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Interview: Bob Brozman
Working with Island Music: Bob Brozman


Watching and listening to Bob Brozman playing live is a remarkable experience. His enjoyment just oozes out and his mastery of the guitar is so complete that you wonder if there's anything at all he can't do with it. As Hirayasu Takashi says, his whole body is involved in the process. An extrovert character on stage, he is thoughtful, serious and philosophical about his role as collaborator - not just with Hirayasu but with all of the musicians in what he calls his extended musical family. The following is from an interview conducted in Osaka where Brozman played with Hirayasu Takashi in October 2000.

How did you come to play Okinawan music with Hirayasu Takashi?

"Basically it came about through Takahashi Kenichi of Respect Records and his interest in Hawaiian music, and through Paul Fisher being aware of my existence and letting Takahashi know about it. I got invited to play a concert with Yamauchi Yuki, a Japanese slack key guitar player, and did a solo concert and mixed it with Hawaiian music. At that time I'd mentioned that I was quite interested in Okinawan music and I just casually said that I'd love to do an Okinawan project sometime. So the idea was presented to Hirayasu Takashi who had apparently heard of me before as a blues guy, and then he realized that I play a lot of other kinds of music too, so he thought that I'd be up to the job.

I purposely did not prepare for the songs. I wanted to have an open mind and not have typical American cultural imperialism going on. What that requires is to absolutely pay attention in the present tense. Since I did not prepare, the tape was literally rolling within hours of us meeting each other, and that means I'm on the edge of my seat. My basic general process is that I practice four levels of anthropology at once. One is kind of like a doctor, where I'm literally looking at people's facial movement and breathing, to see how an individual musician approaches his music. The second level would be the musical aspect, which involves the stylistic rules and regulations about Okinawan music. Third is learning as much as I can about the history of the country itself vis-a-vis its relationship to the rest of the world. And finally, the social level of watching how comfortable the person is I'm working with. My job is not to meet them half way, it's to meet them three quarters of the way, and so I absolutely want them to be comfortable.

I think the thing that's finally arrived after forty years of being a musician is really discovering that the path of learning to pay attention is never ending. You can always pay more attention, and that's a lovely process. Every song on Warabi Uta is a first or second take. In Taketomi island we slept on the floor. Breakfast was two feet away. The guitars were four feet away. The microphones were six feet away. And we just went from waking up, to having breakfast, to running over the song a little bit. I would ask about the text to get the proper feeling and think of the right instrument, deal with keys and tunings, learn the song very quickly and then record it.

Warabi Uta [JIN JIN] is a simple album but the magic and friendship that emanates from it is incredible. I've read over a hundred reviews and they all have the same five or six adjectives, so they get the message. What happens when you're in this process of desperately paying attention to the other guy, is that you're serving the other guy and that opens you up and friendships become so deep. I'll go anywhere with Takashi, and I'm sure he would say the same."

Had you heard any Okinawan music before this project?

"Bits and pieces. Enough to kind of grab what the rhythm was and the nature of the scale. Takashi has a pretty amazing horror story about a famous musician who collaborated with Okinawans and he actually couldn't comprehend the uneven bars and forced the musicians to re-record it in 4-4 and straighten it all out. To me that's the height of cultural imperialism. My advantage over more famous musicians is that I can show up somewhere and whoever I'm working with isn't afraid of me or trying to impress me, thinking that I'm going to make them rich. I know for sure whether I'm making a friend or not. Someone who's rich and famous, an American, blows into a third world's a different story."

Did you find any similarities between Okinawan music and the Hawaiian music you were more familiar with?

"I found some overlap between Okinawan music and Hawaiian music. There are musical concepts that overlap. Now, one of my radical ethno-musicological theories, in this age of political correctness, is that I do feel that groups of human beings have genetic proclivities towards certain musical things. So concerning Hawaiian music and Okinawan music, I can give you five or six different reasons why they are similar. For one thing, they both are not rigidly dependent on the same number of beats per measure. The measure structure is driven by the text, first and foremost. Secondly, and this is more personal, but they are two fairly unique musics in that they are quite consistently in major keys but quite sad. They both have the sound of a fragile culture being trampled. They also share the non-blues blue note. In African American blues the third is neither major nor minor. In Okinawan music and Hawaiian music the one 'ugly' note used to express pain is a flat fifth. Decidedly a major key. They both share that. Most Western kinds of music which have turn arounds between verses, the turn around is included in the number of bars of the verse, whereas in Hawaiian music and Okinawan music the turn around is appended. So those are some similarities.

Another radical theory I have is that I believe quite strongly that colonizing cultures tend to play music on the downbeat and colonized cultures tend to play music on the offbeat. And Japan and Okinawa is the last brick in the wall of the theory because it's not a black-white question at all, it's a colonizer-colonized question, because Japanese music is heavily downbeat oriented, and Okinawan music is offbeat. So, for example, Hirayasu Takashi understands one of the most complicated musics in the world which is Reunion island music, which is related to Madagascan music. For most Western musicians it's a mighty struggle, but Takashi learned it right away. He can feel it straight away like the other musicians in my extended musical family, which includes people from Calcutta and Reunion and Hawaii as well as Djeli Moussa Diawara from Guinea. All of these musicians share the following three qualities. Number one, they are masters of their tradition. Number two, they are completely open-eared, adventurous, and place no special value on one kind of music over another. So they are ready to try anything and intensely curious. And number three, none of these guys have any egos at all. Master musicians are like children, in the positive sense of the word, because they have their sense of wonder and gratitude. I only find big egos in small musicians.

