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Interview: Bob Brozman

April 1998

Bobbing Around


Talking to hyperactive slide guitar wizard Bob Brozman is liable to involve you in a conversation trip several times around the planet, discovers Mike Cooper.

In 1989 I organized the Sliding Around the World Festival at the Institute for Contemporary Art, in London. It was to be a centennial celebration of the discovery of the art of playing a guitar with a slide. Joseph Kekuku is, contentiously, credited as the one who dropped something onto his guitar one day in Hawaii, creating a glissando with consequences he could never have foreseen. There was, at the time in Hawaii, a healthy local tradition of playing guitar in open tunings. Slack key guitar, or Ki Ho'Alu, they call it, a technique possibly passed onto then, along with the guitar, by visiting sailors, cowboys and missionaries, from far away places with strange sounding names, and developed into a local art form. Without slack key guitar, Hawaiian steel guitar would probably not have happened, and subsequently blues, gospel, country, African, Indian, etc. etc. slide styles. Even the first electric guitar, the Rickenbacker, was a Hawaiian steel guitar.

My original idea for that festival was to have a master player from country, African, blues, Indian, and Hawaiian musics to celebrate the 100 year voyage around the world's cultures of the instrument. The usual voodoo vibes determined that it would end up just myself and my band, the Uptown Hawaiians, featuring French slide shaman Cyril Lefebvre, and Bob Brozman solo, introducing him to European audiences.

On the might Bob's flight from San Francisco was delayed, meaning he would arrive at Heathrow just as the lights went up at the venue. I seem to recall that he walked into the ICA during our last number before the interval. Twenty minutes later he walked on stage with his set of glittering, metal, National resophonic guitars, ukulele and mandolin. With a wicked sense o humour, adrenaline super charged energy and technique to match, he instantly won himself a legion of fans. Playing a repertoire of country blues classics, early jazz, ska, and Hawaiian music, he then crossed the channel where the French promoted him to near pop star status. Philip LeBras signed him to his Skyranch label, and has released nine CDs to date.

When we first met, nine years ago, Hawaiian music was an almost secret passion we shared. On stage we were both obliged to sandwich it between huge doses of delta blues or some other, less exotic, form. Hawaiian music was still thought to be something you heard in lifts. Nine years ago there was not even the exotica, lounge, easy listening scene for us to parade our hipness in. These days are different.

When I spoke to Bob on the phone he had just returned from a recording session for Dancing Cat. I asked him if he was still making his life difficult by traveling with two guitars, a ukulele and mandolin by public transport?

"I've been traveling with five guitars. A national Tri-Cone and a Style O, that I've had since late childhood. I just passed thirty years with those two guitars. I think I will be the only person who takes a National all the way to the end of its life span. You can almost see through the fingerboards to the other side of the neck! Original frets, on one of them. I estimate something like 100,000 paid hours on those two. Then I'm carrying a prototype of the new National baritone Tri-Cone. Something designed to have a longer neck and tuned down three frets. The stringing on that is wild, it goes from .018 to .076, plus it's in open tuning, so it's very low.

"I'm also carrying an old Weissenborn, purchased the same year as Ben Harper's birth, for 50 dollars. Then I'm working with a new maker, Bill Hardin of Bear Creek Guitars who is making some beautiful Koa wood instruments. He used to work for Santa Cruz Guitars and he makes copies of the Weissenborn and the Kona, Hawaiian guitars. I'm playing one of his Konas, which I string high with skinny strings, .013 to .060, tuned to an open G tuning, but like capoed up five frets to open C. He's making me a set of Weissenborn copies. This year I've been approached by eight different makers of Weissenborn copies, all wanting an endorsement. For me the sound is primary, and Bill's have got the closest to the original, so far."

"For amplification, I use 20 percent pick-up and 80 percent microphone, with the same e.q. as I use for my Nationals. With the pick-up I dial away most of the treble, because I don't believe there is any pick-up that sounds good on acoustic guitar. I use them to add bass to a Neumann KM 84 microphone, which is a Godsend; very dynamic and dramatic."

A few years ago I tried to interest Bob in the Ki Ho'Alu, or slack key, style of Hawaiian guitar, by playing the Gabby Pahinui band to him. He said at the time that he couldn't get into it: he thought that slack key all sounded the same and he didn't really like Gabby's voice. So it came as a bit of a surprise when he turned up in duo with slack key wizard Ledward Kaapana on the Dancing Cat CD Kika Kila Meets Ki Ho'Alu (sampled on our Froots #10 compilation).

"Yes, I've just spent a week recording in Hawaii with Ledward, doing our second set and part of our third, and with Cyril Pahinui. A great experience, both of them bring stuff to slack key that on-one else is doing. I think Ledward plays, rhythmically, like an African. He is really inventive and polyrhythmic all the time. The lines he comes up with are like a snake, slithering all over the place, real fast. You get a glimpse and it's gone! I'm doing a lot of stuff in three's these days. The Africanised three, where there is a six eight, which generates a big two over the three, and these Hawaiian guys, both Cyril and Ledward, key into that right away. It's like Africa via Latin America via Mexico via Hawaii. So, lots of syncopated waltzing basically."

