While there are plenty of multi instrumentalists and plenty of multi national players, it's a rare thing indeed to find a multi national multi instrumentalist. What surprises me is that I can actually name two of them off the top of my head. I'm sure most of the world has heard of Ry Cooder by now, but what about Bob Brozman? On his last release, Lumiere, Bob played thirty some different stringed and plucked instruments from as far away as the Solomon Islands to a National Baritone tri-cone Resonator guitar that he designed and built with the National Guitar company in the United States.
Bob doesn't just have instruments from all over the world, he's been to those places as well, to learn, teach, and record music with some of the most interesting and best musicians in the world. On Lumiere he put all of that experience to work. The entire CD was made up of compositions that he improvised in the studio while recording. He would start with one instrument, lay down a basic melody or rhythm, then proceed to build layers around, on top, behind, and under the original with other stringed and percussion instruments. The finished results were nothing short of extraordinary and some of the most exciting music I'd heard in a long time.
Periodically Bob comes home to the music that Resonator guitars were made to play, American Blues. While I know there are others who play resonators, John Hammond for instance plays a beat up old National, only Bob has gone to the lengths of not only designing and building unique guitars like the Baritone mentioned above, but Resonator mandolins and ukuleles as well. His latest Blues album, Post Industrial Blues on Thomas Ruf's love affair with the Blues called Ruf Records of Germany, sees him armed with his full complement of resonators, but also bringing in friends from around the world to help out.
From India comes the 22 string Chaturangui and the 14 string Gandharvi; Greece contributes the baglama, from the Japanese island of Okinawa comes the sanshin, and a little closer to home, the Hawaiian ukulele. For someone else they might not sound like typical instruments to bring into the studio when recording a Blues album, but Bob likes to keep his options open. Hell he's as liable to use found objects for percussion as anything else – just check out what he's used on this album: a knife blade tapped on a table (these are actual credits), broken grass clippers, and a broken toy piano.
This may not have been an improvised disc like the last one but that doesn't stop it from being spontaneous. In fact, two of the tracks on this disc were written off the cuff in between takes of another song with the microphone open and the tape rolling. Just as unlikely is the fact that two songs were recorded live and on the first take, which in these days of overdubs and massive edits is as much a rarity as an honest politician. (Don't read the liner notes before your first time listening and see if you can guess which ones they are – I was surprised when I found out)
In what appears to be something of a switch for Bob, as I've never heard him sing them before, there are quite a few political and a number of social commentary songs scattered among the fifteen tracks of the album. Though I guess it shouldn't be too much of a shock because if you ever hear him interviewed you'll find he's not the least bit reticent about speaking his mind. Unlike other folk who write political music though, the content doesn't affect the artistry.
You could never tell by listening to the music of a song like "Follow The Money" that he's singing about job's being moved out of America or how Vice President Dick Cheney's Haliburton Oil seems to do what it wants in spite of the laws governing multinational corporations in America. Nope, it just sounds like an up-tempo, raggedy ass blues song. It's a stark contrast to the most powerful song on the recording that follows in it's wake; "Look At New Orleans".
For this song Bob hauls out an antique as musical accompaniment, a 19th century, seven string, English Banjo. I don't know if I've ever heard so melancholy an instrument before, but it weaves a perfect, haunting, counterpoint to the genuine anguish in Bob's voice recounting the plight of those left homeless by Katrina and the cynicism of politicians. It's also a lament for the country he loves, the United States of America, and he sees New Orleans as a symbol for how she's failing her people.
Anybody can sing an angry song, a song that's so full of hate and bile that all it does is raise everybody's hackles. Not many can sing a sorrowful song without it sounding trite and sentimental. "Look At New Orleans" is a few deceptively simple lines that cut to the chase and leave no doubt as to what the writer believes, fears, and hopes for. If that ain't art, I don't know what is.
Now you can't be a serious political type all the time and Bob's no exception. "Shafafa" is about the quest to be served real food today. "I want a mom and pop restaurant, that's what I want," he sings, knowing that his options these days don't include much without an INC. or LTD. after the name. It's a funny take on a situation that's not very funny; food that's so artificial that you can't even call it by it's real name. (When was the last time you saw a milk shake in a fast food joint – most of them are now shakes as the closest they get to a cow is the burger that gets stuffed in a bag with it)
Bob Brozman's Post Industrial Blues sees Bob returning to North America to play some fantastic Blues music on a recording that utilizes instruments from around the world and from different eras in history to make a thoroughly contemporary CD. To me that's the sign of an exemplary musician and gifted artist. To be able to draw upon different cultural influences and the past, and without imitating or appropriating them, incorporate them into a vision that is unique is what every artist should be striving to accomplish. You need look no further then Bob Brozman for an example of this in action.
(Originally posted November 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.