A little earlier this year, Bob Brozman was interviewed by Richard Marcus at blogcritics.com. He said: “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.”
I was raising my disagreement eyebrow until he got to the words “much smaller error rate”. This is a vital qualifier. That the error rate exists is obvious to anyone who has met classical music fans who can’t grasp the appeal of rock, or rock fans who can’t grasp the appeal of classical (”… which at worst is positively irritating, an[y]thing with lots of strings that just goes up and down and up and down and never settles into anything recognisable as a tune,” wrote one irritated poster in response to a pro-classical blog post on The Guardian‘s website).
Music did not engender co-operation between “the degraded … Bushman” and Louis C. Elson, author of Curiosities of Music. Writing in the 1870s, he described the Bushman’s singing as “monotonous,” his dancing as “uninteresting,” and his instruments as “rude.”
“They also possess a rude banjo-like instrument from which comparatively fair music could be produced, but the Bushmen are content to strum it without method,” Elson observed.
Australian Aboriginal instruments are rude too: “only the rudest… and the chants are not musical.” The same book quotes one M. Scherzer, “connected with the Austrian Round-the-world expedition in 1857,” who described Javanese gamelan music, nowadays loved by modern classical composers, as “incessant and stupefying … Bayaderes, very scantily clothed, and excessively ugly, executed sentimental and religious dances of a most tedious description.”
Then you have Frederick Gaisberg, sent out by the Gramophone Company in the very early 1900s to make recordings of Asian and Eastern music. Though professionally sympathetic, he confessed that he found Chinese music “a tremendous clash and bang … The din … so paralysed my wits that I could not think.” Indian music puzzled him.
It seems that foreign music needs to have some familiarity, some grasping point, like the rhythm of a known language, before we can figure out how to respond to it. This is not a purely Western phenomenon. It applies to everyone, as I realised earlier this year when I went to see the Irish band Lúnasa and wound up behind a man who was a good samba dancer, but had no idea how to deal with Irish folk. Everyone else was grabbing hands and forming a human arch, streaming underneath in a long daisy chain and kicking their legs out, and one lanky thing was trying out his Michael Flatley moves, but this poor bugger was stymied. He moved his hips hopelessly in samba time, trying to get it to fit, and then he attempted to woo a woman with his shoulders and fluid hands, but she only stared at him as if to say, “What are you doing? Why don’t you dance properly?” She returned to her friends who were bouncing around doing Strip the Willow in front of the stage.
After that, the idea of music as a co-operative device providing “a window into another person’s mind” sounds like touchy-feely rhetoric. Here’s the thing, though: in Brozman’s mouth it rings sincere. Listening to the big, tightly-packed, international-stylistic steam trunk that is Lumière, it’s not hard to believe that he doesn’t see the same barriers that my samba man did, or that his curiosity is so great that they just dissolve. If Brozman been in the samba man’s place he wouldn’t have stood there frowning. He would have asked that woman how it was done and then started impersonating her until he got the hang of it.
He has made a reputation for himself as a travelling guitarist who bends his playing to suit the local musicians. Born on the North American mainland, he started off with the blues and began his world collaborations in Hawaii, recording Remembering the Songs of our Youth with the Tau Moe family and jointly releasing it in 1989. Then there were albums with other Hawaiian collaborators: Cyril Pahinui and Ledward Kaapana. Afterwards, there were Ocean Blues with the Guinean Djeli Moussa Diawara, Jin Jin and Nankuru Naisa with the Okinawan Takashi Hirayasu, DigDig with Rene Lacaille, a Réunion guitarist he still looks up to (“the most exciting and creative musician I have ever collaborated with”), Mahima with the Indian slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya, and Songs of the Volcano, the album before this one, for which he travelled to Papua New Guinea and recorded with people who live in a village near an active volcano.
On Lumière he collaborates with himself. The photograph on the front of the album is perhaps too hard to see clearly in the picture that comes with this review, but everyone in it has Brozman’s black-bearded face. There is no Orchestra. He is it. He plays nearly all of the instruments. On seven of the 12 songs he’s accompanied by his friend Daniel Thomas, who helps out with percussion (bongo, surdo, tambourine, tar, and others), and there are two other people in there (Bruce Maurier, playing bass on “N’Oubliez Pas La Réunion” and “Calypso Calaloo”; Stan Poplin on string bass in “Chaturangui Gazal”), but essentially the album belongs to Brozman. I still can’t quite get over it. Multitracked, he sounds huge, a mob. He improvised, but the tunes fit together as tightly as if they had been written down. Every track has a different style. “Afro Mada” moves cleverly through different African guitar genres and finishes off in India, swooning and buzzing like a sitar. “Ska Waltz Train” with its Mediterranean baglama saz and bongoes might be one of the most oblique takes on ska ever recorded. The tango of “Tango Medzinárodny” incorporates a multitude of non-tangolike instruments: the Finnish kantele, a Papuan piker, a baglama, a Peruvian cajon box-drum, Hawaiian guitars, and the chaturangui, a specialised guitar designed by his Indian collaborator, Bhattacharya.
No matter what he’s playing, he shows a preference for the sound of a slide guitar’s rosy metallic zing. It turns up everywhere: in the tango, in the Iranian stylings of “Chaturangui Gazal”, in “N’Oubliez Pas La Réunion”, with its La Réunion riffs, even in the slow “Yaeyama Okinawa”, bluesy Western slide-drawl sloped over strong sanshin.
Even if I’d loathed every minute of Lumière, I would still have to admit that it was the work of an unusual talent, a musical version of the author who can pastiche a dozen different poets, fake new verses in the voice of Pope and whole novels in the style of Byron, an ambitious, flairful, flourishing thing. It won’t suit people who demand singing—there are no voices, although Brozman has sung with at least one band before this—but students of the guitar and other musicians should love it. He even includes helpful tidbits in the liner notes. “To experience the simple pleasures of 6/8, try tapping your foot in a three pulse while listening [to “Mazurka Maracaibo”], and then try it in two,” he suggests.
Lumière is what happens when a virtuoso decides to enjoy himself.