Guitarist and ethnomusicologist Bob Brozman, one of the
most internationally prominent musicians to come out of Santa Cruz County, died
Tuesday at his home. He was 59.
Brozman had built a career as a guitarist and ethnomusicologist, moving from an early fascination with the delta blues of the South to a consuming passion for the traditional music of Hawaii. He was also one of the world's leading authorities on the National steel guitar.
THE EARLY YEARS
Brozman emerged in Santa Cruz in the 1970s as a street musician, playing a decidedly uncontemporary American roots style of music. Known for playing anything from obscure jazz tunes to Hawaiian chanties, often dressed in a white suit, Brozman was one of Santa Cruz's most familiar faces in clubs before launching a recording career that took him around the world.
In recent years, Brozman traveled extensively, performing in Europe, Asia, the Americas and the South Pacific. He often said that his work as a musician was a form of anthropology. His love for early jazz, blues and Hawaiian, as well as Caribbean, Okinawan and Afro-Latin forms, may have been seen as a form of eclecticism, but, he said, each musical tradition was linked.
"I play music that is the accidental result of colonial exploitation," he once said in an interview.
Brozman discovered the National steel guitar at the age of 13. It was, he said, a turning point in his life.
"At the very beginning," said his longtime friend, collaborator and producer Daniel Thomas, "Bob was fascinated with the bottle-neck. He told me once that to find a style, you have to find all the things you don't like. He didn't like things plugged in. So that led him to the acoustic guitar. But he didn't think it was loud enough, so that led him to the lap steel, then the bottle-neck."
From there, Brozman developed an obsession with 78-rpm recordings of early American music, which led him to his first exposure to Hawaiian and Calypso. He studied ethnomusicology at Washington University in St. Louis, and, while in college, he would often travel throughout the South to play with and learn from jazz and blues musicians who started playing in the 1920s and '30s.
MIXED WITH CULTURE
Anthropological understanding was always a feature of Brozman's music. While he was popular in Europe early in his career for his rakish image, often interpreted by the media as part Leon Redbone, part Frank Zappa, he never pursued wide commercial success in the U.S. He was intent on documenting and eventually actively participating in all the ways the guitar interacted with local cultural traditions.
"He was always interested," said Thomas, "in what happens when a guitar is left behind in some culture or on some island with no instructions on how to use it, and how it adapts to what that culture feels is consonant. He told me, 'I just feel like I'm here to follow the guitar to all the places it finds a home.' "
Brozman was one of American music's greatest collaborators, having recorded albums with musicians in a dizzying number of cultures, including Indian master Debashish Bhattacharya, American mandolin master David Grisman and even local string bands from Papua New Guinea in a release designed to benefit local music in that nation.
Thomas remembered a Canadian tour in which Brozman led a huge collaboration
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