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Review: Bob Brozman

PHILADELPHIA CITY PAPER.NET
August 21-27, 2003

The World Is Not Enough

By MARY ARMSTRONG

Resonator guitar legend Bob Brozman - frequent violator of ethnomusicology's prime directive - drops science at the Philly Folk Fest.


Watching Bob Brozman in a darkened auditorium, there is a sudden flash of light. Is it a glint from the shining national steel guitar, Brozman's trademark for close to three decades? Or is it a gleam in his eye?

"I'm still a wild man on stage," the 49-year-old Brozman proclaims gleefully. That should be a comfort to his Philly-area fans who haven't seen much of the man, as his world music collaborations find him working outside the country 80 percent of the time, by his estimate.

Brozman has long informed us that the resonator guitar, an acoustic attempt to amplify the guitar enough to be heard in a group setting, was born at one of the sexiest times in world history, the 1920s. Cultures were colliding and churning out amazing hybrids. Why shouldn't he continue the trend? As a degreed ethnomusicologist, he travels the world studying traditional music. His studies inspire the musician in him. "I have more passion in my playing today than I ever have," he declares. Anyone who knows his work from early blues and Hawaiian records, through funky jazz/hokum with The Cheap Suit Serenaders to collaborations with Mike Auldridge and David Grisman, will assure you this is a remarkable statement.

His intensity is formidable offstage as well. "If I'm awake, I'm working," says Brozman, who goes on to prove it by talking on the phone late into the night. (It was past 1 a.m. when we finally hung up and it seemed perfectly natural.) The ideas and opinions come so thick and fast that the merest scraps of suggestions had to stand for whole paragraphs of notes. Brozman has plenty of ideas and is glad to share them.

"If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much room!" chortles Brozman. While he tosses that off for its laugh value, there is sincerity just below the surface. A self-declared anti-colonialist, he feels very keenly the deprivations suffered by many of the musicians in countries he visits. His answer to those pangs of empathy is the formation of a nonprofit to procure and deliver instruments to the players in places like Madagascar, Burundi and Ethiopia, where he's witnessed "one guitar shared between 200 people." He's seen brilliant players develop on instruments made of olive oil cans, two-by-fours and bicycle cable. Until he gets the nonprofit off the ground -- after the first of the year, fingers crossed -- he's been buying the charangos our own Joe Todaro imports and seeding them around the world. "They are doing amazing things with them in the Réunion Islands."

Yes, Brozman gleefully admits, this sort of thing goes completely against his training as an ethnomusicologist. Technically he should be strictly observing and documenting, as per his prime directive. In his adjunct professor position at Australia's Macquarie University, he does some of that, making field recordings in Papua New Guinea. But at his core, the musician knows how much he loves to try new instruments and ideas, so how could he deprive these people -- whom he sees as colleagues, not subjects -- of this joy? Besides, these artists are, according to him, already masters of their tradition. "It is my privilege to work with these people. I make it a point to stay not in the Hilton, but in their villages, to live as they do, to take part in their everyday life." See www.bobbrozman.com for a long list of his multicultural recordings, the evidence of the success of his explorations. For his recent wedding, "we cashed in all our frequent-flyer miles and brought everybody over here for two to three weeks." The wedding celebration included not only musical collaborators from around the world, but their families, all living and cooking and playing together.

The man has no shortage of nonstandard theories. Of rhythm he asserts that colonizers play on the beat, the better to get folks to march in step. The colonized, by contrast, play off the beat. If you take a workshop with Brozman at the Folk Festival -- where he will perform this weekend -- he may do one of his time exercises. He promises that a little work with syncopation brings out the funk in any and all.

On practice, he states that he and Ledward Kaapana, the Hawaiian slack key guitar legend with whom he'll share the Folk Fest stage, also shares his philosophy that rehearsing is for lazy people. "If you don't rehearse, you have to pay attention on stage," says Brozman. "When you pay attention you go on learning." Saturday night they'll be on the main stage, showing how this theory applies to real live concerts.

Bob Brozman and Ledward Kaapana play the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Sat., Aug. 23, 7:30 p.m., $39, with BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet, Eddie From Ohio, Fourtold, The Holmes Brothers, Odetta, Dennis Hangey, Magpie and Gene Shay, Old Pool Farm, Schwenksville, 800-556-FOLK. For complete concert and workshop schedules, see www.folkfest.org.

Bob Brozman - King of the National Guitar


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