Review: Bob Brozman
THE INDEPENDENT, London, UK
Friday 18 July 2003
By MICHAEL CHURCH
Bob Brozman reveals how he explores vastly different cultures with his guitar music - and Michael Church decides he may just be the man to give fusion a good name
As a buzz word, fusion is finished, and those of us who are sick and tired of it - of failed recipes, of producers pairing disparate stars, plonking them in the studio and expecting them to procreate - will think, about time too. But fusion does have an acceptable face, and it comes in the rabbinical form of the guitarist Bob Brozman. What this artistic explorer has done with musicians on the islands of Réunion and Okinawa - and most recently with an Indian guitarist - represents a seductive magic.
Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar
He arrives for the interview armed with a giant silver guitar with a charango - a tiny Bolivian guitar - mounted on its back like a space shuttle, and with a watch whose dial goes only up to 10. We'll come to the watch later, but the guitar - which has just been dazzling a Late Junction crew - is an event in itself: as he puts it through its paces, everyone else in our café puts down their drink and takes notice.
It's not just that it's amazingly loud, it's the vast palette of colour he extracts from it - from delicate plinks to plaintive whines to full-throated roars, plus a battery of percussion effects - and nary a wire in sight. This is the extraordinary all-steel National Resonator Guitar, created in the Twenties to project Hawaiian music and acoustic jazz in big spaces, and killed by electric guitars in the Forties, after which time it was forgotten until Brozman came along in the Seventies, wrote a book about it, and put it back on the map as a staple for the blues.
The electric guitar can be very loud, he says, but the difference between your soft and hard touch is minimal. "The difference on my guitar is 100 decibels. That's also because I don't use pick-ups - which give you just one sound all night. I use mikes." He shows me his slide, an old Mateus Rosé bottleneck which he forbids me to touch - "if anyone's going to drop and break this, it's going to be me, because they don't make them any more". Then he gets technical, describing how he calibrates the air between guitar and mike, winding up with a flourish: "So I'm constantly sculpting the sound with my muscles. That puts you in close touch with the biological reality of what it means to play music."
He's hot on biological realities. As an ethnomusicologist, he's studied the universals that unite different musics: in his view, if something is common to all cultures, it's no longer cultural, it's biological. "For example, from the west coast of Ireland to the east coast of Japan - across all of Asia - there are instruments with three strings which are tuned root-fifth-root. Why? Mathematically it's because the simplest two ratios are the octave-root ratio, which is two to one, and the fifth, which is three to two. They're like the hydrogen and helium atoms of music. Every musical culture has this. They all take the fifth as feeling like away from home, and the root as feeling like home. To me that's not culture, it's neurobiology."
But it's cultural differences that fire him. If you could magically reduce all the world's musics to their relative scales of importance, he says, you'd quickly see that European music sticks out as bizarre. It may do wondrous things with melody and harmony, but it's completely uninterested in rhythm. "It may have been catching up lately, but rhythmically Europe's been operating on a computer with one screen, whereas with African music you're constantly looking at two screens, each of which has several windows."
Then comes a peroration. "Rhythmically there's two cultures in this world: the colonisers and the colonised. And this is not a black- versus-white issue, because it also applies to Okinawa in Japan. Colonisers love the beat. For two thousand years they've been marching, they see it as something you follow. Colonised people are interested in the 'and' between the beats, they see it as something you react to. One-and-two-and-three-and-four: some guys in the band spend their whole life on the 'and'. As in the blues. In Réunion, there's a rhythm so reactive to the beat, it's as if the beat was a hot potato - you just want to get off it as soon as you can."
Giving me no chance to digest - or disagree - he sweeps on. In Western music, he says, to intensify the emotion you purify the tone; in African music you dirty-up the tone, you roughen the voice, you growl rather than sing. Here he's definitely onto something: this rule could also apply to the "cracked" voice of flamenco, and, given the Gypsies' Indian origin, the point just gets broader.
He's acquired this perspective through a lifetime of beavering about on the fringes of colonialism, where Western instruments and styles find their way into non-Western hands, and interesting things happen as a result. Such as with accordions in Madagascar, or in the way Alpine yodelling surfaces in Hawaiian music: brought to Mexico by German farmworkers, and carried south by Mexican cowboys, who also brought guitars, "which is why a lot of Hawaiian music sounds Bavarian".
He loves the way music migrates, particularly to islands, which he regards as natural laboratories, and in which he's carried out his own experiments. In Okinawa he immersed himself in local culture before making Jin Jin Firefly and Nankuru Naisa, his delightful meldings of guitar, sanshin, and voice with Takashi Hirayasu. On the tiny island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, he joined up with the multi-talented René Lacaille to produce Digdig, whose infectious sweetness makes you think blues guitar and Creole timbres were made for each other. Brozman's latest CD, Mahima, sees him blend his slide with the subtly melismatic swoops of Debashish Bhattacharya: "Seven thousand years of Indian musical culture, brought to an unbelievable level of artistry" is his admiring comment. Moreover, this latest collaboration takes Brozman back full-circle, since Debashish's tutor was himself tutored by the venerable Hawaiian maestro with whom Brozman made his first record.
We're dealing here with what Mr Bush would stigmatise as a very un- American American: Brozman has nothing but contempt for what he calls "the American cultural steamroller going all over the world". He regards the majority of his compatriots as hopelessly gullible: "Since the euro, I've been having fun with them, telling them they have metric time in Europe, and most of them believe me." He waves his watch, which he had custom-made: "I've got a hundred seconds, a hundred minutes, a 10-hour day and night." Does he find it hard to translate our time into his? "Well, it keeps me on my toes."
As a dedicated anti-imperialist, he's set up a foundation to channel surplus instruments from the West to African countries where they're desperately needed. "In Madagascar they're unravelling bicycle brake cables for strings. Yet they have a mind-blowing level of discipline that we don't have any more in the push-button west. The poorer the country, the richer the music."
Finally, he digs out the charango and makes it sing: a heady sound, and relatively easy to play. He took 12 of them to distribute in Réunion, where the local musicians have now adopted this Bolivian instrument as their own. Thus - yet again - does music migrate, like seeds in the wind.
All CDs are on the TUG label, distributed by World Music Network
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