Interview: Bob Brozman
To say that Bob Brozman is not your everyday, run of the mill guitar player is just a wee bit of an understatement. Aside from the fact that he is a highly accomplished and skilled slide player on almost any strummed, struck or plucked instrument, it’s the number of them that he is able to pick up and play with equal skill and abandon.
But Bob hasn't just learned other people's instruments so that they sound cool when included in his music. He's been like a pilgrim of old visiting shrines around the world. But instead of the tombs of saints his Mecca has been the musicians of various cultures where he has sat with them and learned how to their music and instruments.
Bob and I have been trying to set up an interview since almost the start of this year but his schedule and life haven't allowed him any time to sit down and answer the questions I sent him until now. Of course the timing couldn't have been better as he's just released Lumiere an album of orchestrated instrumental compositions created and performed by Bob.
Each piece utilized Bob's accumulated knowledge of music and prodigious talent with instruments as he wove seemingly disparate styles of music together seamlessly into a variety pieces that represented the sounds of the countries and people he had met and worked with.
My interview with Bob focuses mainly on the here and now, his inspiration, his ideas, and his hopes for his music. For those who want some biographical detail or are looking for a full discography I suggest checking out his web site. Without further ado…Bob Brozman
Who were your first musical influences/ do they still play a part in what you perform today.
My early influences in roots American music are varied, but still affect my aesthetic senses: For Blues, Charley Patton, above all. He was for me the deepest and most interesting player/singer, whose sound goes almost back to Africa. While I like Robert Johnson, I find his music to be a little more self-conscious, and less musically profound. I am sure that above all, the urgency and fully committed passion of Patton really infuses my music.
For Hawaiian, Sol Hoopii was the greatest steel guitarist, and you can hear echoes of his music in my steel playing, though no 2 steelers sound alike. For Hawaiian music in general, my hero of course is Tau Moe (see Hawaii at Bob's site for the full story on this first collaboration of mine (1989)) with Tau and family, who made their first records in 1929! Tau was also the teacher of the teacher of the teacher of Debashish Bhattacharya! Very deep stuff for me, my relationship with Tau, especially as an influence of how to be a human being in the music business and in the working day of the musician.
Then for early Jazz, many African-American artists of the 1920’s affected me: Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Tiny Parham, Eddie South, many more. And I must also cite Eddie Lang and of course Django as other strong jazz influences. From there, I was deeply influenced by calypso artists from Trinidad: Wilmouth Houdini, and Growling Tiger in particular. From there, Africa and the rest of the world continued to open up to me, with too many great artists to list!!
When did the resonator guitar first become such an important instrument in your life?
Having played guitar since 5 years old, I first played an old National guitar at 12 years old, and what an effect it has had on me!!! The huge dynamic and tonal range and musical possibilities of these instruments completely shaped my ears, and led me on a long journey around the world, while giving me a deep internal lifelong journey of exploration of musical, muscular, and emotional nuances. They have been perfect instruments for a guy like me, who thrives on the stimulation derived from exploring variations in sounds!
You've done, and still do a lot I assume, of traveling in order to play with different musicians all over the world. When did that start and why?
The work I did in 1988-90 with the Tau Moe Family was my first “ethnic” collaboration, followed by 3 projects with 2 brilliant Hawaiian slack key guitarists: Ledward Kaapana and Cyril Pahinui, the first time slack key guitar and steel were re-joined after decades of musical-social separation. (Steel guitar travelled the world, while slack key stayed on the farm in Hawaii for many decades.)
Serendipity led me to be invited to Okinawa to record with Takashi Hirayasu, and the resulting Cd Jin Jin, became a runaway world music hit. From there I started attracting other collaborators, like René Lacaille, a massive influence on me. I suppose my non-imperialistic way of working makes me a good person to collaborate with.
My reasons for doing all these collaborative projects? Well, first and foremost, musical curiosity—something I think is essential for artistic growth. Then there is the desire to bring certain artists to world attention, because I love their music! Then there is the intense high-speed learning I enjoy, and the challenge and struggle to play at 110% of my ability. And finally there are the lifelong friendships I have made, with some deeply inspiring musicians! And now, most of my fellow collaborators all have met, played and even toured together! I love it when my friends meet my friends to make exciting things happen!
Honestly, this all developed through curiosity, keeping an open mind, and serendipity, really—there was no plan at the beginning of this long story. My travels have made me fall in love with humanity.
