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Interview: Bob Brozman

Febraury/March 1999

Bob Brozman: One-Man Multicultural Roadshow


Bob Brozman wears many hats. First and foremost, he is a musician whose work with vintage National and Weissenborn guitars has elevated the art of playing with a slide to a high art. Secondly, he is a music historian and author who has penned the authoritative reference work on National guitars and has compiled a number of CDs of vintage guitar music. As a master teacher, he has produced a wonderful series of instructional videos for Homespun tapes.

As an esoteric scholar whose interests include the neurobiology of music, Brozman colorfully described the process of music making and listening. "I use a colloidal suspension of salt water in my head, which is run by a weak electrical signal, to push my muscles around in order to push the strings to vibrate air molecules in a certain way which activate the hair cells in the recipients' ears which activate their colloidal suspensions of salt water. They get a change of blood chemistry that they perceive as feeling. That's science but it gives me a sense or privilege and reverence about it. It's really nice. The part of it I'm fascinated by, is what's going on in the zone between the neurobiology and meaning. That's a big, big area."

Brozman began playing solo acoustic blues and was for a time a member of R. Crumb's Cheap Suit Serenaders. While he has moved far beyond these original styles, there is still a clear commonality to the music he plays. "I started out as a blues guy and I was kind of a nostalgia guy. What I'm attracted to now in music is the tortured cry of the human soul rising up against oppression. I'm not talking about lyrics.

"In America I have trouble with the blues community; they don't get it. Why do I play Hawaiian music and other types of world music with equal conviction? The whole philosophy of that is that all the music I play is connected by colonialism, and it's an accident of European harmonies fortuitously being placed in the hands of people who have better rhythm than the Europeans. Europeans have taken harmony to a very high art, but so-called primitive people speak with rhythm as their art form. I love the perceptual taffy pull of polyrhythmic music, it just pulls my brain apart."

Another fascination of Brozman's is the key role his chosen instrument, the steel guitar, has played in the dissemination of roots music styles in the last century and even earlier. "I think it is a natural human instinct, when confronted with a string, to eventually slide something along it. The origins of slide are somewhat lost in the mists of pre-recorded time. Slide guitar in India goes back to the eleventh century, played with a glass ball. There are some African instruments, then there is the whole Hawaiian thing, which comes down to one or two people having invented it. However, things get murky because there were traveling Hawaiian groups in the south and some black guys went and saw that and started playing slide because of that. Casey Bill Welton, a slide guy from the 30s, called himself the Hawaiian guitar wizard and played it flat on his lap. So did Oscar Woods, so did Black Ace, and even Charlie Patton, on a couple of tracks.

"Delta blues open G tuning is exactly the same tuning that is the main tuning used in Hawaiian music. It's also the tuning Debashish uses, it's also found in the Philippines, Mexico, the Caribbean, South America. It's almost the universal tuning of colonial musicians. Open G is the tuning that makes an open chord that you can get to with the least amount of string changing from standard tuning. All these cultures arrived at it separately.

"Because I'm interested in linguistics, and the spread of languages, that's all tied in with the music. You can trace seven different back-and-forth movements musically between Cuba and Africa. There were several different waves of new input from Africa to Cuba, or from Cuba to West Africa. I'm quite fascinated with that," Brozman explained. "The guitar is the ultimate colonial instrument; it was carried everywhere. All the way from India back to the Pacific across the Americas and back to Europe, the spread of the guitars is remarkable."

The last several years, Brozman has been collaborating with some of the finest guitarists in other cultures. His first such collaboration was with legendary Hawaiian slide guitarist Tau Moe, who recorded extensively earlier in the century, touring the world (including a couple of stints in India) for 57 years before retiring to Oahu. After reading some of his pieces on National guitars, Moe, who is now 90, contacted Brozman, and the two collaborated on a 1989 CD with Moe's family.