Fans and scholars of steel guitar will all know that the instrument is hugely popular in India. Often the sound you hear in your favourite Indian restaurant and think is a sitar is in fact a Hawaiian steel guitar, or in this case an Indian steel guitar. Ry Cooder recorded his Meeting By The River with Indian steel player V.M.Bhatt, and Californian slide player Mark Humphrey discovered and recorded with Debashish Bhattacharya, who is from Hindustan.

When I said earlier that the inventor, or rediscovery of the steel guitar was a subject of contention, what I meant was this. There are two claimants for the honour. Joseph Kekuku is one and the other is Gabriel Damion, who was an Indian, kidnapped by a sea captain and transported to Hawaii. Charles E. King, the Hawaiian composer, says he saw Damion playing his steel guitar in 1884 on the island of Maui. There exists an ancient Indian instrument which is played with a slide, called a Gottuvadyam and a South Indian Vina called a Sarasvati Vina. Maybe Gabriel Damien simply transferred the technique to the guitar, who knows?

Bob Brozman met Debashish through Stefan Grossman who, after being introduced to him by Mark Humphrey, released a video of a live concert in Calcutta on his Vestapol Video series. Stefan was initiating his World Of Slide Guitar video series, which brought together many different players with different musical tastes, including Bob, Martin Simpson and Debashish Bhattacharya. This led to them teaming up for a concert tour of the States, which ended up in Hawaii.

"I finished up a tour with Debashish and (tabla player) Subhashis Bhattacharya in Hawaii, so we went into the studio with Ledward Kaapana and cut a bunch of slack key and steel stuff with tabla. When Subhashis plays tabla in this 6/8 over 3/4 groove, I swear he's doing the work of three Cubans. Maintaining three separate grooves, with three separate sounds, all at once! He says there are more than 2,000 sounds in the tabla, and no-one lives long enough to get more than about 150 of them."

Hawaiian musician and steel guitar master Tao Moe, now in his eighties and still living and playing on Oahu, spent a number of years living and performing in India during the early 1940's. Bob 're-discovered' Tao a few years back and they at an album together, Remembering The Songs Of Our Youth. It features Bob and the whole Tao Moe Family.

"Tao was living in India, in the early second world war years, and he had a student, an Indian named Garny Niss, who was the first Indian to play Hawaiian music. Garny Niss, in turn, had a student named Brij Bushan Kabra in the 1950's. He was the first Indian to play Indian Classical music on Hawaiian guitar. Kabra, in turn, has had two students, Mohan Bhatt and Debashish. Debashish started playing when he was seven years old and by the time he was 20 he was a full concert artist. He then met Brij Bushan Kabra, who took him on as a student for five years in 1986."

"Playing a musical instrument is the result of moving your muscles in a certain prescribed sequence, and Debashish's playing is the result of this incredible discipline. My playing has been drastically altered by him and when I play blues or Hawaiian music I have to really watch it and not Indianise it. A typical thing Debashish does is hit the string once and move the bar to about 50 notes. The cool thing is he plays in D tuning, D minor tuning, G and G minor tuning. You know I'm convinced that G tuning is the chosen open tuning of, so called, primitive musicians all over the world."

I have had in my possession for several years a photograph, taken in the late twenties or early thirties of a Greek rembetika band with two Steel guitar players sat at the front. There is no slide guitar on the record itself and when Viv Corringham and I were researching material for our Avant Roots CD, we searched in vain for a Rembetika song with it on. Bob and I have often mused upon the improbable connections between Hawaiian music and Greece.

"I've been working in Greece a lot. Now there's the musical cross-roads of Europe and Asia. Straight ahead major diatonic, in four, or Arabic sounding modes in nines or seven. I've been doing a lot of recording with Greek musicians. George Pilali - he's a rembetika and blues player, who doesn't play American blues. He sings Greek blues, in Greek, with rembetika topic material. He's also a kind of crazed comedian and actor. He barely speaks English, but he's so communicative we can work all this music out together. He plays baglama, bouzouki and guitar. We are working on all this stuff just mixing it all up, blues, Greek, hip-hop, slide guitars with bozouki etc."

When Bob mentioned hip-hop I asked him to explain his take on that subject, knowing that he had an outspoken reputation for not wanting to hear anything recorded after 1936 in the past. He didn't even own a CD player last time I was at his house! What did he mean by hip-hop? "Well, I have to admit you were there before most of us on this stuff, I would like to credit you with that. (Thank you Bob!) My line on it is, like that one live track (Caveman Science Strut) on that French compilation, where I'm playing a baritone lap steel, the drummer's playing brushes, the bass player is on string bass and Michael Dunn is playing a five string kabosy. What I'm trying to do is, rather than use looping or sampling, is to imitate it all with flesh. Like live dubbing with no technology. So, when I say hip-hop, I don't mean there is rapping going on or that it's a lifestyle. It's just another rhythm, like a waltz or samba, you know? For me rap is quite uninteresting, because it is all sub -divided into two's. But hip-hop is groovy and it swings and it's fun to play over. I like the slower hip-hop grooves. Elsewhere, with other musicians, I'm trying to use rhythms that have never been hip-hopped before. I've got a hip-hop bolero, tango, a superslow six eight, you know?"