Can you tell us about some of the most memorable people and places who you've played with.
You pretty much have the whole list when you look at my discography—all of the marvellous people I have had the honour to work with, from Hawaii, Okinawa, Reunion, India, Guinea, Papua New Guinea. Rene Lacaille was in many ways my most satisfying collaboration in terms of rising to a challenge, and in terms of sheer joy of playing and the friendship that music creates. My real diploma is to be joyfully accepted by great musicians who I admire!
You've developed a style that is decidedly unique in your ability to incorporate a multitude of musical styles and philosophies into your playing – is there one style you think of as your underpinning – the basis upon which you build everything else onto
Blues and Hawaiian equally shaped my early playing, but now African and Indian thinking really affect me, too. Reunion Island, and the music of René have recently been a strong influence on me in recent years, and it has given me even more rhythmic freedom. I live like a blind man sometimes, in an abstract world of sound. When I play there is no intellectual process—I simply hear, and then react with movement on my instruments, that’s all!
This leads quite naturally into your new album Lumière. What gave you the idea to make the work improvisational?
A complex question demanding a multi-part response.. I will give you the ideas suffusing the making of the record in this unconventional way, to improvise effectively with a large ensemble, with the music unwritten and yet to be composed.
First, I have been tapping on things since infancy, singing since 2 or 3, playing piano at 4, and finally taking up guitar at 5. As with all toddlers, my young brain was still wiring itself up, and so today it is difficult for me to use language to describe the wonderful abstract world I inhabit----somewhere between sound, movement and feeling. I don’t really play guitar, I play music, and the total commitment I give with my whole body in live shows, well, I attribute this to the ineffable synesthetic feelings music gives me, thanks to my early start.
Second, tones, timbres, and rhythms affect my emotions very deeply in large and small ways. Layering parts allowed me to explore this idea, and it HAD to be improvised--as I was affected in new ways by each new timbre or rhythm added.
Third, I have accumulated many years experience of trying to play well with musicians who are better than me, or who are playing music that is unfamiliar to me. I’ve had learn to think quickly and instinctively in order to flourish in this extremely challenging and stimulating type of environment, and I thrive on the stimulation. (I am writing this the day after playing 3 hours improvised concert in Québec, with Malagasy guitarist Solorazaf—no rehearsal, no set list, first time in front of the public, what a blast!) Thus, the knowledge often comes to me in intense short bursts of understanding and moving/playing in reaction. Some of these pieces of music with multiple parts went down to tape very quickly. The total was 16 days of recording.
: Did you hope to achieve something specific by recording in this manner that wouldn't have been possible any other way and what was your goal?
Absolutely! I was able to work like a painter, using colours in layers of varying thickness. Moreover, I was able to do all of this without a click track, since I know my own breathing. That’s why, for example, the Tango Medzinárodný has places where the whole orchestra slows down and then resumes the original tempo. This cannot be done if a metronome or click track is used. Moreover, all the emotional crescendos, decrescendos, rises and falls in volume and intensity are being done by one man who knows his feeling each moment. The result is it sounds like a couple dozen players reacting emotionally to each other’s sounds and feelings! While nothing is ever perfect, I feel I have succeeded in conveying my intentions in each piece.
In my review of Lumiere I referred to it as orchestrations for stringed instruments strummed and plucked with percussion accompaniment. When you talked about muscle memory was that in reference to the actual playing of the instruments, or was there something more to it than that? Can you explain that in a little more detail?
Definitely on the instruments, but also in the hearing, perceiving, and composing. As I mentioned above, it is the blending of emotions, movement, and sound--squeezing muscles at differing strengths and durations, controlling it by emotions only, and then, in forward-moving time, reacting with both emotions and muscles. So, I am sure I have a long and detailed neurological catalogue of gradations of emotions and muscle-actions in my brain, which constantly interfaces with the sonic input coming in! That’s technically how it all works, but I never think about any of this when I am playing.
What do you hope that a listener to Lumiere will get from the experience?
I hope they will be transported to places of their own imagination. I hope they will enjoy hearing new parts emerging upon repeated listening.
In the liner notes for Lumiere you mentioned you did the arrangements as each instrument was recorded. Have you created an actual score for each piece? Which leads of course to would you ever attempt to get together the players necessary to perform the music live?
There is no score whatsoever, and though it could be performed live, the rehearsal required would defeat the purpose of the spontaneous improvised intent of the compositions. However, the general aspects of some of the compositions will no doubt emerge in interesting ways in the future.