Brozman also expressed great admiration for Debashish Bhattacharya. "He is the student of Sri Brij Bushan Kabra, who was the student of the student of Tau Moe." Brozman and Bhattacharya toured with Martin Simpson in a collaborative show called "The World of the Steel Guitar" a few years back, and the pair just recorded a new CD, Delightful Meeting of Slide Guitars. "It's really a blend. I would say with 20% of the recorded sound, you can't tell who's who much of the time.

"When he plays blues, it's scary. Sometimes he sounds like Hendrix or something. We went into the studio and cut the entire thing in ten hours. In the process - I'm not exaggerating - we must have wept openly at least half a dozen times. The music was just heartbreaking."
The links to Indian music are more substantial than one might think at first. "There's connection because the Greek modes are present in Indian music. This thing about quarter tones is kind of a fallacy. They're used in quarter tones, but the actual notes that are being played are very much like the Greek modes. As far as what the real notes are, when you talk about doing a certain type of raga, that means a certain type of seven note scale."

What is very different is the amount of discipline Indian musicians bring to their craft. "Western civilization is based on easy gratification and lack of discipline. The Indian music requires a lot more precision and discipline."

Brozman has also reinforced his ties with Hawaiian music, recording the popular CD, Kika Kila Meets Ki Ho'Alu with one of the top slack key players, Ledward Kaapana, for George Winston's Dancing Cat label. The duo have also just released a joint concert CD on Stephan Grossman's Guitar Workshop label, and have several more recordings in the can.

"I could rave on and on about Ledward. He's just one of the most amazing musicians who ever lived. The quality of flow in his music and his musical perception and sensibility are more unimpeded than anyone. At our shows, there are always tears running down people's cheeks. It's just so uplifting playing with that guy, and when we get off the stage we go back to our hotel and play for ourselves until five in the morning. I've never encountered a guy like that in my life."

More recently, Brozman recorded with Cyril Pahinui, son of the late Gabby Pahinui, whose style is very different than Kaapana's. "Ledward is on the beat while Cyril is playing this sort of Latin Trassio kind of feel. It has this Latin feel to it so it completely informs my playing. I key into it quite differently."

Brozman credits George Winston, the commercially successful pianist who founded Dancing Cat, with reviving interest in Hawaiian slack key music. "Nobody was really releasing it anywhere, especially as a kind of formal archiving. His philosophy is that he wants to get every note we're going to play before we die. If he somehow gets a concert tape of us and finds out that we did something in a different tuning, then we have to go back in the studio and record it that way. I've never met a guy who cares more about other musicians than he does - he's some kind of a patron saint. A lot of his concerts go to children's hospitals and food banks, too. He's a unique guy."

A collaboration with Martin Simpson is still to be released. "It's in the can, but he got very involved with Red House. It got back burnered. We played in Quebec this summer with David Lindley. It was really nice, three slide guitarists who like and respect each other."

Brozman is also working with guitarist Woody Mann. "We're doing a duet record for Acoustic Guitar in Germany, Peter Finger's label. We're just looking for an excuse to tour together in Germany. The potential for humor is outstanding - a couple of Jewish guys in Germany.

"We're also doing a camp this summer at Columbia University. [See discography for information. - Ed.] We'll have John Cephas, Martin Simpson, Woody and myself as teachers. It's king of like the thinking person's blues week. We're going to take traditional approaches but each of us has an individual slant on how we take the timbres and rhythms and notes of that period and make them into new music."

Brozman, who has a degree in ethnomusicology, is planning further collaborative projects, some in relatively exotic locales. "I'm going to La Réunion in April to record with Granmoun Lele, sort of the grandpa of all La Réunion music. He's the musical patriarch of a three generation family. I'm getting more involved in creating projects on that level.

"For me, the work I've done with Debashish, the work I've done with Ledward, he work I've done with Cyril Pahinui, I'm getting a kick out of. I'm 44, I've been playing guitar for nearly 40 years and I'm just starting to appreciate it at some kind of a deeper level."