Takashi has met and played with all these other players. My album with Djeli Moussa Diawara came out the same month as Warabi Uta was released overseas under the title Jin Jin. The two competing record companies were quite nervous about it. I use the same instruments on both albums but it's totally different music, and I told them it wouldn't be a problem. I forced both record companies to put the artists together at the same time in Paris shows, and we played at this place for two nights. I did my bit with Takashi, I did my bit with Djeli, and then all three of us played together. These guys cannot share one word of language - they don't speak any common language at all. And the music was absolutely beautiful. There was a roomful of cynical Parisian journalists and they were weeping. We had kora on Okinawan music, and then I took Takashi's sanshin and I took some coloured tape and I marked it up for African scales and I marked the neck for African pitches and scales, and he just played African music."

Do you think there's such a thing as an island genre?

"Absolutely. And that's kind of where this collaborating started. Originally I was going to do an islands project but everyone of these artists deserves an entire collaborative album. It's considered by some to not be a good thing that I'm releasing a lot of albums right now, but I frankly don't care. Life is short and there's a lot of great music. If I was someone outside my own situation I'd be looking and saying, this guy's kind of interesting, doing all this stuff. I'm not doing it as a dilettante. I'd like to think I'm doing it well.

I feel that islands are very interesting laboratories of world music culture because they're visited by other cultures but then things are left to percolate in isolation. So Hawaiian music has influences from its original two-note scale and chant and percussion, Christian missionaries, Mexican cowboys, German military band music and American ragtime. All imports that percolated there for decades until it was able to develop into its own style. For me, when I say islands I mean small islands. Let's say under 200 kilometers diameter. Small islands never make empires, then never do big business ventures and so their priorities are somewhat different. When you're on a small island it's evident day in and day out that you're on an island. The power of nature is just much more in your face. And I just think that island people have a more unified feeling about music, food, love, nature, and they're just much closer to it all. I mean, people in Tokyo probably go for decades without seeing the stars. They probably forget that they're there.

With American mainland music, if you smell while you're listening to it, you smell money. If you listen to Okinawan music you smell the sea, you smell the soba, you smell the sand on the road. So for me the thing about island music is that the environment is much more a part of the music than with commercial, mainland music."

Will you be collaborating with Hirayasu Takashi again in the future?

"Yes. Well, I've got this family of musicians and we're doing things in different combinations and so we're just in the preliminary stages of talking about the next project. What I love about Takashi is that he's got the master musician thing but inside there's a 17 year old wild man. I'm somewhat the same way. So on stage he's incredibly charismatic and fun-loving and so is the show we do. It's staggering because we are people who grew up on two different sides of the world and yet we have all the same musical philosophy, about how shows are done, just how to be a human being. I'm totally confident with him and he's totally confident with me. We trust each other musically. Bombs could be dropping around us and he knows I won't lose the beat....ever. A lot of times he'll put the sanshin down and start dancing without even checking with me that he's going to do it, and I'm there."

And can Okinawan music ever become a major force in world music?

"I think it can become as popular as Hawaiian music. I don't think it can become as popular as reggae. Many people who don't know anything about Hawaiian music say it all sounds the same. But then, I don't know anything about Irish music and it all sounds the same to me - and I'm a musician. So while I don't have any problem making Okinawan music more accessible to people, I'm really just so cautious about American imperialism. When you're an anthropologist you're not supposed to disturb the culture you are observing. When we finished Warabi Uta [JIN JIN], I happened to show Takashi open D tuning on the guitar - slack key tuning. Now he's only playing in open D, so in fifty years he'll be written down as the father of Okinawan slack key guitar traditions. It's a little screw up of mine, in a way. With Kiburudatsuchya Music [NANKURU NAISA], I don't want anyone to think that I've forced my influence on him. He actively sought out my drummer's advice and bass player's advice and my advice. He wanted to do all this stuff, and to me it's still an Okinawan album. It's still Okinawan music because he's Okinawan, and it has its peculiarities which make it Okinawan. In fact these are all mostly his songs. His songwriting has some consistently Okinawan things about it.

I can't really speak for Europe, but regrettably, and it saddens me deeply, if you ask most Americans why they like a song they will say it's because they like the words. They couldn't care less about the melody, the chord changes, the style. A good friend of mine won't listen to JIN JIN and he won't listen to the Djeli record, because he can't understand the words. That's totally annoying. Why don't people just listen to foreign singing as music? It's all about the sound. People listen to African music. You just hear it as music, but Americans have trouble with that. I'm really looking forward to this American tour. I guess we're really going to turn some heads around. They're going to see that it's good music and it's a good show, and it really is very moving music."

Reprinted with permission from:
"The Power of Okinawa: Roots Music from the Ryukyus" by John Potter,
published by S.U.Press, Japan, 2001.

Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar

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