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Interview: Bob Brozman

Winter 2003

Bob Brozman: The Globetrotting Mr. National


Bob Brozman is a 48-year-old border defying guitarist and musical intellectual who is always on the lookout for new songs and sounds, as well as fellow experimental musicians and far-flung locales - consistently offering a fresh approach as he illuminates the vast musical landscapes he traverses. Employing a deep and broad blues acumen alongside multidisciplinary skills on the metal-body National guitar (coupled with the lush, trance-like traditional sounds of rural Hawaiian music or pre-Belafonte native-Calypso grooves as calling cards).

Brozman has traveled the globe, from Okinawa to Australia, collaborating with like-minded rhythmic masters and cementing his reputation as a major player on the current world music scene. The titles of two of his independent releases, The Running Man and Live Now, seem most apt.

Growing up on Long Island, there were no musicians in his immediate family, but one of Brozman's uncles, Barney Josephson, ran a l940s-era Greenwich Village night spot that challenged then prevalent racial barriers among performers and audience alike. "Café Society was the first integrated club in America. It featured everybody from Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa to Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman," Brozman explains.

"Every well-known jazz name of the 1930s and '40s played there until the early 1950s when the Red Scare was going on. My uncle was involved in the Communist Party as a teenager and that fact got dug up by Hedda Hopper, who was a very powerful newspaper columnist. One day she printed that Cafe Society was a Commie hangout and the next day there was no business and that was the end of that club."

But Josephson, whose wife, Gloria Agrin, was one of the lawyers defending the Rosenbergs, was resilient. "He later opened up another place in the Village called The Cookery. At that point he also turned talent scout, rediscovering a lot of jazz artists that may have recorded in the 1920s or '30s but had disappeared. Alberta Hunter, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland and Helen Humes all performed there. I kind of grew up in that milieu. I was in The Cookery quite a bit."

Bob began playing guitar at the age of six, and professes that even then, he would memorize the music and immediately start figuring out ways to change it. "I've always rebelled against the dominant European classical music tradition, because of its hierarchal framework, as opposed to being circular, as well as their emphasis on harmony and an utter lack of interest in rhythm. Also the absolutely forbidden concept of improvisation."

By the time he was a teenager, the largely self-taught Brozman had discovered the pre-war Delta country blues, especially the genre's first great star, Charlie Patton, with his percussive, resilient National Resonator guitar work and field holler and levee camp moan-based vocals. "To this day, I think he's the greatest, head and shoulders above his whole generation. His music deeper, more three-dimensional, more compelling and rhythmically way more complicated than any of his peers. Patton's time is always perfect, he's always in tune and, most importantly, his vocals and guitar are constantly, tautly, inter-weaving. He sounds like an African village, all by himself.

"And, of course, he primarily played a National guitar. More than an acoustic or an electric, the National's dynamic range is gigantic. On an electric or Martin the difference between the softest touch and your hardest hit doesn't yield huge sound difference. With the National, you can go from a whisper to a roar and back again in a second. You might say my ears were shaped by those instruments," he avers.

During a four-year stint at Washington University in St. Louis, where he majored in music and ethno-musicology (and heard country blues veterans like Bukka White, Robert Pete Williams and Henry Townsend first-hand), Brozman spent the summers going cross-country with some fellow musicians, playing street corners, small club and restaurant gigs and adding ragtime, early jazz and calypso strains to his constantly expanding repertoire. During a 1976 West Coast sojourn, he discovered the oceanfront town of Santa Cruz, California and has been based in the redwoods-rich area ever since.

Bob's affinity for National guitars became a passion. He even authored a well-researched book, with assistance from the instrument's Czech creator, about the National Guitar Company in its original incarnation from 1927-1941. "The inventor of these guitars, John Dopyera, had no idea the blues even existed when he began building his spun aluminum, resonator-fulcrumed guitars in a small, downtown Los Angeles factory in the '20s. They were originally made for Hawaiian music (a craze then sweeping the country) and early acoustic jazz," Brozman explains.