Now that you've done this, something that you've been working towards for twenty odd years, do you feel any loss of purpose? Or will you be able to use this as motivation to find new ways to continue to broaden the definition of Blues music?
Your first question: Are you kidding!!?? I am more stimulated than ever, playing with more clarity and focus than ever, and ready to address the long list of other projects that have been steadily stacking up around the world for me..
Your second question: I am also working finishing mixes on Post-Industrial Blues, for October 2007 release, on Ruf Records, where I am taking a of new risks in writing lyrics, new ways of singing, new instruments, .new ways of improvising, and many of the songs are slightly orchestral as well, and definitely composed in the same improvisational way as Lumière.
So I don’t worry too much about running short on ideas or inspiration. Music saved my life, and continues to make it beautiful.
You're not shy about voicing some pretty strong opinions on the state of music today. To be honest most Rock and Roll guitar playing leaves me cold and bored – it becomes only noise and no passion. That's what I loved about punk for about the two weeks before they too were co –opted – Bands like the Clash and the Pogues managed to stay outside for longer – Bob Marley and especially Peter Tosh didn't make many concessions But that’s ancient history. Rap got turned into a minstrel show for white boys from the suburbs and has become misogynist and homophobic – It's not the music of Gil Scott Herron, Grandmaster Flash, or Afrika Bambata anymore. What do you think pop music needs to do to revitalize itself to stop being so damned boring?
Personally I must challenge myself every day in order to sleep at night, as an artist. My biggest gripe about rock and pop is that it is often artistically lazy and musically very conservative, actually. I tire of artists who simply re-do what they have been doing for 35 years, without risk-taking. I mean, after one has gained the fame and the money, can you think of a SAFER time to take some artistic risk??
Another problem I see with pop culture is that, since the 70s, it just keeps re-hashing the last few decades—it seems there is not a lot of radically NEW music happening. To clarify, it was a big leap from swing to r&b to rock &roll, but it was NOT a big leap from rock to metal to grunge, art-punk to non-art punk, house to jungle…. I don’t expect to see any really big leaps in the future of pop, because big commerce always makes art more conservative!!
Having said all that, my life and workload have never been better, because there will always be some people interested in art with a little more substance. When I am onstage, it is obvious that I am just a regular human being doing real things with passion. It’s also evident that onstage I am fully committed with every cell in my body. I find it interesting indeed that since the advent of Youtube, my concert attendances have shot up, and all the newer concertgoers at my shows are under 25 years old. And many come up and say they find my way of playing AND my attitude to be refreshing and, more importantly, inspiring. I cannot identify it exactly, but there must be something I am doing right.
RISK and CURIOSITY! That is all you really need to get interesting and challenging art, I think. Pretty easy really—it’s just that in modern life there are strong social-marketing-mis-education forces at work killing curiosity and discourse…I urge people to FIGHT back with independent thinking!
You mention rap and hip-hop. But you did not mention the one other thing hip-hop has become: a 24/7 advertisement for materialism, thus the revolution got a little co-opted. These famous guys crave all the same Rolex, Gucci, Escalade crap that the establishment craves!! What about using that microphone to help the neighbourhood where you came from?? Come on, boys, don’t be so selfish—the bad guys have their microphones on ALL the time! (TV)
Another problem I see is that the concept of “fame” has been pumped up to a ridiculous degree. Celebrity used to be attached to accomplishment. Now it is often pre-made, and simply used to distract the masses from more important news about urgent real things in this world.
Part of my success has simply been trying to get BETTER, not bigger.
I heard you being interviewed about a program where you were trying to get guitars to people in impoverished villages – can you tell us about that.
Well, I have travelled a lot in the third world, and it is hard for westerners who haven’t done so to really understand how difficult things are there. After meeting US guitar collectors who own 500+ guitars, and then meeting a man in Rwanda who is trying to teach 500+ orphans to play guitar…with ONE guitar, I decided to start the Global Music Aid Foundation. In many developing countries, any common thing you can think of—they don’t have it! So musicians struggle to have strings and decent instruments to play.
The idea of the Global Music Aid Foundation is to transfer some of the musical surplus of the West (guitars, ukes, strings, and other musical basics) directly to musicians in developing countries. What little leverage I have in the guitar and music world can be used to better the world in a tiny way. Getting non-profit status is difficult in the US, so we have decided to work independently. We can thus accept materials donated, but no money donations. Now that I am doing well enough to do good, this is just something I want to do. I figure every time a new musician is created, that’s one less criminal, except possibly for Michael Jackson!
