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Review: Bob Brozman

August 2003

Bob Brozman: Interview


Has there ever been an instrument more beautiful then the National steel-bodied guitar? Mark Knopfler presumably doesn't think so for he used an iconic photograph of one on the cover of Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms. But never mind Mark Knopfler: perhaps the world's greatest authority on Nationals is American virtuoso Bob Brozman who talks here to Trevor Hodgett.

"On electric or acoustic guitar the dynamic range is small but on a National it is 95 decibels!" he enthuses, speaking before his sensational gig in the Real Music Club in Belfast's Errigle Inn. "Additionally I use no pickups because you can't walk away from a pickup so you are stuck with a one dimensional sound all night. Instead I use a microphone so I can drastically change my sounds from moment to moment by moving position relative to the mic. And finally there is a huge variety of percussive notes and tones which can be produced by tapping different areas of the metal body.

"Over the thirteen year lifespan of the original National company they made over 140 different types of instruments and models. I have a large collection of them and no two are alike, but due to my travels I have seen a dire need for instruments in poor countries so I am starting a non-profit organisation to get instruments to Third World musicians, in Papua New Guinea and in twelve African countries. Therefore most of my collection is for sale now, to get the programme started. My priorities have changed: all I care about now is helping my fellow humans and redressing some of the horrible imbalances in the world. Every time another musician is created, that's one less soldier!'

Brozman's first musical love was blues. "It was the first ethnic music I ever heard and it made a strong impression on me, because of the tones, the grooves, the raw emotion and the freedom. Especially Charley Patton - he was a pure genius, whose blues have greater musical depth and syncopation than any of the others. But the original blues guys are long gone and blues now means bar bands churning out pump-your-mutton, twelve bar boogie with way too many blues rock excesses. I see a lot of posing, costume-wearing, cliché-ridden commercialism without any tolerance for thinking outside the box, musically.

"I've done a few blues albums and someday perhaps I might do a Charley Patton tribute. But I think of the whole world as having many forms of the blues, in many countries and languages, and I play many different kinds of music with equal commitment - which is not really accepted by the US blues scene."

Indeed Brozman plays a dizzying variety of styles, collaborating innovatively with musicians from Hawaii, India, West Africa, Reunion, Okinawa and elsewhere. "Regional musics are disappearing under the onslaught of the American cultural juggernaut: my job is to help preserve musical cultures and supply alternatives to American pop culture.

"Hawaiian was the first ethnic music I heard after blues, accidentally discovering it on an LP I bought in the late 6Os because there was a National on the cover. I soon after began collecting the original Hawaiian 78rpm records. The period 1915-1935 in Hawaiian music was intensely rich and soulful, before all the touristy commercialism began. For me it has all the impact of early blues - a native or ethnic culture struggling with white colonialism and white musical forms and instruments."

But does Brozman ever encounter any resistance from purists who say, 'You're American - you stick to your culture and leave us to our culture?' "My philosophy and behaviour is so completely NOT American and so thoroughly non-imperialistic that this is never an issue. I don't try to meet my collaborators halfway - I meet them 75% of the way towards them. Moreover, because I am not famous or rich, nobody treats me like a meal ticket and, more importantly, nobody is afraid to tell me if I am doing the music wrong. I WANT to be told, so I can learn. The result is a genuine blend, a creation of truly new, hybrid music and, most importantly, a lifelong friendship. No Hilton hotels for me as the best collaborations result from living, eating and recording together in a shack, cabin or house."

But switching from working with Indian musicians one day to working with Guinean musicians the next to working with Okinawan musicians the next must be fiendishly challenging for Brozman. "As an ethnomusicologist and anthropologist I am fascinated not only by the difference but also by the commonalities in human musical cultures. Certain phenomena involving pitch and rhythms are so universal that they must be biological, not cultural.

"And switching styles is like switching languages. The basic concepts of subject, verb, object, breathing, talking etc are found in every language. So it is with music. The most important thing is paying attention - something one can never stop improving.

"Since I have been playing for 44 years I have some basic skills and lots of empathy to apply to the situation and while I make no claims, for example, to being an Indian musician I have definitely absorbed some of the elements and obviously have tremendous respect for the culture so an Indian way of thinking can successfully infuse my playing.

"In Africa since there are so many mutually exclusive languages the importance of the unspoken vibe is paramount. For me a real honour is that within ten seconds of playing together with any African musician I can see in his eyes that he knows that I 'get it'. And at some of the WOMAD festivals the Africans watching me play with Asians will remark that I have a strong Oriental sensibility and then when I reverse roles the Asians will make a similar comment about my African sensibility."

Given his awesome technical prowess it is perhaps surprising that Brozman doesn't practise. 'Would you go to a doctor who was still practising how to do medicine? I wouldn't! I think I practise music in the sense of practising the art of music when I am playing. This simply means being awake while playing. But being really awake is a skill which takes decades to fully realise. If you had to boil down the art of playing music to one verb, the verb is 'to be'. As in are you 'there' - are you present - when playing. And how 'there' are you?"

Brozman maintains an astonishing work schedule. "I tour all year with maybe six to eight weeks off in two day to two week gaps. I tour world wide, sometimes with truly insane routing - for example Finland, Papua New Guinea, back to Europe and then Brazil, all in one go! That's just the way the dates turn out sometimes and I have to keep doing this while I am still relatively young. And frankly, I don't know if I could cope with a lifestyle of seeing the same boss and same shop or office day in and day out."

Brozman's gigs are spectacular. "When I play live I am constantly improvising which means I am driving the train, while laying the track just in front of the train at the same time! This makes me stay very present while inventing my immediate future second by second. I always try to take extreme new risks every night and the audience can see this happening. All done with a light and humorous attitude, so that people are never sure if I am kidding or not. I don't really tell jokes but I do insert a lot of thought provoking observations about culture and music with a quirky point of view, which many people find humorous. I'll tell you the truth - I LOVE playing live! It's the time that I feel most connected to myself and the surrounding universe. It is a chance to disconnect my intellect and just use my 'movement brain to translate the language of my 'emotional' brain.

Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar

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