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Interview: Bob Brozman

GUITAR MAGAZINE, UK
May 2002

Cultural Revolutionary

By JOHN CALLAHAN

Mixing National slide tones with traditional music from around the world, Bob Brozman has built a career based on experiment and excellence. John Callaghan finds out how he blends the influences.


Many have proclaimed music to be a universal language, but slide and National guitar virtuoso Bob Brozman is one of the few to have crossed the international boundaries to discover first-hand the reality of those words. Since his first solo album in 1981, the native New Yorker has recorded numerous blues and roots records, as well as collaborating with a number of musicians around the world. His love of ethnic music has propelled him to such far-flung locations as India, France, Okinawa and Hawaii to investigate the diversity and similarity of musical cultures ignored by the corporate music business.

A famously prolific musician, Brozman has another album of Indian music as well as an electronica-infused slide guitar project currently in the pipeline. However, one of his most recent releases, Dig Dig, documents a trip to the volcanic island of La Réunion, a former French colony in the Indian Ocean. Hooking up with native musicians, including accordion player René Lacaille, to compose and record music in their native Sega and Maloya traditions, Dig Dig was, as with all his sonic expeditions, a great learning experience for Brozman.

'What I discovered is that if Cuban music is the most rhythmically sophisticated development of 4/4 that happened anywhere in the world, Réunion Island music is the most evolved development of 3/4,' he explains. 'The intellectual thinking behind 3/4 rhythm in Europe has never gone beyond the standard waltz - all they can perceive is one rhythm at a time. Whereas in African-influenced music, the constant bottom line is two lines of rhythm; there is a '2'-pulse and a 3'-pulse going on, and the art form is to flip back and forth between the two, which takes the listener on this psychedelic trip.

'However, Madagascar and Réunion Island took this one stage further,' he continues. 'Instead of just having the accent every second or third beat, the Réunion people flip the accents so that the loud ones happen on '2' and '5', which is very strange to Western ears.

Having studied ethnomusicology at university - he's currently an adjunct Professor of Music at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia - Brozman has always combined a primal love of music with its more academic and socio-political implications. The Dig Dig project further confirmed his theory that colonising cultures are interested in the beat, while those that have been colonised concentrate more on the 'and' between the beats.

'Marching cultures such as those in Britain and Japan see the beat as something you follow, where as those that have been colonised are so used to being marched upon that the beat is something that you react against,' he explains.

A self-confessed 'un-American American', Brozman is at pains to avoid all accusations of exploiting world music genres for 'flavour of the month' novelty. Unlike some Western musicians, he is fully prepared to muck in with his collaborators. Indeed, for Brozman, a lot of the fun comes from going to faraway places, getting to grips with the language and hanging out with the local musicians, rather than jetting in, staying at the 'local Hilton' and generally indulging in the rock star treatment.

'I really don't want to be seen as a dilettante,' he states. 'I try to blend in as much as possible, which includes eating the same food and sleeping in the same conditions as the other guys.

'What do I bring to the table? For one thing, I've got tremendous energy and passion about the sound that I make. You couldn't describe me as a wimpy guitar player; I play as if my life depended on it. The Réunion guys who played on Dig Dig were really interested in my bluesy stuff, so songs like Zi Bi Pi Blues was a way of blending a blues sonority with their rhythms.

'I don't expect them to meet me halfway musically,' he adds. 'I try to meet up about three-quarters of the way towards them. And just because I've worked with, for example, a great Indian musician like Debashish Bhattacharya, or a great Okinawan musician like Takashi Hirayasu - and I understand what's going on - it doesn't mean I could ever become a master of those kinds of music, not like they are.

'What I recommend you do is listen to whoever you like, but take the top 10 per cent of moments that you love about those musicians and absorb that into your music. That way you'll be able to incorporate all your experiences into your own playing without completely imitating anyone in particular.'

A firm believer that music is just the expression of feelings through your muscles, Brozman places great importance on allowing your hands to fully convey all your emotions rather than relying on technique. 'I happen to have a killer right hand and I'm very good with slide and everything, but my left hand isn't brilliant,' he admits modestly. 'So in terms of playing really fast scales, I just don't do it. What makes my stuff come across more to an audience than maybe a more technically proficient guitar player is what I call "the hidden stuff", which is the sound. It seems like a funny thing to say, but that's what a lot of guitar players seem to forget about.

'During the '80s I had a bout of tendonitis, so I had to learn a more efficient way of playing where I relax between every beat. Most guitar players use between 30-60 per cent of their muscle power, whereas I go from 0-100 per cent on every single beat. It means there's more expression, so when I make my playing angry, or sad, you know about it.'

