CD Review: MAHIMA
"I had a stunning revelation about two weeks ago," says guitarist/ ethnomusicologist/ Renaissance man Bob Brozman, calling from Australia's Gold Coast. "If you work in computers, you can save a 100-page book in a Word file and it takes up hardly any disc space. But a 30-second audio file takes up tons of disc space, he says. "So by my way of thinking, when you see two musicians playing together, the complexity and richness of the information being transferred at such a huge rate of speed and efficiency is far better than language. It's like the language of the future."
Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar
Such unwavering devotion to the unifying power of music has all but defined Brozman's life. "I like the idea of service in music," he says, referring to his preference for playing in a rhythm section - a supportive role by Western standards. But "Service in Music" might best sum up his credo right across the board. How better to describe a multi-talented artist who is every bit as much a conduit who passes on new sounds and information as he discovers them?
Brozman is a guitarist of extraordinary talent with unique approaches to rhythm, dynamics and slide technique, and a deep love of classic blues. (Check out his concert CD Live Now for a taste of his six-string prowess, or his recent Metric Time, which combines digital looping technology with real-time improvisation.) His interest in National guitars led him to author 1993's The History And Artistry Of National Resonator Instruments, considered the most authoritative book on the subject. Once a music and ethnomusicology student at Washington University, Brozman now holds an adjunct professorship at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia and co-founded International Guitar Seminars, which produces a series of week-long workshops every year. He keeps a relentless tour schedule (he'll hit New Zealand, New Guinea, Canada, Europe and Brazil before the year's out), and is currently organizing a foundation to provide music supplies to Third World musicians.
As a recording artist he's issued as many collaborations with players from all over the world as he has solo projects. His first such collaboration, 1989's Remembering The Songs Of Our Youth, with Hawaiian music pioneers the Tau Moe Family, culminated in a film documentary about the Family's career, helmed by Crumb and Louie Bluie director (and Brozman's one-time bandmate in the old-timey string group the Cheap Suit Serenaders) Terry Zwigoff. Filmed with funding from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the project was never finished due to those types of organizations "being gutted by the Republicans," says Brozman. "It's sitting in cans, awaiting funds to finish the editing. It's an amazing story and beautiful stuff, a shame. And Tau is still alive at 95 years."
Since then, Brozman has issued a slew of similarly collaborative records with artists from such varied locales as Okinawa (Jin Jin/Firefly and Nankuru Naisa, with sanshin player Takashi Hirayasu), Guinea (Ocean Blues, with balofon/kora/guitar player Djeli Moussa Diawara) and the island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean (Dig Dig, with accordionist René Lacaille). Brozman's latest effort is Mahima, his second collaboration (after 1998's Sunrise) with Indian slide guitar master Debashish Bhattacharya.
"When Debashish and I first met in 1996," says Brozman, "he played some notes and I played some harmony notes under it and he filled up with tears. And he said, 'How can you hear that? How do you know what that is?' There is no harmony in Indian music. So we basically swapped lessons a little bit - I taught him Western theory and he taught me some stuff about using a bar."
Mahima is a dizzying, groundbreaking set of Indian tonalities, rhythms (supplied by Debashish's brother, master percussionist Subhashis, who also appears on Sunrise) and opalescent vocals (by Bhattacharya sister, classically trained singer Sutapa), shaped by various Western musical sensibilities. "One of the innovations of this record," says Brozman, "is deciding how and when to apply harmony to this music. Debashish really wanted to come to the West and not have four-hour-long ragas, but actually have composed songs with form. And so 'Sur-o-Lahari' - that was Debashish with the melody and me composing a harmony." The end result has a Spanish flavor, beginning in the harmonic minor mode and moving through several chord changes, with Brozman adding flamenco touches during the bridge.
By contrast, the warmly glowing "Sujan Re," a tale of a young bride whose husband is lost at sea, repeats a simple, deeply throbbing, tabla-driven phrase, with Sutapa's sweet soprano dancing gracefully overtop. "There's pans of the melody that are just screaming out for a chord change," says Brozman of the song. "But we don't give it." The track's unbroken string of motifs effectively underscores the bride's undying love, as well as her unending wait. The passionate, minor-key drone "Jibaner Gan (Song of Life)" rides on a question-answer Zen blues slide figure that would sound right at home in some Eastern-inspired Led Zeppelin song; a swirling freefall of slide interplay (about three minutes in) is the album's highpoint.
For the Mahima sessions, as with all of his collaborations, Brozman adhered to a set of principles designed to build and strengthen artistic and personal bonds and, to put it in his often-politicized terms, stave off the threat of cultural imperialism. Says Brozman, "Cultural imperialism is the following: Showing up with an entourage in a Third World country; staying in a Hilton instead of with the musicians you're working with; having the musicians either thinking you're going to make them rich or that they should be afraid of you because you're famous. And then forcing the music to not be a real blend, or forcing a non-American into some American music.
"So my approach is a little bit different," he says. "I don't show up with an entourage. We sleep under the same roof, we eat the same food, and we record in the same shack that we're sleeping in." The close quarters and shared meals, Brozman says, make for a leveling of the creative playing field, opening channels of trust that have in every case spawned a personal relationship.
"You can hear the friendship happening in the music and I've got lifelong friends in these guys," he says. "Nobody is afraid of me to tell me if I'm doing it wrong. I want to know how to do it. And instead of meeting these guys halfway, I'm trying to meet them three-quarters of the way towards them."
Such collaborative generosity manifests itself in a number of other ways, from Brozman's name listed second on nearly every one of his joint projects, to his practice of what he refers to as "four levels of anthropology": "One is the physical, in terms of I'm looking at pupil diameter and muscle contractions of the arms while the musician's playing, because every musician breathes music a little bit differently. On a second level it's the musicological - what makes Okinawan music sound Okinawan. The third is, I make it my business to know the history of the country that I'm working in. And the fourth level would be kind of a behavioral - how to behave with different people."
Brozman's easy abilities with artists from different cultures brought him to the attention of the organizers of Australia's recent WOMAD festivals, where he helped coordinate the events' multi-cultural, multi-artist finales. While he admits to a measure of gratification from being what he calls an "anthropological glue," Brozman's own sense of having arrived comes from something more humble, and characteristically closer to the heart of a musician. "My real graduation diploma in music is that any African that plays music with me for 10 seconds, I can look in their face and I can see that they are pleasantly surprised that I fully understand their music."
Score another for the language of the future.
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