"Groundbreaking Hawaiian steel guitarist Sol Hoopii was like the Hendrix of his day. He brought a whole new level of excitement to the genre with his relaxed jazz-influenced style. He was the first fellow to introduce jazz and blues into Hawaiian playing and spent a lot of time hanging around with black musicians down on Central Avenue. In fact, Dopyera actually hired Hoopii, who was continually experimenting, updating the tunings, techniques and tech tricks, as a consultant on the firm's art deco era-inspired, gleaming and, surprisingly, weighty instruments.

"After inspiring the genesis of the steel-guitar driven Western Swing movement, Hoopii quit the business in 1938, retired to Seattle and made Gospel recordings that wound up in churches all over the land, and, I believe, spawned the Sacred Steel movement in Florida," Brozman concludes.

While the readily available Hoopii material was what initially turned Brozman onto the instrument ("I wanted to play like Sol," he recalls) he also began delving a little deeper, finding that the island's older, more rootsy and folk-oriented music was even more appealing. But locating those pre-1935 recordings was a daunting task.

Then, at a basement 78-rpm record sale in San Francisco, Brozman found the heraldic sounds of the Moe Family. "That Columbia 78, along with three other, Tokyo-recorded releases I later ran across, offered a real glimpse into the previous century. It was the most ethnic, deep, heart-ripping Hawaiian music I'd ever heard ... Except their names were not even on those Depression-era slabs of shellac. The credits on that initial one read 'Mai Kai No Kauai' by Madame Claude Riviere's Hawaiians. I eventually discovered, to my astonishment, that she wasn't even a musician. She was a very clever woman who was well connected in intellectual circles throughout Asian colonial outposts - kind of a cross between P.T. Barnum and Margaret Mead, and she made a living hustling acoustic steel guitarist Tau Moe and his vocalist wife, Rose, as a cultural phenomenon from Shanghai and the Philippines to Malaysia and India, everywhere.

"But I didn't learn any of this until a phone call out of the blue from Mr. Moe himself in 1988. He had admired some of my steel playing he' heard somewhere and was anxious to tell his story and furnish the details of his family's 54-year musical odyssey. I turns out that after a falling out with Madame Riviere in 1935 Moe and his wife struck out or their own, first to Egypt for a year and then to Syria, Turkey, Greece (introducing steel guitar to their pop music) and Bulgaria - until by 1938 they were playing large halls throughout Germany. The out-break of war in Europe and the Pacific kept them on the move, from Lebanon and Baghdad to India (where they met Gandhi and led a large hotel orchestra) and beyond. Moe also [learned] about fifteen languages in the process and has been a real inspiration to my manner of working ... and one of the main reasons I can get by in half a dozen languages today," Brozman notes.

"Post war, the Moe Family (now with their two children in the act) returned to Hawaii in 1947, didn't like it and went back to Europe to live and continued touring as far as Australia and Japan. In the I 950s, they ended up going electric, playing pretty schmaltzy Hawaiian music, and by 1968, at the insistence of their children, had added drums and bass and were playing less and less Hawaiian music and more show tunes and rock ... even "Proud Mary" at one point.

"But that was all the kids' doing. Tau and his wife were down-to-earth, native Hawaiian people. When we did our album together he was very specific, instructing his kids not to sing any 6ths or 9ths in harmony, just keep it pre-1935 and simple. We got great results. He was so aware that we were attempting to re-create his original music, recalling it note for note, phrase for phrase. The subsequent disc (released in 1989) sold very well and led to a full-length documentary film project, with Terry Zwigoff directing, but the NEA funding ran out before we could finish it."

Brozman was also a fan of the steel guitar's predecessor, the finger-picked, thumb-driven slack-key guitar, but no one he heard at the time impressed him very much. He recalls, "There was no strong, individualistic musician to make it appealing. I mean, Gypsy swing wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for Django Reinhardt. It's like blues music for me: 90% of it is uninteresting ... but when you've got a guy like Patton or Skip James there's an intensity and a transcendental quality present that's amazing.