This desire for such a dynamic range is one of the many reasons why Brozman prefers resonators, with their 90dB range, to bog-standard electric guitars. Currently running a nice little sideline as a National Resophonic dealer, as well as acting as a design consultant for the company in recent years, it comes as no shock to learn that the man who is the author of The History And Artistry of National Resonator Instruments has an impressive collection of the cone-driven lovelies. However, last summer, a rainstorm during a festival appearance in Canada contributed to the 'death' of his treasured '33 Style O National that he'd used at pretty much every gig since 1967. Still, Brozman claims that due to the quality of the newer models currently being made, he's not too distraught about his favourite's demise. In the 'old versus new' debate that often rages between National devotees, this man definitely for the new models.

'I've used vintage Nationals for 30 years and then started working with the guys at National on the new ones,' he explains. 'I'm known in the instrument world to be stingy with a compliment, so here's my honest opinion about the whole debate... for the first three months of a new National's life, the first string doesn't sound as good as an old one, while the other strings sound just as good or better. After three months of playing, the new ones sound better than the old ones. The intonation also sounds better, because the old ones can really be a nightmare and you've got problems being in tune when you're playing with other musicians.

'If you get a perfect vintage guitar, great - but there are few perfect ones out there, and there are a lot of thieves out there who are misrepresenting guitars as vintage when they're just in bad condition.

'There's also something about resonator guitars that brings out the backyard mechanic in people,' he laughs. 'I see loads of guitars with bad repair jobs. There are some great vintage resonators - and the mojo factor is the mojo factor - but for working musicians like me, out there playing them every day, I'll take the new gear.'

For most of his solo projects and ensemble work, tricone models are employed for slide, for their greater powers of sustain, while the snappier initial attack of single-cone resonators makes them Brozman's first choice for rhythm work. For the uninitiated, the bass comes out of the f-holes on a single cone resonator and the grilles of a tri-cone, while the mid-range and treble sounds emanate from the resonator side. This means that all Brozman has to do to gain completely new tones and textures onstage is move his guitar's position relative to his solitary Neumann KM150 microphone.

'When I'm playing I'm constantly moving around, but it's to change the sound, not too look good... it looks like I'm wrestling with an alligator up there!

'One of the things that I think has prevented modern guitar players from being inventive came about in the '70s when pickup technology was developed for the guitar because PAs in clubs were so abysmal. I don't care how good someone is, if they're playing through a pickup all night - unless they're using effects - they've got just one sound.

'Whereas when you're using a mic, it's so three-dimensional and so communicative that you can really hear the changes in your playing. Live, the PA is part of my instrument, whereas in the studio I like to mic both sides of the guitar and mix it up. You can also hear on Dig Dig that I tend to want a lot of room sound and not have things sound like they were recorded in a vacuum.'

Brozman views his instruments, which include the 27"-scale neck-sporting baritone resonator that he designed himself and was used on Zi Bi Pi Blues on Dig Dig, as 'portable cultural translators'. His travel rig also includes of a lap steel, a Bear Creek Kona Rocket Hawaiian guitar and a seven-string Baritone Hawaiian guitar that he'll be using is some forthcoming dates with Hirayasu and Lacaille.

'We're going to be trying to blend their two distinctive musical cultures, with me somewhere in the middle, I guess,' explains Brozman. 'The joy of playing with bright musicians is that you can often go onstage without really rehearsing and just see what happens - which I love to do, because if you don't rehearse you'd better pay attention to the present moment, which is where the magic in music happens.

Brozman also attempts to spark the creativity of the people he works with by handing them a charango, a 10-string Bolivian relative of the guitar, just to see what they do with it. Before the recording of Dig Dig Brozman presented one to Lacaille, who loved it so much that at the end of the first week of ownership he politely requested another one because he was scared something would happen to the first one, leaving him charango-less! 'It did turn out to be the perfect instrument for the music from Réunion Island, because it's got this great crisp sound, and myself and René wrote songs like Place D'Youville just on two charangos.

'Everybody does something different with any instrument, based on their culture and musical experience, but it's also fascinating to see what the similarities are between musical cultures. I've done some work in that regard - do you know that every style of music that's ever been on this planet has a root and the fifth? Basically, the ratios between the octave and the root, and the fifth and the root, are numerically the two simplest in music - so it's got to be biologically pleasing to the mind.'

Keen to pass on the fruits of his labours from the past 40-odd years, Brozman's newly revamped website (www.bobbrozman.com) contains a whole section on hints and tips for guitar players. If there's one thing he implores us all to do, it's to cast off the chains of standard tuning. 'Around the world, except Europe, everybody has a real modal musical sense. In Europe, they came up with the 12 tones to the octave that was basically a kind of detuning compromise, which is why guitar players constantly curse the B string in standard tuning.

'The devil's interval isn't the tricone, it's the equally tempered major third,' he chuckles. 'I do use standard tunings, but playing in open tuning is the most liberating way to play guitar. The great thing about it is that it's impossible to sound bad in an open tuning, no matter what you do!'



Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar


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