Bob Brozman: National steel guitar virtuoso


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The Independent Online

Bob Brozman was fond of starting his one-man, two-hour concerts by saying, "We'll go right back to the 1920s, where I'm going to stay all night." He would stun audiences with his mixture of ragtime, calypso, jazz, blues, pop and Hawaiian music, played on his beloved National steel guitars as well as mandolins and ukuleles. He could play with remarkable speed but he would close with a slow, romantic "I'll See You In My Dreams" on ukulele. The repertoire was so wide that no such concert could have been performed like this in the 1920s.

Robert Charles Brozman was born into a Jewish family living on Long Island in 1954. One brother became a doctor and another a lawyer, "so you can see where I appear on the family totem pole," he joked. He first played guitar when he was six and in 1967, after being hooked on an album by the rock guitarist Johnny Winter, he decided to check out his sources. Brozman studied music and ethnomusicology at Washington University and he became a respected authority on Hawaiian music, amassing a large collection of 78rpm records and often reissuing them on CD.

Brozman then discovered National steel guitars and he was to become a world authority on them, writing the definitive history, The History And Artistry Of National Resonator Instruments, in 1993, and following it with Bob Brozman's Bottleneck Blues Guitar (1996).

Brozman began his professional career around Santa Cruz, California, and he quickly learnt the importance of dynamics when performing. "I came up as a street musician first and then I was playing in clubs where beer bottles were flying and pool cues were broken over people's heads," he told me in 1992, "I learnt very quickly that you can capture attention by suddenly going quiet instead of playing louder and louder and louder."

Despite his historical and educational intent, Brozman developed an energetic, fun-packed show. He might play the blues as seriously as Robert Johnson but "Backwards Blues" is about everything going right in his life. "There is so much seriousness around the blues that it sometimes begs for a bit of satire," he said. "The more serious blues fans are surprised but I tell them, these guys didn't play the blues to get the blues: these guys played the blues to get rid of them and they were entertainers first and foremost. They were out there to make people happy, not to make them depressed."

Brozman released over 30 albums and in particular he was drawn to music from the islands. "I realised the value of islands as musical laboratories," he said. "Musical instruments and ideas are left behind and then they percolate in isolation."

Brozman adored some 78rpms from 1929 by Mme Riviere's Hawaiians and when a musician, Tau Moe, wanted to purchase one of his albums, he found Tau and his wife Rose had both played in that band. He recorded an album with them, Ho'omana'o I Na Mele O Ka Wa U'I [Remembering The Songs Of Our Youth] for Rounder Records in 1989. Other collaborations include Jin Jin/Firefly (2000) with Takashi Hirayasu from the Ryukyu islands of Okinawa, and Songs Of The Volcano (2005) with 60 musicians from Papua, New Guinea. Brozman spent much of his time helping musicians from the developing world obtain instruments and gain access to recording facilities.

Among his solo albums were Lumiere (2008), credited to the Bob Brozman Orchestra and featuring himself 27 times. His Post-Industrial Blues (2007) dealt with contemporary issues. Brozman loved touring the UK and when I met him he was on a 60-date tour which also involved daytime workshops and demonstrations. He had the energy and commitment to fit it all in. "I'll catch up on sleep in the next life," he said.

Robert Charles Brozman, singer, guitarist and musicologist: born New York 8 March 1954; married (one daughter); died Santa Cruz, California 23 April 2013.