Interview: Bob Brozman
RHYTHMS MAGAZINE, Australia
Now Dig This!
By Jackey Coyle
Bob Brozman travelled out into the Indian Ocean to L'Ile de la Réunion for DIGDIG, his latest collaboration. He tells Jackey Coyle about the whirlwind that is his life.
How many musicians have put out five albums in a fourteen-month period?
Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar
How many have undertaken two Australian tours in three months, cramming their schedule with gigs in pubs, clubs and festivals - and even a university - from Broken Hill to Ballarat?
The answer: Bob Brozman, the musical hunter/gatherer who travels the world for ten months of the year, playing and teaching and exploring; not only playing solo but also collaborating with artists from islands as far-flung as Hawaii, Okinawa, Australia and Réunion.
Those who have seen Brozman on stage will have been struck by this bundle of pent-up energy let loose on an array of exotic stringed instruments. Plucking and tugging at the strings, tapping the wood or metal bodies, whooping and singing, laughing and joking, he is a musical tsunami. But as he plays he also educates, outlining the origins of the music, telling us how Robert Johnson really played the blues, imagining how a march might sound if it was played by African musicians. Audiences come away not only smiling but with a keener appreciation of the music.
It is hardly surprising that, given his background, Brozman would be as much educator as entertainer. Born in New York in 1954, he first started playing guitar at the age of six. Then he discovered the revered and distinctive-sounding National guitar - that he has collected over the years and on which he is a renowned authority - at 13. He not only studied music and ethnomusicology at Washington University - with an emphasis on the earliest roots of Delta blues - but he has since also become a respected authority on historical Hawaiian music, publishing articles and amassing a large collection of 78rpm records. He has also produced five re-issue albums from this collection on the Rounder and Folklyric labels, documenting the best of Hawaiian music from 1915 to 1935.
Brozman has spent much of his time over the past two decades traveling, studying the music of other cultures and developing his craft.
Since his first solo album in 1981, he has recorded more than ten solo projects and over a dozen collaborations with friends from around the globe.
Brozman's expertise in musical history and arranging has enabled him to create large band arrangements and direct music for film, radio, television, and stage. In 1999, along with Woody Mann, he co-founded the International Guitar Seminars, which host over 120 students annually at sites in California, New York and Canada.
At the age of 48, Bob is very aware of a need to help other musicians. "I'm at the stage where I want to give the other younger guys a leg-up", he told the audience at Melbourne's Corner Hotel in April this year.
Brozman also recently became an adjunct Professor at Macquarie University in Sydney. He lectures there on ethnomusicology and is beginning research on string music in Papua New Guinea and the vast number of islands around there, as well as in the western South Pacific Ocean. Through the auspices of the university he will be recording and collaborating with a wide variety of musicians from these interesting locales. He is also working toward the creation of a foundation to help third-world musicians play and record.
Amidst all this frenetic activity he managed to find a spare half an hour before yet another gig - this time with percussionist Angus Diggs and our own wizard of the frets Jeff Lang, at Easter's East Coast International Blues and Roots Music Festival.
As Brozman mused - on politics, his love of Australia and his music - the Mardi Gras Indians thumped away in the background. It was an appropriate musical backdrop given the subject matter.
An hour later, the crowd soaked up an exuberant Brozman set that was capped by an earthy blues finale featuring the sassy Ms Candye Kane.
Brozman's releases so far this year reflect his eclecticism. ROLLING THROUGH THIS WORLD is a collaboration with Jeff Lang and DIGDIG was recorded with the René Lacaille ensemble from L'Ile de la Réunion in the Indian Ocean.
DIGDIG had its roots in the late 1990s, when Brozman was creating recordings for an Islands Project. However, it expanded way beyond the original vision when each artist - such as Hawai'i's Led Kaapana and Okinawa's Takashi Hirayasu - justified a full duet project.
L'Ile de La Réunion is a volcanic island paradise 600 miles east of Madagascar in the southern Indian Ocean. Originally uninhabited, it was colonised 300 years ago by the French who brought in slaves - mostly from Africa, Madagascar and India. Then Chinese and Arab immigrants came, via the trade route between Asia and Africa. Now there was one of the world's richest cultural mixes. Music, language, customs, and cuisine have evolved a lifestyle that's volcanic like the geology; passionate like the climate, joyous like the landscape, rhythmic like a perfectly mixed cocktail of sounds that co-exist to enhance the others, yet are perfect in their own right.