"I didn't really hear any slack-key that impressed me like Hoopii and Moe on steel and that's probably because slack-key pretty much stayed down on the farm. Steel guitar is actually an adaptation of slack-key tunings, only you play it in your lap. And, with its commercial appeal, lap steel went on stages all over the world while slack-key stayed home on the back porch."

Then, Brozman heard Ledward Kaapana. "Ledward was the first slack-key guitarist to really wow me. I was in Hawaii at a steel guitar festival and was taken to a "Hawaiians Only" bar in downtown Honolulu where he happened to be performing. We ended up jamming into the wee hours. He was one of the most talented of a younger Hawaiian generation that had an overload of the syrupy, touristy Hawaiian music that dominated the 1960s, and began re-kindling an interest in slack simply to have a music that belonged to them. Today it's a recognized art form and the virtuosos, besides Ledward, include Cyril Pahinui and George Kahumoku."

Brozman subsequently made a pair of albums with Kaapana. "My first recording with him, on behalf of George Winston at Dancing Cat Records, was basically a jam session akin to that initial time in the bar. I basically played varying rhythms on the acoustic lap steel, no chord changes. I had to invent a muscular language of rhythmic accompaniment to melodically weave in and out of his very polyrhythmic approach. You've got to realize that when I first picked up acoustic steel in 1974, it had been dead since 1934. Now Led and I have done fifty or sixty shows together and our improvising language, as you can hear on our second album, has become much more subtle. But, of course, there's still plenty of laughter and giggling as we knock each other out."

Bob has a declining interest in music recorded after the mid-1930s because of the rising commercialism and homogenization of popular music. "The job [of A&R men] was to only record artists that were already on the radio. In 1929, you can put a record on and tell what town the bluesman came from. By 1939 it's pretty much over. That guy comes from America somewhere and the blues became very regularized. It stopped being eleven bars one day and thirteen the next. It became the twelve bar blues with a consistent 4/4 beat. The end result of all that is, today, you go to a village in India and everyone knows who Madonna is," Brozman wryly observes.

"My roots are certainly in traditional music. For me, that's the school where you learn to play your instrument. After you learn, though, you have to play music that's not traditional ... you find your own music. That's why, over the years, I've had to fragment the music to keep it interesting. My live set is pretty consistent from country to country. It consists of rural blues (mostly inspired by Patton), ragtime and early jazz stuff, definitely some calypso, a little bit of Hawaiian, and African-derived material. And I'll also offer brief political/musical commentaries. I call them 'head-scratchers.' What would have happened had Germany been colonized by some African country? What would have happened to the oom-pah-pah sound? Well, let's try it and see ... I'll also tell audiences that music has led me to anarchy. But, hang on a minute, anarchy is not breaking windows. Think about the word: there's 'hierarchy' and 'anarchy,' the lack of a hierarchy ..." Brozman's self-released Live Now, sold only through his web site or at concerts, is a great representation of his one-man-band appearances. He continually walks the tightrope, taking chance after chance with the grooves, tones, emotional range and dynamics of the blues (Skip James, Charlie Patton and John Lee Hooker), calypso (the quick-tempoed "Cinemascope Calypso"), the slack-key styled "Hawaiian Medley" as well as the afore-mentioned tuba song, tellingly entitled "Afrikanische Oom Pah Pah."

All of this is brimming with mind/body integration as Brozman gets into "the 'magic zone,' where the flow between brain and muscle becomes ultra-clear. It feels like the music is flowing right through me and the day-to-day conception of self-awareness disappears."

His globe trotting collaborations have, justifiably, generated a lot of interest over the past few years. A period he refers to as his 'island series' of recordings because, as he says, "islands are like experimental labs or hot houses for music. Other cultures that bring new ideas and musical instruments visit them - then the cultures leave and the music just percolates in relative isolation."

