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Review: Bob Brozman

Sunday 16 December 2001

Bob Brozman: a man with eclectic tastes


Just perusing Bob Brozman's list of current projects and his hectic tour schedule, you quickly realise that he is a man with extraordinary amounts of energy and a deep empathy for an eclectic diversity of musical styles. He is an ethnomusicologist of some repute, experiencing, recording and participating in the musics of many cultures. He is an accomplished musician who strives to entertain. A teacher who communicates his passion and knowledge. An acclaimed author, a film maker and a musical catalyst, he buzzes around the globe sparking magic wherever and whenever he touches down.

Born in New York some forty-five years ago, Bob discovered the allure of the guitar at age 6. At 14 he was captivated by the unique sounds of National guitars, a fascination that would lead him to write The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments some twenty-five years later. He studied music and ethnomusicology at Washington University. There he plumbed the murky depths of the origins of Delta blues.

Bob further explains his musical fascinations, 'I'm interested in what I call blues of the world which is basically - in my definition - music that happens as an accident or as a result of colonialism all over the world. I started with blues then I discovered Hawaiian music, Caribbean music, African, Cuban, Indian Ocean music. So basically there are a lot of points in common with these different kinds of colonial music and I consider the guitar to be the portable, universal translator.'

Publishing several articles and boasting an impressive collection of 78 rpm records, Bob is known as somewhat of an authority on historical Hawaiian music. He produced five reissue albums on the Rounder and Folklyric labels, documenting Hawaiian music from 1915 until 1935. Towards the end of the '80s, Bob rediscovered the famous Tau Moe Family and began work on a documentary about their extraordinary lives. Unfortunately more funding is required before the film can be completed and released.

Bob elaborates, 'The Moe left Hawaii as teenagers in 1928 and they were promoted by a woman who was a cross between Margaret Mead and P.G. Barnum. Her name was Madame Riviere and she was a kind of a theatre presenter/anthropologist. She took them all over Asia and Australia, and they wound up staying on tour and having two children for close on sixty years before going back to Hawaii. As a result he spoke fifteen or sixteen languages. He's kind of a spiritual guru to me. The music they played was so old-fashioned, it was like a glimpse into the Hawaiian music of the nineteenth century.'

'I recorded an album with him. He made his first record in 1929. He made his last record with me in 1989 and I discovered his memory is so perfectly in tact and his stories are so unbelievable. In the '30s he met Ghandi. He met Hitler. It's just the unbelievable story of the century, so with the same film maker who made the film Crumb, Terry Zwigoff, we got some grants from the US Government before it got so conservative regarding arts, and shot the film. But right now we're just sitting on it.'

Even though he's released three albums so far this year - the most recent being The Running Man, followed by Kosmik Blues + Grooves (with Ralph-Dieter Schnapka) and Four Hands Sweet & Hot (with Cyril Pahinui), Bob shows no sign of letting up the pace with several other projects due for release early in the new year.

'Running Man is kind of a collection of material from my vaults that I've gathered in recording world-wide. It's mostly a series of duets with artists from India, Okinawa, England and a few other places, a few solo pieces, one or two pieces with my accompanists. It's kind of a little sampler of some of the world-wide projects that I'm doing. It's really a disc that's my own production so it's only available at my website and live shows.'

'I just finished a duet project with a West African chora player. Chora is a twenty-one string, primitive version of a harp and that's been released on Melody in France and world-wide I believe in the early Spring. The Okinawan project that I did that was released in Japan this year is now being released in Europe, the USA and Australia in April. That's a project called Jin Jin. I've got a duet CD with another guitarist called Woody Mann and that's coming out in Germany and the States sometime this year. I've got a trio project with David Grisman and Mike Auldrige which is definitely coming out around January 15. I believe my second duet Hawaiian record with Ledward Kaapana is coming out at the end of 2000 and I've got a lot more. I'm starting my second Okinawan album in January and a lot more things constantly in preproduction or production.'

Fortunately Brisbane guitar heads will get the opportunity to enjoy the bounty of this extraordinary man's knowledge. Bob will be conducting a workshop at the Guitar Centre Southbank from 5pm on Friday, 3 December. You can book by calling (07) 3844 8239.

As Bob explains, 'One thing I really like doing is helping people with their rhythm. I think the world of guitar is really deficient in good rhythm these days 'cause we've just gone through several decades of everyone wanting to play lead. Whereas in African-based music there isn't this hierarchy of who's playing lead and who's playing rhythm. Everybody kind of works at the whole thing. So I do a lot of polyrhythm stuff that just kind of improves guitar players' coordination skills and get them walking more like an African.'

The rest of us can see Bob in exquisite live performance, and if the reports that have filtered back from the shows he's already performed on this tour are any indication, we're in for a real treat.

Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar

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