Interview: Bob Brozman
Bob Brozman - "The world as a musical universe"
By CARINA PRANGE
"I try to act like a citizen of Earth. A citizen of all humanity."
He is regarded as a guitarist like no other: an established and prolific recording artist, performer, producer, and author. Bob Brozman, also called the 'running man', is a non-stop world traveler and tireless researcher in ethnomusicology - interested in all kinds of stringed instruments and in what is widely being considered as world music. His opinion however, is that "we all live in this world, so as far as I know, it is all world music..."
Carina: You initiated diverse projects with musicians from many different countries, studied ethnomusicology and languages. How is it possible to learn from so many cultures and at the same time to stay true to ones musical origin? Or is this not a problem at all?
Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar
Bob: All music is music, who can say what my origin is - I was only five years old when I started. I am in love with music, and what it means to learn and expand throughout a lifetime. The first ethnic music I heard was African-American blues, followed by Hawaiian music, and from there I expanded to find a lot of very fascinating music, all at the frontiers of colonialism.
It is very important to me politically and philosophically to have a non-imperialist approach to collaboration. I respect the musicians and the cultures with whom I collaborate, and try to pay them the utmost attention. This paying of attention is a skill that can always be improved in one's life. I get a real musical blend and a real life-long friendships from all of these projects, plus I learn so much which informs my own playing.
Carina: All the different musical languages of foreign cultures you dive in have something in common: they are old ones, sometimes with musical traditions over several hundreds of years. The native musicians who play this music usually try to find a way to unite ancient and contemporary music. How does this affect you?
Bob: I think the concept of pure tradition must include the fact that individual musicians within a tradition possess a sense of curiosity and a desire to grow. Too often, "uniting" ancient and contemporary music - or native and western - yields a forced, contrived, artificial or overly commercial result. All of my musical partners are masters of their traditions, yet are also bold explorers. I am always trying to meet them not halfway, but as far toward them as I possibly can. And my choices of collaborations are not random, as there must be some connection - either rhythmic, timbral, social, or with instruments.
Carina: Is there a difference between approaching music in these cultures and in the United States or Western world?
Bob: American culture is very xenophobic and ethnocentric, with a staggering lack of awareness of other cultures. The world of music is so much bigger and richer than what US pop culture has to offer. American music is much less challenging - for me anyway. Though the US is perceived as a wealthy land, I must say that in terms of humanity, compassion, and art, it is impoverished. It is also responsible for a lot of the world's misery for the last 80 years.
Thus I feel extra-conscious to behave openly, respectfully, and in equal partnership with my musical collaborators, regardless of country, language, race, and religion. I live by my words, and arrive alone without an entourage or the false prestige of celebrity. I want to learn, I want to share all rewards equally, and I want to help. No artist is ever intimidated by my nationality, because I try to act like a citizen of Earth.
Carina: Do you think you change the musicians you play with the same way they change you? Or is there a special openness or preparation necessary that you maybe acquired due to your musical studies?
Bob: I am fairly sure that they change me more than I change them, though I think I excite them and bring out their best. Certainly things change as we become friends and then family. I have learned incredible new ways of thinking and feeling about music, rather than just some details of technique.
Probably a similar exchange takes place the other way around. Whatever special openness I have comes not from study, but from experience and desire. Any music can be attained with sufficient desire. My preparation is really the 44 years I have been playing. I had one guitar lesson when I was 5 years old, and I am still having it!
Carina: Where have Debashish Bhattacharya and you met for the first time and how did the relationship to him and his family develop? As a citizen from the United States, do you always feel welcome in all the different countries you have been?
Bob: We first met in 1996, when it was suggested to us to tour the US together, for twenty shows. We arrived from different destinations, with no time for rehearsal, agreed on a key and a tempo, and off we went, for the rest of the shows! We have done two more US/Canada tours, and also I went to Calcutta in 1998 where we recorded an album for the Indian-only market. In many shows, if we look at each other during deep moments of musical communication, tears start flowing on both sides, simply from the depth of feeling caused by the attentiveness to each other and the music.
But there is a deeper story also: My first collaboration, in 1989, was with a Hawaiian musician named Tau Moe, with his family of musicians, who left Hawaii in 1928 for a 60-year long world tour. They traveled everywhere in Europe and Asia, and in fact were well known in Germany in the 1930s, having made recordings and films there. And they were a favorite musical group of the senior Nazi party officials, right up to the top. When the war forced them to leave, they were stranded in India from 1941-47, where Tau led a hotel orchestra and made many records. In this period, Tau had a student named Garney Nyss, the first Indian to play Hawaiian guitar and Hawaiian music.
Garney went on to make records, too, and in the 1950's had a student named Brij Bhusan Kabra, the first Indian to play Indian Classical music on the lap-slide guitar. His student - of more than 10 years of intense study - is Debashish. So the circle is completed in a very resonant way.
As to the second part of the question, this could bring a very long and complex answer about all of the terrible political, business and cultural imperialism coming from America these days. I am quite horrified and discouraged by the current activities of America worldwide, and I hope that Europe can get together and help balance this abuse of military and economic power.
Since I personally try to behave in every country like a citizen of the world and of music, my behavior and philosophy makes it very easy to be welcomed. I am not necessarily welcomed as an American, but as a humanist and musical brother with no hidden agenda. Plus I make every effort to speak in local languages wherever I am, something which really helps. I can say 'please' and 'thank you' in may languages.
Carina: The album "Mahima" was recorded during a period, when the four of you were living together like a family. Please describe a little the influence that this way of recording an album has on the output, on the music, on the creativity.
