Interview: Bob Brozman
By CRISTINA VEIRA
Bob Brozman is unstoppable. A prolific recording artist, performer and producer, he has been responsible for pioneering a road across disparate musical cultures, inspiring cross-cultural recordings and travelling non-stop to expand his musical family... He had time for a chat with Cristina Veira at the recent WOMAD festival in Adelaide, South Australia.
A virtuoso musician and slide guitarist, Bob sees the instrument as a cultural translator between musical traditions and through it finds common threads connecting different parts of the globe.
Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar
On his website, it is stated that "through the language of guitar, Bob's ongoing body of work is launching a new aesthetic called 'World Blues'" and indeed, his influences are many. He draws effortlessly from a wellspring of Delta Blues, Hawaiian, West African, Indian, Okinawan, Caribbean and Gypsy traditions, Django-style Jazz, and the most modern rhythms of hip-hop, sega, funk, ska, calypso, maloya, and world island music.
Last year, he collaborated on an adventurous CD "Rolling Through This World" with Australian slide guitarist Jeff Lang. The venture won them the 2002 ARIA Award for Blues Album of the Year. They will team up again, live, at the upcoming Eastcoast Blues & Roots Festival in Byron Bay.
Cristina Veira caught up with Bob Brozman backstage at WOMADELAIDE, moments after his performance with Okinawan master Takashi Hirayasu.
CV: Wow! What were those final two pieces you played with Takashi? Were they really 600 years old?
BB: Yes, they are… Nankuru Naisa and Chim Don Don (My Heart is Beating) - that is in Jidai - which is in Okinawan language, not Japanese. 600 years old, but in Takashi's modern interpretation.
CV: You've played with Takashi for 4 years? How do you manage to squeeze in so many collaborations into your musical work?
BB: Basically, the nature of my work is that I'm kind of a musical anthropologist and so I've really found a whole family of musicians around the world that I play with, including Takashi who I do collaborations with. I've worked a lot with Hawaiians, with West Africans, East Africans, Indian Ocean Islanders, Greeks, French Gypsies and because I'm such an anti-imperialist type of guy rather than meeting these guys half way I try to meet them three quarters of the way towards them.
And we've just developed this wonderful friendship of family and Takashi knows all the other guys and sometimes we go to festivals as a larger international troupe. Takashi … I joined up with him in '99, we've done two albums, and three of four tours in Europe and the United States and Canada, and South Africa and now Australia. And I also work alone, which is what I did at WOMAD two years ago, and that's kind of a round the world tour with guitars like a cultural translator.
CV: You mentioned that you didn't actually meet Takashi until a couple of hours before you were ready to record?
Yeah I worked with a guy who has a record company in Japan that does Hawaiian music and Okinawan music, so I just mentioned in passing that I was interested in Okinawan music and it might be fun to do something with somebody. Six months later he called and said "hey I've got the number one Okinawan guy. Do you want to do something together?" And it was great too because they asked us… "do you want to stay in a hotel or do you want to stay in the same house?"
I believe that when musicians work together, and record together, the food, the sleeping, the recording all has to happen in a house, and that's the way I've been working for a long time, so we went to Taketomi Island which has 200 people, no cars, no roads. We stayed in this traditional wooden shack and on windy days we had to stuff our t-shirts in the cracks to keep the windows from rattling and making noise.
Four days later we came out with a record and I literally met him on the boat on the way to Taketomi. He speaks a little English, I speak a little Japanese and I just believe that the act of paying attention is something a person can never stop getting better at. So, I did not arrive as any sort of expert on Okinawan music whatsoever. I just paid very careful attention.
CV: Was it a conscious decision early in your career to collaborate with this world of musicians?
BB: Well, I started out as a blues musician. That was the first ethnic music I ever heard. Then I got into Hawaiian music and the first collaboration I did was with a family of Hawaiians that left Hawaii in 1928, made their first record in 1929, toured the entire world for almost 60 years and then finally went back to Hawaii. I found them there and we recreated their 1929 music together.
All of my collaborations have been the result of serendipity. Some wise man once said you can't push something towards you, so I just keep an open mind and I think now, you know, now I'm getting a reputation as a good person to collaborate with because I really care about the other musician, and their comfort is very important to me, musically and in every other way. Regrettably it says the United States of America on my passport so I have to try my best to not behave like America is behaving in the world.