Brozman performed at a festival there in 1999, when a three-week residence was created for collaboration, composition and recording. He formed a friendship, both musical and personal, with Lacaille and invited him to appear with the International Troupe in Quebec three months later. They kicked off at Bob's home in California with a week of informal rehearsals, Creole curries and late-night outdoor dinners that became laugh fests and jams.
Bob had given René a charango - the South American super ukulele that he loves presenting to musicians to see how they will play it - and Lacaille liked it so much that he asked for another, just in case. The charango's tone, dry cutting power, and flexibility makes it perfect for the maloya and sega music - now there are over a dozen Réunionais charango players.
René calls it the "Brozman virus".
Brozman and Lacaille returned to La Réunion Island in March 2000 to complete the album and tour with full percussion around Réunion and the Seychelles. There was help from long-time co-producer Daniel Thomas as well as Brozman's partner Haley S. Robertson (production and translation).
Rhythms wondered why the name DIGDIG.
That was René's name - it's a sort of ninety per cent tickle and ten per cent dig in the ribs. It's just a Creole word; Creole is a very colorful language; it has the same relationship to French as Jamaican would to English, so there's less conjugation but more colour.
Réunion sounds like an amazing society - very stable politically, with its people living together in harmony.
Well, it's a long way from anywhere, the nearest other piece of land is Madagascar, which is about a thousand kilometres away, and there's Mauritius as well. It's also fortunate that Réunion is actually physically part of France - as is Martinique and a few other places - so it's like another county in France and as a result it's not really a third-world country per se. It is a tropical country and it's got similarities in architecture to Australia, actually - a lot of tin roofs and that kind of thing.
I've also been to the Seychelles, where it's literally just like European-based, billionaire industrialists and poor, impoverished black slaves, whereas on Réunion the primary mix is African-Malagasy, French and East Indian. You go to a party there and there'll be people from those three groups and maybe Chinese and Arabic and everybody seems to be living at a pretty egalitarian level. Which actually I noticed recently in travelling 'round Australia. I'm sure there are wealthy people, but there's a lot more egalitarianism in housing here than there is in America. I guess that's because of the kind of government you have here. It's a little better in terms of social services.
We're getting a bigger gap in income now. Much bigger.
Yeah, unfortunately that's the influence of the way America handles itself and it is sad to see Australia following in that path, and I certainly hope it doesn't because it's a great country with a very educated population, and people should keep reading and supporting independent media like the ABC and demanding the truth.
You actually have quite a bit of your own culture. The average Australian, whether it's a taxi-driver or anybody else, you can have a very interesting conversation with them about any number of subjects, whereas in America sometimes it seems like about thirty per cent of what people say is nothing but sitcom catch-phrases - and very little of substance is actually ever discussed. And so people in power in America know that any issue that's slightly complicated is gonna be too boring for most Americans, and so they are getting away with things with just absolute impunity now. It's a little bit distressing.
I've been wondering what, particularly, you didn't like about America...
For one thing, the only time that the population of the country ever turned the course of government was ending the Vietnam War, and the reason why that happened was because in 1957 when the Russians sent 'Sputnik' up, the American Congress said, 'Oh, our children are falling behind in science and math', and so they injected a whole bunch of money into public schooling - and that's the generation I was educated in, and that's the generation that knew where Vietnam was and protested it. What happened immediately after that is, on a state level, throughout the country there was this tax revolt where people stopped paying taxes for schools and education plummeted to ninety per cent - and basically the result of that is now we have a population that one day they don't know who Saddam Hussein is, and the next day they want to nuke him. And for the life of me I don't understand why the rest of the so-called allies in the First World don't get together and say, 'Hey America, this is going a little too far'. It can't be just 'you're with us, or you're a terrorist' - that's a dangerous way of thinking.