Brozman has been partnered on stage and in the studio with over four-dozen artists from more than thirteen countries. He has also organized tours with international troupes of musicians, highlighted by an annual appearance at Quebec's prestigious Festival d'Ete the past five years. Performing together on stage, for example, at the 2000 affair were Debashish ("the greatest slide guitar player I've ever heard" per Brozman) and Subashish Bhattacharya (India), Takashi Hirayasu (Okinawa), René Lacaille (La Réunion), Martin Simpson (U.K.), Djeli Moussa Diawara (Guinea), George Pilali (Greece), La Familia Valera (Cuba) and George Gao from China.

Some of these joint efforts have fascinating tales behind them. "Serendipity plays a big part in my life: I know you can't push something towards you. One day I was in Japan, touring solo, when l discovered the music of vocalist and sanshin master Takashi Hirayasu. (A sanshin is a three-string, snake-skinned lute.) I not only knew instantly that I had to document his music but wanted to record it where [Takashi] felt most comfortable: a small, tin-roofed shack on the small island of Taketomi, at the southernmost part of the Okinawan chain."

The results, released in 2000 as Jin Jin, deepened Brozman's developing theory that "the colonizing civilizations are interested in the downbeat and the colonized are fascinated with the offbeat. It's a cultural way of perceiving music actually - marching societies follow the beat, the marched upon see the beat as something you react to."

At first, just released in Japan, Jin Jin was picked up by World Music Network (the Rough Guides folks) and became one of their surprise 2000 hits. It also went to #2 on the world music charts in Europe and spent weeks as #1 on Amazon's international list.

"My second album with Takashi was recorded in Santa Cruz after his exposure to some of my other collaborators at the Quebec Festival. It's more Western - less purely Okinawan - but still full of experimentation and revelatory of his songwriting talent," Brozman adds.

One of Bob's latest duo projects, playfully entitled Dig Dig, took him to L'Ile de La Réunion, a volcanic island situated 600 miles east of Madagascar in the southern Indian Ocean, which boasts one of the most culturally diverse societies on the planet. Originally colonized by the French 300 years ago with slaves imported from Madagascar, Africa and India, La Réunion's racial mix was further seasoned by Arab and Chinese immigrants due to the isle's location along the trade routes.

"Aside from Patton and Tau Moe, meeting multi-instrumentalist René Lacaille and the entire Reunion Island experience was the third major life-changing musical experience in my life," Brozman reflects. "The rhythms are so intellectually rich, like a tickle in the ribs, employing the native maloya and sega forms of music. The compelling rhythms of Lacaille and his friends are the most extremely reactive to the beat possible. It's like a blues shuffle backwards, basically, and it's shocking upon first listen but very rewarding once you feel what's going on rhythmically.

"The older maloya rhythms are more African and modal oriented with no song form. Groove based. Sega developed a little later with the colonial importation of the French musette/jazz song form, with verses, choruses and chord changes - yet it still possesses skillfully jointed polyrhythms due to the unique displaced beat approach that-continually tips the listener's brain chemistry," he explains.

A fiery poet and punster, Lacaille's French Creole-accented vocals are invigorating as well. "René operates with less conjugation and more color," Brozman comments astutely. He also co-mingles Hawaiian guitar, bottleneck and Spanish guitar and charango to Lacaille's brisk accordion, charango and tschoulas artistry so imaginatively yet seamlessly that the dynamic undertow is breathtaking. "Our egos were always left at the studio door," he recalls with a chuckle.

That undertow is facilitated by Brozman's use of extremely heavy strings. "I start at 16 and go to 66 in standard tuning. My action is not particularly high, I just like the tension shift and, for me, it's always a matter of how do you feel and what do you do about it with your muscles to take full advantage of all the guitar's possibilities. My muscular effort can range from zero all the way to one hundred - sometimes you've got to stroke the baby's cheek in life and other times you've got to punch someone. Like they say on Réunion Isle, do it all the way or don't bother."

Another current collaboration features Brozman in tandem with Australian slide guitarist/singer-songwriter Jeff Lang. "I met Jeff at the Woodford Festival in 1999, a wild gathering with 80,000 people. We played back-to-back sets and I liked the improvisation-keyed nature of what he was doing. Later, jamming with him, I realized that he wasn't afraid to take the music somewhere," Brozman says.

