Interview: Bob Brozman
SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL, USA
February 7, 2002
Fretboard wizard to wield his magic
By TRAVIS SEMMES
Bob Brozman remembers the first time his photo was in the paper. He was sitting on Pacific Avenue, guitar in hand, with two police officers standing over him. The crowd he'd drawn that day years ago was so large it created traffic problems, so he was banned from playing on Pacific.
Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar
This Saturday, Brozman, who lives in Santa Cruz, will play homage to his local constituents with a rare show at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. With Brozman will be two of his students: Kyle Haynes of Santa Cruz and Blake Mills of Southern California. Both of them are in high school.
We spoke with Brozman about his work with ethnic musicians across the globe, why he prefers LPs to CDs, and the state of today's music industry.
How do you feel about MTV and today's music Industry?
Bob Brozman: If you're a musician, you don't have to buy into that whole system. If money is your only object, then you should buy into that system.
There is a wonderful living to be made, and a wonderful life to be had, doing music that you love, without buying into any system - if you're willing to starve for a little bit, if you're really committed.
I never recommend a music career to anybody who doesn't burn to play music all time.
All of the guys I work with, no matter what language they speak or where they come from, all say the same thing: "We're willing to haul heavy gear, eat bad food, not get enough sleep, be away from home and family - and we do all of that just for those couple minutes of magic when the music's going well."
When you're in the magic zone, it's just the greatest thing.
A couple years ago, you assembled an international troupe that included musicians from India, Réunion Island, Japan, Guinea, Greece, France, Cuba, the United States and China. What was it like getting all those people on the same page?
Brozman: First, let me explain the nature of my work. I'm a musician but I work like an anthropologist and I do that on four levels.
The first is like physical anthropology; the second is ethnomusicology. The third level is that I make it my business to understand the culture, and the fourth is social, to understand the people.
I want to make sure the other guy is totally happy, and I want to blend as much as I can with that other musician.
I do that four-stage process with each of them. I deal with the limitations of each of them. For instance, musicians from some cultures can't handle chord changes, and others can't play music without changing chords.
I understand you've taught yourself bits and pieces of many languages.
Brozman: It's just as a gesture of respect. I know useful words in about 20 languages.
When you picked up the guitar at age 5, did you know you wanted to play it for the rest of your life?
Brozman: Not exactly. I always wanted to play music, but when I was a kid I thought I was going to be a visual artist. I guess I enjoyed the more immediate qualities with music. There's a neurological feedback between the person playing and the person listening.
Ultimately, I have one more book to write before I'm all done. And I have about two more decades of thought before I do anything.
I'm trying to forge a grand unified theory that seeks to tie together music, language, brain function, perception, and transmission of culture.
There are certain things that really boil down to neurology - certain frequencies of notes that are pleasurable to humans. Some of that has got to be genetic.
When you first played a National steel at age 13, what was it about that instrument that said "this is it"?
Brozman: Very simply: the dynamic range. If you take an acoustic guitar and strike it softly or strike it hard, you don't get much range. Whereas, if you do that with a National guitar, you get a much larger range of sound - 90 decibels - which gives you a much wider palate of colors for expression.
I understand you have an extensive collection of 78 rpm records and have re-issued some old albums.
Brozman: I started collecting pre-war Hawaiian 78s, and I remastered some of them for the modern listener. There's some on Rounder, two on Folklyric.
How do LPs compare to CDs?
Brozman: I like 78s. I like things recorded by tubes and played back by tubes. The difference between an LP and a CD is not that big. LPs have a little more warmth, but CDs have a more dynamic range.
I'm not a Luddite - it's not the car, it's the driver.
Has the Internet made the world a better place for musicians?
Brozman: It's certainly made the functionality of doing the business of musicians a lot easier. Just email alone and doing business with other countries. The Internet makes my work much, much easier.
You've said nothing new has happened to music since rock n' roll. Do you feel that's still true today?
Brozman: This is where it gets dangerous - I don't know why my opinions count more than anyone else's - and I'm not a big fan of '60s music, but that era came from the ground up, from the rock musicians to the people. Today it comes from the top down, and the people have no choice.
Do you still describe your music style as a mix of jazz, blues, novelty and Hawaiian?
Brozman: My roots are in blues and Hawaiian and early jazz, but basically what I do now, and what I've done for 20 years, is realize that blues, Hawaiian and jazz are musical side-effects of colonialism, and these side-effects exist in great heaps all over the world.
It's an aesthetic I call "blues of the world."
Tell me about Saturday's show.
Brozman: Once a year I like to come back and play in Santa Cruz. I'm out on the road a lot - like 90 percent of the year - and I absorb a whole slew of music and take it back to Santa Cruz and put it all together.
What's different about this show is that I'm additionally presenting to the audience two15-year-old guys who've been students of mine. They're both playing beautifully and maturely.
I'll be playing with them, head to head. They may only be in high school, but musically they'r doing graduate work. They're very hot and they play amazing stuff. In no way are they clones of me. You can hear my influence, but I'm not looking to make clones.
Is working with young musicians a way for you to give back?
Brozman: As time goes on that the task of being a human is helping other humans. I'm trying to pass something on. In my generation, everyone played the guitar. In today's media-saturated world, it's not so common. Music has a very restricting nature, and I see myself as the guy with the key to all those jail cells.
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