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Interview: Bob Brozman

4 April 2001.



Adrian Pertout speaks to New York's 'world blues' guru Bob Brozman about his latest global adventure

Bob Brozman, renown exponent of Hawaiian music, as well as the art-deco National metal-bodied resonator guitars has been presenting his fretted brew of blues, slide, hot jazz, Hawaiian and Caribbean to audiences in United States, Canada and Europe for over two decades now. He began playing the guitar at the age of six, and discovered the sound of the Dopyera Brothers resonator instruments in the late sixties - an ongoing interest that culminated in his 1993 book 'The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments.' He also studied ethnomusicology at Washington University, and today is a respected authority on Hawaiian music.

Tell me about the instruments that you play.
BB: "I use the guitar as a portable translator of culture, as it's been used historically. And I play National resonator guitars - those shiny metal, mechanically amplified instruments from the 1920s and 1930s. And I particularly like them not just for how they look, and for their volume, but because they actually have a tremendous dynamic range, which no other kind of instrument has, acoustic or electric. And one of the things about today's modern imported American culture that I try and fight against is duff-duff music, where the dynamics are all the same the whole time. I really enjoy putting texture and feeling into what I'm doing, and the guitars really help me do that. I also play a wooden Hawaiian guitar, which is like a turn of the century-type of sound. But it can be used for all kinds of music. And I play a couple of Charangos."

How would you describe your own particular brand of 'world' blues?
BB: "Well, basically I hang around at the fringes of colonialism, where you get non-Europeans playing European instruments - and you get great music that way. And I don't consider blues to be American music; it's West African ethnic music. It turns out that Europe's the funny country, the funny part of the world when it comes to music - the rest of the world has a different way of looking at it. And so my show will encompass blues, early jazz, Hawaiian, Calypso, some touches of Indian and Okinawan, African and Indian Ocean island. And I've got projects out now with all that stuff." Hawaiian music seems to play a big part in your life.

How did this love for the music and the attraction to the style come about?
BB: "It came about accidentally through the guitars. I've been a guitarist since I was five years old, and when I was twelve or thirteen I stumbled on my first National - the metal guitars - and I started chasing the music around. I later met the inventor, in the late 1980s, when he was in his 90s, and subsequently wrote a book about them. And in that process discovered that the guys that invented those instruments didn't even know that blues existed. They built them for Hawaiian music and jazz. So I started collecting 78-RPM records - still looking for some here in Australia in fact - Queenie and David Kaili, a Hawaiian group that recorded extensively in Australia. I'm always looking for those. And if your readers turn them up, I'm interested. In any event, through the guitars I discovered this 10s, 20s and 30s Hawaiian music, and a lot of it to me had the same emotional weight as blues. And so from there I just kind of kept going, and realized that whenever the colonizers arrived with guitars, the colonized did very interesting things with them. And that's kind of where I live now. I'm working on several other books and research on various things about ethnic music, trying to come up with a unified field theory of the way human beings neurologically process music. However that's all very dry, and my show's full of humour. And I'm kind of crazy…"

I've got one last question on the serious side. You did some ethnomusicology at University. What did that touch on?
BB: "That was centered around blues and Hawaiian music. And basically that's just studying music of other cultures - what sets them apart and what makes them the same. In fact I'm talking to Macquarie University in Sydney about a research fellowship there, with their ethnomusicology department. The next area that I'm interested in tackling is some of the South Pacific, where it becomes Melanesia and New Guinea. There's some very interesting music there. So my continuing association with Australia will grow."

'The Groucho Marx of the Blues in Seven Languages.' What is the origin of that description?
BB: "Oh, that just keeps popping up in the press. You know, I take a humorous slant on things. I'm not one of these guys that thinks musicians are more precious than anybody else. And so I tend to poke a little fun at myself, and just kind of making dry observations. I don't pretend to have the answers for people, but do like raising the questions. And I'll tell a little bit of the truth about what's going on in America, and apologize for America. So basically I've some humour coming out of left field, humour about ideas, and things like that."

What do you have coming up in the near future?
BB: "I'm going to finish up this tour in Australia. My second Okinawan album's been released with Takashi Hirayasu, and my second Hawaiian album with Ledward Kaapana. My second duet album with him just came out in January. And the second Okinawan album's coming out in April, and then in September I've got up my work with René Lacaille, who's a wonderful musician from Réunion Island.

Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar

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