I was actually scheduled to play in this 20-musician co-operative show with the City of Quebec and the City of New York on September 20th, in the lobby of the World Trade Centre, but obviously the gig was cancelled. It is tragic what happened, the loss of life. But it annoys me that the people in the buildings who died immediately and didn't know why they died are now being trumpeted as patriotic heroes. And as some wise man once said, 'Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels'. It's absolutely true that it's being used to completely blind Americans from what's really going on, that a lot of what's going on in Afghanistan is all to do with a pipeline which comes down to simple profits and, by definition, a corporation is neither moral or immoral, it's amoral. It's really just the bottom line and that's why I tell Australian audiences that the current president of Afghanistan's last job was working for Unocal Oil - and with this whole Enron disaster, records are being sealed going back to the Reagan era, and it's what is known in other parts of the world as a kleptocracy. At any rate, I urge people in Australia to stay informed and be independent and don't vote for anything that gets you further tied up into American business and geo-politics. And avoid American franchise businesses.
How are your plans to move here progressing?
Well, it's not something one can do all in one go. I'm giving my first lecture at Macquarie [Universityl in a couple of weeks and I'll talk to them then about further projects and formalising a little more about immigration. I have a lot going on in the States - it'll take a few years to disengage from that. But certainly, where I want to spend the latter part of my life is here. Any place that I call home, I'm not really there very much. If I lived in Australia I'd still be going around the world ten months a year.
Has Haley been here?
Yes, she's been here a couple of times. In fact when she's here she does the driving and the first time through she drove while I read, cover to cover out loud, THE FATAL SHORE. It was fascinating drivin' around this beautiful country, reading the history.
Did you get through it?
Oh yeah. Read it a couple of times actually. It's a gripper.
Making DIGDIG - all those polyrhythms, it seems like you can have four or five different rhythms in a song. Did that take you long to get used to, to get your head straight in it?
Well, I always approach all of my projects like this with a very open mind and humble attitude. Essentially, Europeans can only conceive one beat at a time - it's either a four, a three, or a two. Whereas with Africans the basic pulse is two and three at the same time, and so that means you can have six in common. And all these possibilities can come out and the art form is actually tipping the listener's brain back and forth between two and three, feeling like it's all illusion. Because all rhythms are one, one, one, one, one and the human brain is what groups them and, to get absolutely scientific about it, when I'm doing polyrhythms, even when I'm alone, I'm causing chemical changes in the brains of the listeners that sound more like two or sound more like three.
Now, if Europe had an equal place in world power, instead of having dominated the world, you would quickly find that the diatonic, European, twelve-note-to-the-octave system is the weird man out. It's the odd system; it's not natural. Every other music around the world is what they call modal - the modes are the white keys of the piano - and there's seven tones to the octave. And each one of those notes was figured out by the ancient Greeks by dividing pieces of string into equal parts, so all those notes are produced by whole number ratios with numbers lower than ten. In other words they're very simple -four over three, three over two.
Anything in nature that's beautiful is always mathematically simple. And that works great until the Europeans invented the keyboard and then it starts to be out of tune as you have the concept of keys and going into other keys.
And so as a result they split the octave into twelve parts, and in order to do that they had to detune everything a little bit so that it would be a compromised tuning for everything. It's a very artificial system and it actually involves, instead of three over two, it's three-point-da-da-da-da-da over two-point-da-da-da-da-da, it's a lot of decimal noise. Anyway, it's why I was fascinated by music at the fringes of colonialism. It's interesting to see non-diatonic people dealing with European instruments and what kind of music is produced.
Having said all that, the European diatonic system of chords and harmony and scales puts you up in your head, and classical musicians will look down on African-based music as being primitive because there's not a lot of chords or apparent structure. However the polyrhythms thing is intellectually so rich that it's way more sophisticated than European music and in fact there may not be an overall structure. When I recorded with Djeli [Moussa Diawara], there's no rehearsing with that guy with that music - it's figure out what mode you're in, decide on what the groove is gonna be and after that just sit on the edge of your chair and pay attention to the present moment, because there's no overall structure to the song but it's riddled with microscopic structure all the way through that's ever-changing.
(I had a real thunderclap when I was about seven years old. I was at the beach and I realised that no two waves are ever alike and yet there's something fundamentally the same about all of them, and it's kind of like that with music, and it's like that when I improvise with Jeff as well.)
So getting back to your original question, I had already had some experience with African rhythm with two against three, but L'Ile de La Réunion takes it a step higher because it's two against three but it's accented upside down - it's not one two three four five six, it's actually one two three four five six.
And if there's no context the loud thing gets presumed to be the beat, being a westerner. So I spent a few embarrassing moments on the wrong side of the beat as I was learning it, but it's taken me so far in music learning it 'cause now I can shatter any rhythm into little ones and put it back together any way that I want.