These rich musical collaborations also make sense economically, particularly when Brozman works stateside. "I've given a lot of advice to a lot of musicians and touring in America is very hard. What works for me is thematic concerts with a couple of artists."

Brozman has found much bigger audiences, and recognition in Europe. "You can understand why people like to play Europe. When I play a club here, it's like, 'Put your stuff here, here's our crummy sound equipment, there's a McDonald's down the street, get your own hotel room, and we'll pay you some low money.' In France, I'm on a circuit where I don't need any directions, I just go to the biggest theater in town and usually there's a press conference there with the mayor presenting me with a bottle of wine, saying, 'Welcome to our town, we're going to give you the best food of the region.' It's just a different deal.

"American culture is so young that our culture is mass media. There's a kind of pollution going on called mental pollution. The concept of advertising is only about 120 years old, and it has completely changed the way the west lives - what they want, what they dream about. In Europe, it's becoming that way, but people prize the lively arts. When I work on a Monday there, it's just as busy as a Saturday. In Europe I'm not called a musician, I'm called an artist. There's a definite social difference."

In France, Brozman works with, and has recorded a couple of discs with an ensemble called The Thieves of Sleep. "They're guys I've known and played with for many years. Some of the best players in their field - bass, drums, percussion, and a couple of guitar players, one of whom does a lot of Django stuff, African stuff, and Kabosy, which is a Malagasy five string guitar. I ask a lot of them, because we're doing calypso, Django stuff, Caribbean waltz, African stuff, Hawaiian stuff, and the new end of what I'm doing is organically played urban grooves - that is, imitating sampling, dubbing, looping out, but actually doing it with a drum set with brushes and a string bass, and I'm playing various types of ethnic slide over the top."

Hip hop in roots music? I asked Brozman to explain how this came about. "In America the beat of popular music changed every ten years and then rock came in and it just got stuck. It's the most boring beat that has ever been devised by man. The first new grooves that have come along are some of the hip hop stuff. I didn't like rap in the 80s because it was all subdivided like into a march, but hip-hop's got a lot of internal swing - it's just lovely to play over those grooves.

"But I like the idea of reproducing them organically. I play National, but I also play these Weissenborn type instruments, and acoustically, I'm now able to create wah-wah mechanically with my hands and the bar I'm able to create distortion, I can create a sitar-like sound, just by manipulating the bar in certain ways. I can play all of this flashy sort of normal guitar, and read a newspaper out loud. When you put a guitar in your lap and play steel, you have to concentrate far, far more, and for me that's what brought me to the neurobiology. Realizing I just have to clear the pathway between my head, my heart, and my hands.

"I'm doing these crazy jungle remixes and hip hop, and I want to be playing at those kind of venues. For me, there's only two kinds of music - good music and bad music. If I like what I'm playing, I don't care what style it is."

Another avenue Brozman has begun to explore is producing other artists, starting with a project with Austin's Asylum Street Spankers last summer. "We had a ball. Seven days, 20 hours a day. I came in there, first adjusted their instruments and fixed them up, then I just gave them all little lessons on how to tighten everything up. It was like boot camp."

Brozman continues to uncover new musical opportunities, but it does mean that he works hard, touring much of the year. "I'm at the point where I'm taking on a couple of employees and opening up an office. It's just too much - I've got so much going on. My typical night is get offstage, go back to the hotel, and get on the phone and the laptop for a couple of hours."

All in all, he seems pretty pleased with his life. "All the various record companies I work with, the venues, the promoters, I love them all. There are no assholes in acoustic music like there are in rock and pop. On that basis I am in control of my life, I get to do music that I not only like, but that I really love. I deal with all kinds of interesting people, I've learned to speak several languages adequately just from travelling. I'm having a ball. I feel like life is a nice peach, and I'm taking a nice big bite out of it."

Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar

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