CV: I'm sure that people aren't judging Americans by the behaviour of the US government.
BB: The country used to belong to the people but its been a while and its been taken away. Canada is an English speaking country like Australia that supports the arts. America doesn't at all - there's no government funding for the arts of any kind at all. So I've been able to bring about 18 musicians from 10 different countries around festivals in Canada all playing together, funded by the (Canadian) government.
So we've done shows where there's been Takashi and Debashish Bhattacharya, and his brother Subhashis and his sister singing and some Cubans and the guys from Reunion Island. Djeli Moussa Diawara from Guinea who played the kora, Chinese violinist, French gypsies and we just mix and match this music and find common music between all of us.
That's what I like about Takashi and the other artists I work with. They're masters of their tradition but they're open minded and curious about other things and they want to have other things. So as my musical family is growing the artists are rubbing off on each other. In one sense you are only supposed to observe a culture without disturbing it, but that rule doesn't apply to musicians, because if a musician says "what's that instrument you have there?" you can't say, "no, I'm sorry you can't touch it. That's not from your culture." You know that would be ridiculous so the cross fertilisation and the hybridisation is important to me.
CV: So, in a sense it is ironic that the fusion with the outside world is what is going to preserve traditions.
BB: Yes, absolutely, if it's presented correctly, yes. That's why I like it, when we do our shows, for Takashi to start. In a more extended set we play even more traditional Okinawan music, more contemplative, maybe not that good for a large outdoor scene and Takashi is Okinawan through and through. Even when he writes new stuff its still Okinawan.
CV: So what is next for you after Okinawan music?
BB: Let's see, in terms of collaboration the next thing that is coming out is with an incredible Indian slide guitarist, Debashish Bhattacharya, a slide guitarist from India who basically puts us all to shame. I'm like a three-year-old with all thumbs next to that guy and he's simply the greatest musician I've ever encountered - just unbelievable.
We have spent some time in Calcutta and we recorded an album in '98 just for India. In that particular incident he came to my house in California. We ate nothing but healthy Indian food for a month and rehearsed and composed and it was interesting because as much as I wanted to meet him three quarters of the way towards him, he wanted to come to the west a little bit so it was a very interesting process. That's coming out in June.
After that I'm going to some islands north east of New Guinea; New Britain and New Ireland. Their totally unexotic names really, but I'm going to look for some string band musicians there. I'm also involved in a project in several developing countries where I'm getting instruments, strings and other musical materials donated to me from the west and then organising getting them into the hands of musicians in these countries. I was just on a two month tour of these countries in East Africa from the top to the bottom and the need is unbelievable… the need for strings and instruments. Some places that are wartorn like Rwanda, have a couple of guitars that are shared by dozens of people and the strings are made from bicycle brake cables that are unravelled, so I'm working on that.
CV: You must seem like a saint to some of these people…
BB: Music is one of the few things left in the world that makes sense and nobody should be deprived of musical instruments. I can't fix the world…the problems are too big and the people who hold the power are too strong, so rather than do nothing, I can at least have some impact on some musicians lives… but I don't think of myself as a saint at all. I'm just another guy playing the guitar.
CV: So what will we see in your gig at the Eastcoast festival?
BB: In Byron, let's see. I've got some Australian albums as well. When I come to Australia I usually make the albums here - it supports your economy rather than mine. It makes them easier to get them and so forth. In about a week I got an album coming out called Metric Time which is sort of an inside joke because its very easy to mess with the gullibility of Americans. And I often tell them that down here and in Europe you have metric time, which is a ten hour day and a hundred minutes to the hour. So I had this watch made so, that's the cover of the record…
(He displays the watch - I have to laugh - truly a custom made 10-hour watch! -CV)
At Byron I'm doing some solo shows where I'm playing a whole bunch of instruments and it runs through blues and calypso and Hawaiian and African and Indian Ocean. I'm also doing some duet stuff with Australian musician Jeff Lang, a great slide guitarist, songwriter, wonderful, humorous guy. We did an album last year which I'm very proud to say won an ARIA award for Best Roots and Blues album. I'm not Australian but it was really an honour for me.
Catch Bob Brozman at the Eastcoast Blues & Roots Festival over Easter. For more info visit www.bobbrozman.com.
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