What type of role do you see yourself as a musician playing in society today? Are you strictly an Entertainer – which I don't think there is anything wrong with by the way; people need to be entertained intelligently.
Well, first, I don’t feel important, just another fella doing honest work. Second, I do think of myself as someone who breaks false myths for audiences, about show biz, myths about guitar virtuosity, and myths about a supposed “wall” between performer and audience, especially for younger people. I like to say, “This is not a concert. It is just an evening of life, together.”
I think I am becoming a kind of teacher, too, simply because I see so many people struggling with music and I just want to help. That is the impetus for all the workshops I conduct around the world, and for my teaching DVDs, to give back some of what has been given to me.
Third, I guess I have evolved slowly into a bit of a socio-political raconteur. While there are people who don’t want an artist to talk about much onstage (shut up and play), I disagree. Artists, by definition, have sensitive perceptual antennae, thus we are something like the canaries in the mineshaft of society, an early warning system—our bullshit detectors are turned up full! I would also like to say that the concert ticket may RENT the artist for a night, but it does not BUY him!
But mainly, I see myself dealing in brain-chemistry alteration, using moving air waves! I love the grey zone between biochemical-neurological reactions to sound waves, and human feeling/meaning derived from music! It is an endlessly fascinating area of thought. I see people at the end of my shows, smiling and talking excitedly. I love to stimulate, light a fire under people, and just transfer some of my deep and passionate love of life and music!
Sometimes when I happen to hear today's popular music or hear about what's popular on tv I get the feeling the last thing people want to do is think. Everything seems to be geared towards escapism and stopping people from thinking. You've seen a lot of music all over the world and played with a lot of musicians, in your opinion is this something particular to our society or do elements of it exist everywhere?
Well, as I said above, commerce tends to ruin art. Great forces have been at work for the last 35 years, to stop critical thinking, and discourse, in the US especially.
- Slashing education,
- increasing greed and materialism while jobs evaporate,
- ever-increasing pop & celebrity culture
- declining access to international and economic information,
- fear of terrorism,
- fear of losing your job,
- constant media noise and distraction
- overuse of pharmaceuticals
- choppy MTV editing style killing the ability to think in paragraphs
It is a long list. But the result has been disastrous, as all can plainly see. In thousands of generations of humanity, these processes are very recent and their effects are not fully understood, especially by the victims! It is why I fight so passionately to help the young think for themselves!!
Language needs translation, but music does not. I think music’s ancient original purpose in our evolution was to engender co-operation between people. It provides a window into another person’s mind, with a much smaller error rate than language!
Globalism (American corporatism) is indeed spreading everywhere, regrettably. The advertisers of the (non-existent) American dream are powerful. The US may be a rich country, but I think it has a poverty of empathy. Sometimes I think the poorest music comes from the richest countries. Is it just that the top 1% wealthiest, who essentially run everything, are simply NOT funky?
You did a lot of what people like to call world music, and now you're doing a style people will call Blues for the sake of giving it a label – where do you see yourself moving musically in the future, or is that even something you've given much thought?
Well, actually I have been doing both for a very long time. Lumière, which you have recently reviewed, represents a summation and full development of my adventures in world music up to now. My next blues record (Post-Industrial Blues-- releases on Ruf, in October 2007!) takes my blues side further than ever, with a few new instruments, as well as a LOT of new original songs, some of a very socio-political nature, for the first time. There is a lot of risk on this record—as a songwriter/lyricist, and with new risky ways of singing. I’ll be very curious to see the reaction it gets.
For 2008 and beyond, there are a lot of new projects in the hopper, but I am not ready to discuss them yet!
One last question, if there was one place in the whole world you could go and play with another group of musicians right now, just for fun where would that be?
Back to Madagascar, tout suite! There is so much to learn there, and I just love the place. In the next few years, I hope to mount a large Madagascar guitar project. So many incredible musicians there, and I love the challenge of trying to keep up!
Well that marks the end of my interview with Bob Brozman. As you can see he's not only a talented and gifted musician he's also one of the most thoughtful men I've had the privilege of interviewing for a long while. You may not agree with everything he said, but you can never deny his passion for what he does.
Thank you Bob Brozman for your time and for sharing a little bit of your passion with me.