When Bob first came to Europe it was like Columbus, in reverse, in terms of him working. He was glad to reach land. I asked him if things had changed for him back home at all.

"Yes, it's going quite well. Collaborative tours, to fill the venues. There is no mid-week touring in America anymore. They all sit at home watching 500 channels of Sat.TV., worrying about people of another colour taking over the neighbourhood. I did a slack key tour last April with Ledward, George Kahumoku and Keola Beamer. Six to fifteen hundred seat venues, and selling them out with publicity from Dancing Cat Records. This I could never do on my own. Then, the World Of Slide tour, with Martin Simpson, myself Debashish and Subhashis. We just did seventeen dates, all along the west coast. The slack key stuff goes down better in the winter, because people want that tropical release."

"When the year is over I will have been on the road 330 days. Doesn't leave enough time for living, but I'm in this kind of musical monkhood period right now. I'm just getting a lot out of music; more than I ever have. I've been playing 38 years now, but in the last couple of years, with the Hawaiians and with Debashish and just from maturity and study, I'm appreciating music more than I ever did before. The pleasure I get out of manipulating my muscles on a good instrument is unbeatable. There is no pleasure greater than that."

What do you listen to these days Bob and are you playing more lap steel live than you used to?

"Just about the only thing I listen to is Charley Patton. He is just so much more three dimensional than all the others. The more years I spend in blues the more I like less chords; more primitive, you know? No bar structure. I find I can do that very well on a Weissenborn type guitar, and by the same token, playing with Ledward and Cyril, I've had to come up with all these new ways of playing steel. Trying to keep the rhythm going in various ways, blocking chords, damping, weird chords. So now I can play solo steel in the manner of a slack key player, carrying the melody with the bar but keep the rhythm going."

"Ledward and Cyril are so different in their approach. Ledward will keep the rhythm going with his thumb and then just go off into wild breaks. Whereas Cyril is always playing like a kind of Caribbean kind of rhythm thumb. We recorded this version of Hawaiian Cowboy, which goes along at about a million miles an hour, and his is bubbling away on this Santa Cruz baritone guitar, in a kind of samba rhythm. The other thing I love about playing with these guys is that we can play this real slow music."

"I've been playing Hawaiian music since the early seventies, and I never really thought that it would bring me any commercial rewards. But the duo record with Ledward has outsold anything I've ever made in the States. The sad fact is, promotion makes the business. In England I've done it all the hard way, playing to people one at a time, with no promotion whatsoever. In France, having this promotion, I'm made legitimate. Experiencing that makes me realize how hollow that is and promotion is everything."

"Working with Skyranch in France and Dancing Cat in the States has been real good. Two small labels working through a bigger label. You get the clout of the big label with the enthusiasm of the smaller label, which seems to be the best of both worlds. [Dancing Cat goes through BMG and Skyranch through Virgin]. I take a lot of inspiration from George Winston. Here is a guy who spends more time talking about other musicians than himself, more than anyone else I know. All of my records that he's played on he's done for free and sometimes even provided the studio."

As I had just recently had the pleasure of hearing and reviewing two Hawaiian CDs by the Japanese singer Sandii, I asked Bob if he knew her music. He did indeed. "In about a week I'm going to Japan to do some recording with her and producer Makoto Kubota. I'm doing a bunch of record stores, because the Ledward record is doing quite well there. I've been waiting to go to Japan for years. I get a lot of mail from there and I sell a lot of stuff there. Just been waiting for the right situation. It will be five days of ceaseless activity but I'm looking forward to working with Makoto. I love the production on Shoukichi Kina's stuff."

"For me, I'm more and more interested in recording and other peoples' projects. One think I've got our of all these projects, apart from re-dedicating myself to music, and realizing life is short and that I'd better start practicing, is that thins of taking a walk towards another musician and being able to make music, which, if you tried to locate it geographically, would be in the middle of the Pacific somewhere, or something like that. Debashish, for instance, is the first musician I've met that I want to go and take lessons with. He make me realize the value of dumb practise, and hours of it! His speed and dexterity is inhuman, absolutely inhuman. Full of humour and full of life, not just technical masturbation by any means. I think my own playing has got sweeter as well. I feel a little more accepted by the world, so I don't have to beat people over the head with it quite so much as I used to."

You can check out Bob's excursions into World Music by purchasing his latest compilation on Skyranch, called Golden Slide - see the reviews pages.

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