"We recorded our album (the energetic, acoustic blues heavy Rolling through this World) in just two days at Jeff's house in Melbourne a year and a half later. We decided on the songs and the basic structures but it's agreed that in the middle we're going to take off wherever it goes ... which meant sitting on the edge of my chair, paying very careful attention and reacting quickly. Having the inventive Angus Diggs along on drums for songs like '61 Highway,' 'Cypress Grove' and 'Wipe it Off' (where he plays pots 'n' pans as well) was a real treat. Since the album's issue we've done a couple of tours together in his homeland and I also brought him to Quebec last July."

In addition to his daunting touring and studio schedule, Brozman has also been an adjunct Professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia the last couple of years, where he delivers lectures and is in the midst of a University-financed study of string music in Papua, New Guinea and neighboring islands in the western Pacific.

"I consider myself a theoretician trying to put together several somewhat disparate ideas. I'm researching brain function in terms of musical awareness, language, musical tones and perception and how culture and genetics affects all that. Of particular interest is attempting to explain the flow of how music developed and traveled throughout the world. I've detected patterns in my travels that I find very interesting and, apparently, in ethnomusicology are considered to be new ideas.

"It all refers back to what I look for in my collaborations: a completely, non-imperialist, egalitarian experience. I'm not trying to impose myself on these musicians at all and my advantage is that since I'm not terribly famous or an obvious bread ticket, I'm looked upon as just a fellow musician who can be corrected and wants to be. What I get out of it is the other guy is happy, the music flows better and I've got a lifetime friend. One of the best compliments I ever got was from René who, after a few days, looked at me and said, 'You know, Bob, you don't play music.' I said, 'What!' and he replied, 'Yeah, you play with music.'"

Bob elaborates, "I've been to South Africa and I met a guy who's made a guitar out of a paint can and a 2 by 4 and he's playing more guitar than you'll hear anywhere. I can't fix the fact that we live in a world where the 500 richest people have as much money as 3 billion of the poorest but I can, with what few connections I have, address the musical imbalance. I'm creating a non-profit foundation, and in my projected 2003 trip to New Guinea I plan on bringing a container full of the basic musical necessities with me. It's a win-win situation - the local musicians get the gear to develop their art and people in the West get some good sounds."

Upcoming endeavors also include an electronica album, with longtime Brozman producer Daniel Thomas (tentatively titled Acoustronica, where "we work with slide guitar and real-time sampling"), stateside studio sessions with India's Bhattacharya clan, and a 23-country East African tour with René Lacaille and the DigDig "crew."

As far as young musicians are concerned, the philosophical Brozman's advice is compact. "Does it sound good to you when you're playing it? Then it's good. Learn to be smart enough to make every musical situation enjoyable, play with the best musicians you can and remember that, in every language in the world, it's 'play' music not 'work' music."

And Bob's chosen instrument the National guitar? The company operates today as National Reso-Phonic Guitars, run by Don Young and McGregor Gaines in San Luis Obispo. "The company was started by a couple of guys in a garage and I was involved from the outset, providing enthusiasm and original vintage instruments to disassemble for exact measurements. I also served as a consultant as to how the guitars sound, play and feel. I also developed one model for them: a baritone with a 27-inch scale neck that's meant to be tuned down three frets." Brozman's athletic finger-work has been described as "uniquely staggering, yet full of humor." He also has a collection of hand tricks that always have audiences looking for the electricity, though he always plays unplugged. His disbelief-suspending performances are intoxicating, giving his acoustic music a life of its own with acuity and intersecting streams of motion upon emotion upon motion.

It's Brozman's ability to search a little wider and further than most of his contemporaries, coupled with a steadfastly non-imperialistic approach to culture (he knows "useful phrases in over thirty dialects") that results in music that seems timeless and, more importantly, lots of fun. Long may Mr. National run!

Gary von Tersch is a freelance journalist, poet and former educator who resides in sunny California. He is a folk and blues aficionado and has faith in the healing abilities of live music.

Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar

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