Roughly 30 minutes into a recent interview with The Gazette, 7-year-old Cristo Lewis untied his father’s shoe.
The two had been discussing music and guitar playing while waiting for an open mike night to begin at Tess’ Lark Tavern in Albany. Lewis had grown a bit impatient, fidgeting in his seat outside the tavern, and picking at the laces of his father’s Converse Chuck Taylors.
“Why’d you do that?” asked his father, Hawazin Harijan. “You want to make me trip and fall?”
Decked out in a cowboy hat and boots, with longish blond hair and an impish grin, Lewis, whose full name is Cristo Lewis Harijan, appears to be a typical kid with typical interests. He enjoys cowboy movies, and is currently reading “House at Pooh Corner” by A.A. Milne. And for all intents and purposes, he is just a regular kid.
But then again, most 7-year-olds haven’t shared a stage with Steve Earle.
Lewis has been playing guitar and singing at venues throughout the Capital Region since age 5. The Chestertown native has performed twice at LarkFest’s Hometown Stage, including the 2006 festival and this year’s festival last month. He has also been a part of the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival since 2006, performing alongside Earle during his first year there.
“He gave me his pick,” Lewis said.
Performing with Earle was definitely a highlight for him; the country/roots-rock guitarist was the second artist Lewis was ever introduced to, after Johnny Cash. Cash remains his favorite, with “Folsom Prison Blues” being the first song he learned to play on guitar.
Over the past two years, Lewis has amassed quite a large repertoire of material in the country and rockabilly veins, including songs from Elvis Presley, Townes Van Zandt and Cash.
“I love Johnny Cash,” he said. “He was the first artist I ever was introduced to. Then it was Steve Earle, and then it was Elvis Presley; I just got into him a few weeks ago.”
When Lewis takes the stage, he adopts a persona akin to the outlaw country spirit of his influences. He performs on a three-quarter size Martin acoustic, which still looks a bit large on him, usually with cowboy hat and sunglasses firmly in place, singing the songs of his heroes in his youthful, yet steady voice.
On the scene
His talent at such a young age has attracted other musicians to him. His first performance at LarkFest was with a full band, although he performed solo at the festival this year. Recently, he has also performed with The Stony Creek Band, meeting up with the group’s members at a solstice party in Minerva in the Adirondacks.
“That’s when his dad came up and asked if his son could play,” said Hank Soto, co-founder and leader of The Stony Creek Band. “He said [his son] was 7 years old, and we were thinking, ‘What could this possibly be?’
“[Cristo] was sitting on the roof of a shed adjacent to the stage, with his cowboy hat and six-shooters, just hanging out, just a regular kid. I call him, not knowing who Cristo is, and this kid comes down off the roof, grabs his guitar and starts to play. He’s got some stuff, sings a bunch of tunes, bangs out his own rhythm and takes some solos; he did a traditional instrumental with a mandolin player. It was just great.”
Harijan, an occasional musician himself and a bartender in the evenings, has played a large role in introducing his son to music, acting as Lewis’ manager under the moniker Libel Tourism Productions.
Together with Lewis’ mother, Harijan’s ex-wife, Claire, Harijan played classical music for Lewis when he was a baby.
“He was our first kid, so first kid, we read a lot of parenting books,” Harijan said. “One of the things we read is how playing classical music stimulates brain activity. So we loaded up on just about every classical CD we could, and used to play it for him. He liked it so much that soon, if he was napping or going to bed, he would always request his music, even before he could talk.”
Harijan bought Lewis his first guitar for Christmas, when he was 4 years old. But he had already performed before that at an open mike night at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, with Harijan accompanying him on guitar.
“I played ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ for him, and ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ and he was just hooked, instantly,” Harijan said.
“So before he started playing guitar, he would learn the words and I would play and he would sing along.”
Lewis currently practices guitar for roughly an hour a day, focusing on theory, technique and classical note reading for 10 minutes. The rest of the time, he will learn songs with the help of YouTube and guitar tablature Web sites, or practice the ones he knows, picking up the guitar randomly throughout the day. He has also written an original song with lyrics and an instrumental tune.
Harijan, who studied music theory at Adirondack Community College, taught his son to read music, which according to Harijan has helped Lewis’ own playing to take off.
“Now, he can hear a piece of music or see a movie, and then he can go pick up his guitar and transpose the soundtrack or the songs and play it pretty quickly after hearing it, which is something I’ve never been able to do,” Harijan said.
Harijan currently home-schools Lewis and his younger sister, Rhiannon. The curriculum includes music reading, as well as having a literary focus. Lewis is currently reading a Ralph Waldo Emerson compilation, although he said he prefers “House at Pooh Corner.”
Emerson may seem to be a bit out of Lewis’ age range, but his musical tastes also lean toward songs with more adult themes. His concert repertoire includes the aforementioned “Folsom Prison Blues” along with Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” and one of his favorite songs is “Cocaine Blues.”
“Some people think that it’s inappropriate for a child to sing certain lyrics,” Harijan said. “The way I see it is that music is art, and within boundaries, I think there should be no limitation to artistic expression, despite his age. I feel like if he can watch daytime television and see somebody getting shot on TV — which is a very common occurrence with television programs today — if he can be exposed to that, then I think he’s old enough to sing songs despite some of the references in the songs.”
“He has a real affinity for some grown-up topics,” said Caroline “MotherJudge” Isachsen, a family friend of the Harijans. “It’s wonderful to hear a kid play ‘Masters of War.’ Sometimes I wonder if he truly understands it all, but when he’s singing it sounds like he does understand the messages, and I’m sure he’s attracted also to the great melodies in addition to the words.”
Isachsen, a local Albany musician who hosts the open mike nights at Tess’ Lark Tavern and organizes the Hometown Stage each year at LarkFest, initially had a hand in getting Lewis some of his first shows. In addition to booking him for LarkFest, Isachsen also connected him with Grey Fox and another band he has performed with, Albany group The Bob Bates Band. Lewis has always had a natural ability with music, she said.
“At one of our summer parties in the North Country, several of us were inside the camp house because it was raining outside, and Cristo came in where we were sitting in the front room, picked up his guitar, put it on and started to strum,” Isachsen said. “He said, ‘You know, playing guitar is something fun to do on a rainy day,’ and he proceeded to give us a show. He is a natural; he’s not precocious and he’s not being pressured.”
No stage fright
For Lewis, the excitement has always been on the stage. He’s never dealt with stage fright before, even asking his father what the term meant at one of his earliest performances.
“I just like being up stage, on stage, the feeling of it is just great,” he said. “And no nervous, cross out nervous. Cross out nervous.”
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Categories: Life and Arts