I find it incredibly restful and natural to listen to, even though there's all this stuff going on.
I wanted to ask you about an instrumental track, 'Place D'Youville'. At one stage in the middle there I find myself always going to alpha rhythm.
Well, I've never looked at it in terms of the alpha waves or anything like that but by my way of thinking every place in the world where there's a bridge built, what used to be there was a ferry terminal, right? [and] that's the way the human brain has evolved as well.
We started out with just the lizard brain - which controls movement and autonomous stuff - then we developed the monkey brain - which is where we house all our emotions; that's why Tourette Syndrome people curse instead of reciting Shakespeare, 'cause cursing doesn't come from the speech centre, it comes from an earlier, monkey/chimpanzee part of the brain. And then in the front we've got the human brain, the cerebrum. So a lot of music, you never get to get out of the cerebrum; it's only in the intellect. And when you learn music of course you have to use your intellect, but when you're actually in the act of playing, what you're literally doing is using your lizard brain to translate the language of your monkey brain.
In other words, I'm using my movement, muscular movement, pressures and angles, to directly translate this unspoken language, which is how I feel. The Réunion music provides many layers of that because in addition to all the melody and chords and everything there's this rhythm thing that's so rich, and it's the first music I've encountered where I can feel the moment a few seconds into the music where my intellect switches off.
And it used to be a minute or two, 'cause I was still doing the math a little bit as I was learning it, but now I can feel my eyeballs stop functioning, I know that light's coming in but I'm not processing it. And it's this different feeling in your body too, so I think it must be related to alpha waves. It's basically when I feel like I'm not really sitting in my chair I'm just floating around it. It's a wonderful experience, it's... mind-altering. It's the most fun you can have without getting arrested, really.
It's fantastic for the listener and I notice that quite often happens in your work with Led Kaapana as well.
It's flow, it's definitely flow. Led and I send each other messages - there's bits on the record where we're both damping and playing very staccato and then it opens up and closes up - those are messages that never even get to the intellect, because it's produced by tightening your muscles, so when I hear him do that my muscles tighten without me having to think about it. It's just how much do you wanna flow with the other guy. Flow is very important, lack of push-pull is very important and it's basically anarchy and politeness - anarchy in the sense of a lack of hierarchy.
Whenever I'm playing with someone and they say it's an honour to play with me it's like, 'Man, it's an honour to play with you too', so we don't even have to worry about it.
The other thing I wanted to talk about is vibrato.
There is no such thing as a perfect vibrato. After you learn the notes, there's only so many notes, and then the whole thing is about communicating your feeling with your muscles, whatever your instrument or your voice is. Louis Armstrong never played a zillion notes when he played his solos, but what a communicator! He could take one note and just hold it, or one note and just repeat it and communicate volumes of emotional information. Music should never be 'Gee, aren't I clever', it should be 'Gee, isn't music nice', that's what it should be about, you know.
In order to play Hawaiian style on stage I have to be more relaxed than I would be to play some of my more aggressive stuff. But I've learned how to turn myself down when I need to. To get a relaxed Hawaiian sound you can't be white-knuckling it with the bar or anything...it has to be very squid-like.
Again, it's flow. One of the goals of playing music is to remove anything that's blocking the flow, that's impeding the path between how you feel and how it sounds - so that's your muscles, your hands, your guitar, your strings, the microphone, the PA, the sound guy, the weather, you know, all those things. And that's why music is wordless, because it's communicating something else. Now that they can do brain scans on people while they're awake, when they play music for people, places in the brain light up all the way down to the lizard brain, so there's some interesting biological, evolutionary value of music.
Now I wanted to ask you about when sometimes you hear in your head what you wanted to sound like, but it's not actually sounding like that. And then there's a moment where it all comes together.
There used to be kind of an arms race between my head and my hands, that sometimes my hands could play more than I could hear, sometimes I could hear more than I could play. But now I've just removed all the obstacles and I realise I'll never be finished learning how to play music. I think part of long-term survival is really being careful about what you worry about and what you don't worry about.