Bob: The method of recording that I have been using for all of my collaborative projects is unconventional. I stay away from the "normal" method of arriving with a big American rock entourage and then staying at a big hotel separate from the local musicians, then meeting only in studio, and having the musicians be awkward, intimidated, or otherwise disconnected and feeling unnatural. My way of doing these albums is much nicer - we all stay in the same house or shack, cook and eat the same food together, and then record together, usually again in the same place we eat and sleep.
Plus, I am not really famous, so the musicians are not afraid of me nor do they think of me as a "boss." They know I am open and want to learn, so they are never afraid to tell me if I am doing something wrong in the music. Finally, due to my political philosophies, we split all the money equally, so they know they are not going to get rich by working on these projects - but only are doing it for the love of the music.
What do I get out of it? True blending of music to create new music, life-long deep friendships, a real music education, the chance to expose Western ears to something wonderful, and the chance to tour and help the lives of my collaborators and their families.
Carina: In which way do your musical blues-roots, the Hawaiian music you are a master in and Indian music fit together (and - maybe the music from Okinawa as well)?
Bob: Slide guitar generally is what made me fully realize the complex secret relationship between 'feeling' and 'muscle movement'. If you imagine a musical feeling as drawing a curved line, and a musician's muscle movements as stair-step zigzags trying to closely imitate that curved line - then the lifelong work of a musician is to make those stair-steps smaller and smaller, to more closely imitate that curved line. Playing with a slide forces the player to be more and more aware of everything, especially the relationship between feelings and sounds. Slide guitar may have developed separately all over the world, as a natural impulse.
Hawaiian guitar may have roots in Indian slide instrument, and because of Tau Moe, the influence also clearly went the other way. Hawaiian music and Okinawan music also share some qualities of structure, feeling and harmony, though there was never slide guitar in Okinawan music before our recordings.
Blues for me is more about humans using music to overcome difficulty with life, oppression, etc. It happens in countries all over the world, not just America. My search is for world blues, as I find the cry of the pained human spirit to be most attractive musically and emotionally.
Carina: Your life is dedicated to music - writing books, doing concerts and tours, teaching and musical experiences everywhere. Where do you get the energy from for all these activities?
Bob: I wish I had a complicated answer for you, but it is simply that I love music, I love being alive and seeing the world, and that life is very short and there is so much to do, to learn, and so many people who need help in this world. I wish I had two clones to help me do everything! Music and curiosity gives me more energy than most people I know. I am getting younger but also older and wiser, and more compassionate for my fellow humans.
Carina: Would you - back home - consider yourself in the role of a musical ambassador for the foreign cultures you are in contact with? Whom do you want to reach this way? Does your work also aim at preserving other cultures and therefore means a struggle against our own society and its values?
Bob: Since you are asking this question, I feel responsible to tell the truth: I am only one small individual, but I try to fight against the enormous juggernaut of American cultural imperialism in the world. Within America, two things have radically changed in the last 35 years: a severe decline in education, and a severe increase in the amount of marketing, branding, and privatization of all cultural, political, and mental space. Music and the marketing of music has contributed greatly to this problem. It is almost like a "conspiracy of the senses" with Barbie-doll colors, McDonald hamburger smells, and 120-beat-per-minute "doof-doof" music, all seemingly designed to make people more passive, stupid, and to make them consume more and more. At the core of advertising and marketing is the idea of making people feel bad about themselves, and the only cure is to buy more things.
The same is true of the fairly recent phenomenon of "celebrity" which also makes people feel bad and powerless. The continual stream of celebrity "news" confuses and distracts from the real issues at hand. All of these things have only been with us for a few generations, but already the effects on society are profoundly negative.
So I see myself as merely an ambassador for pure music, for music as freedom and kindness, and most importantly - 'Music as a way of encouraging individual thought, not propaganda'. I am a citizen of all humanity, not just one country. A true patriot loves his country, but always questions his government.
Carina: How would you, with your experience, define the term "worldmusic"?
I think it is funny and typically ethnocentric to have a record shop with pop, alternative, punk, folk, alternative folk, alternative punk, etc etc etc, and then only one section for the other 199 countries, called "world music." - Western music, despite colonialism and geopolitics, is not any more "legitimate" than other musics. For centuries all music other than western classical has been considered by the West to be "primitive" or "folk" music. Sorry - this is simply false, the result of the rest of the philosophy that enabled the west to enslave the rest of the world at times.
This carries through today, with American pop music dominating world cultures, and all else being consider "world music." We all live in this world, so as far as I know, it is all world music. Having said that, there is one other thing. "World music" is 99% of the time a guarantee of good playing, since if the artists in these countries can survive with music, and record and tour, they are absolutely at the top of playing ability.
Carina: Do you have a sort of philosophy for life?
Bob: I think most of it should be clear from what I have discussed already in this interview, but here are a few more key points: As I have said above, life is short, we must be kind and respectful to all people, regardless of color, religion, nationality, and economic status. Wake up every day and try to find ways to help people. You can't push something toward you. Read a lot, be curious and learn as much as you can about whatever interests you. If you play music, be awake when you play. Play, don't practice. Don't watch American TV. Or at least watch less and be skeptical! Support publicly owned media. Fight against privatization in all forms. Nobody ever died of audio, but it is a fact that too much American pop music will make you stupid. Life is short, be awake for it. Be kind. Be grateful. Think! Love.
CD: Debashish Bhattacharya and Bob Brozman - "Mahima"
Bob Brozman Press Kit Links:
Print Quality Photos
World Press Quotes
Reviews and Interviews