time to jam. In one corner of this room, a brick-red alcove, with a raised platform, and gadda-style seating with red mirror-work cushions is already ready, with mics and headphones neatly laid out, for the Sufi singers who will join him for a breakfast and jam this weekend.
Between 2006 and 2009, in Kenya, Lindner regularly organised an East African pop and rock festival in the gardens at his home. In New York, between 1998 and 2001, he collaborated with a Broadway R&B artist and brought out a record. During his posting in Turkey in the early ‘90s, he had a band doing an “East meets West” style with Arab instruments.
“Being a musician, you are open to many things, evenBollywood,” says Lindner, who keeps reiterating that he’s a professional musician. He believes that diplomacy isn’t about “long, intellectual speeches”.
“I keep a certain distance from the diplomatic world of protocol and define my own kind of diplomacy — which is to really just connect with the people.”