People have often asked me 'Have you ever done a collaboration and it didn't work?', and the answer is that my job is to make sure it works by being the right kind of person and open-minded and every one of these guys that I've worked with, we've gone around the world in different combinations - it's as big as all of them. I've had as many as eighteen musicians from ten countries, speaking six languages, all playing together in various combinations and all at once in South Africa and Canada and Europe as well. For me all these master musicians from different countries are the same way, they're like children - no ego, big curiosity, warm-hearted, love what they're doing. We all look at music as just like this communal toy that we're playing with; like a bunch of kids playing with a toy.
And everybody, believe it or not, everybody has an internal, mental dial that they can turn up and down - it's called the 'Give-a-shitter' - and as you get into middle age if you want to live a long time you learn when it's important to turn that down and when it's not.
Basically I never crash and burn with any of these guys because I'm determined to make sure that, first and foremost, they're musically happy and comfortable, and we live at the same level - we eat the same food, nobody's trying to make a buck of anybody else, it's not exploitative, I don't show up with a big entourage. And these are people that I'll be friends with for the rest of my life. It's like a family of musicians around the world.
If I had funding, I could do my entire, self-contained world music festival, 'cause there's Debashish [Bhattacharya] and his family from India who is next in the queue after René Lacaille from Réunion, Djeli Moussa Diawara from Guinea, Takashi Hirayasu from Okinawa, Led, Woody Mann and Cyril Pahinui, Romane the French gypsy from Europe, Jeff Lang. There's a number of other people that I'm waiting to tap into. There's a really great Chinese player named George Gao who lives in Vancouver.
Do you think you'll ever get an entourage like that here?
Well, that sort of project really requires either a festival to fund it, or actual arts funding. I mean at some point in the future I would certainly love to bring some of these great artists to Australia and as I get older grant-writing becomes something I need to do more and more for larger projects.
Ultimately, where I'm heading is, when I'm too old to play, I really want to create a foundation which raises money for instruments and basic musical necessities for third-world musicians -strings, tuning machines, basic recording gear - things that everybody in the West takes for granted. We've got so many people with collections worth thousands and thousands of dollars, that's another area of imbalance and I would think that musicians and guitar companies and string companies would be a little more open-minded than, say, an oil company and share the wealth a little bit.
I've been in places and seen a guy playing a guitar made out of an olive oil can and a two by four with splinters sticking out of it but playing more music than any number of over-aged and over-ripe rock stars.
What's the most common advice that you give people who do your guitar seminars who are just starting out?
Well, I give them basic awareness of rhythm for one thing, and polyrhythms, and I always start out with patting hands and feet, stamping feet in different combinations, learning to divide your upper and lower body and your left and right. It's real interesting; people have different neurological steps that they have to go through to get certain rhythms. Then I apply those rhythms to the guitar and I teach a lot about open tunings, which are very liberating because standard tuning isn't apparently logical when, visually, there's no logical thing about it - it's very European and with open tuning it's very easy to observe a physical position of your hands and hear the behaviour that happens and figure it out yourself so I basically teach people how to teach themselves. I also talk a lot about, in practical terms, what is this muscle stuff I keep talking about.
OK, new projects?
Well, let's see... This summer I'll be in Quebec with Takashi and René and Debashish for a couple of weeks, and doing some gigs in Europe with René and Takashi. Gonna try and grab a few days with Debashish to do some recording... it's almost impossible to get foreign musicians into America any more, so we'll do it in Canada - another country which supports the arts with government funding and so forth.
After that, I'm gonna talk to Macquarie about what we're gonna do next year in some of the islands north of Australia, around New Guinea. I'm going to Africa, I think, to sixteen countries for about a month and a half in November with René, through the Alliance Francaise, that should be really exciting - a little bit risk-of-life but I have to do it. And in the States I'm actually working on some film music. Sort of electronica with various types of slide guitars with the guy who's engineered and co-produced most of my albums for the last ten or fifteen years and he's really a musician himself so we're kind of aiming towards some of that as well.
I just recorded some more tracks with another slack key guitarist, George Kahumoku - that'll come out at some point, kind of a duet record. We did a few shows together in the States. And also, apparently there's this interesting guitarist from Mozambique who's made his own instruments and plays kind of a blues-like, strange guitar music, and they're trying to put me together with him as well. But again the infrastructure in Mozambique's pretty rough to just get anything done.
I imagine it'd be a little bit like Haiti…
Yeah, well I bet there's some interesting music in Haiti as well. Man, life is short, there's a lot of places to go yet!
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