Lessons I Learned from Bob Brozman

I’m on a little break at the moment (back on the 14th May) but I had to get a post up celebrating the music of Bob Brozman – who died last week – by listing just a few of the things I learnt from him.

Brozman was a huge inspiration for me. So much so he was one of the few things that could get me to leave my Unabomber-style shack and venture into the real world. His ukulele-only set at the Wukulele Festival in 2010 reinvigorated me.

And I’m certainly not the only one. Bob became a big part of the ukulele scene appearing at festivals – he was due to play this year’s Ukulele Boudoir Festival – giving ukulele workshops around his home state of California and releasing many ukulele instruction DVDs inspiring ukers all over the world.

The Ukulele is Exciting

I first saw Bob Brozman live in 2000 and it was a complete revelation for me. In terms of making music in general and the ukulele specifically. I already owned a ukulele but only messed around with it. His uke tour d’force, Ukulele Spaghetti (from Blue Hula Stomp) convinced me it was a much more interesting instrument than I’d realised. And my commitment to playing it well increased from that point.

You can find UkuleleDav’s tabs for Ukulele Spaghetti here.

How to Avoid a Rut

Bob played music for 50 years, never got bored and was always stretching his playing. To keep his playing fresh and himself excited, he was always exploring the world, new instruments and new ways of playing.

He started off as a bluesman before falling in love with Hawaiian music – producing an incredible album with Cyril Pahinui and many collaborations with Ledward Kaapana. From there he spread out to jam with and learn from players of the uilleann pipes , accordion, chaturangui and many more.

The video above is a typically international jam with Takashi Hirayasu from Okinawa on sanshin and Djeli Moussa Diawara from Guinea on kora. But was also one of the finest proponants of homegrown American music as one of Robert Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders.

If you ever find yourself bored with playing there’s always new genres, areas of the world and instruments to inspire you.

Where the Interesting Music Is

Being an active ethnomusicologist, he came up with plenty of theories on how music developed and where the best music could be found.

A recurring theme in Bob’s collaborations was islands. Collaborating with musicians from Hawaii, Reunion, Ireland, Okinawa and Papua New Guinea amongst many others. I asked him what was so special about islands, “Musical instruments and ideas, not always 100% perfectly expressed and understood, arrive on islands from distant places and cultures, percolate in isolation on the island, then emerge as new hybrid music. That plus the strength of nature so evident on islands makes for wonderful new music. Hawaii was one of the first “laboratories” for this phenomenon.”

He also, “started to realise that all the interesting music is happening at the frontiers of colonialism. Where the guitars have arrived.” (interview with OC-TV.net). His friend and producer Daniel Thomas (quoted in the Santa Cruz Sentinal): “He was always interested 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.”

Learn Your Chord Inversions

The biggest thing I learned from his DVD Ukulele Tunes and Techniques was to make better use of chord inversions. A theme he continued in his Uke Toolbox DVDs.

As ukulele players we tend to just play chords around the first few frets. But by venturing higher up the neck you can instantly make your playing much more interesting. Particularly if you’re playing with other ukers.

It made me see past the restrictions of the ukulele opened me up to chords, inversions and rhythms that I wouldn’t have otherwise come across.

There’s a World of Ukulele-like Instruments

Bob was a big proponant of the charango. Which he referred to as the “Bolivian super-ukulele.” And it’s not the only uke-similar instrument I came to through him. From Debashish Bhattacharya playing a four-string lap-steel anandi to the three-string sanshin played by Takashi Hirayasu.

How to Flip Cliches

From Jim D’Ville’s 3 questions with Bob Brozman: “Build a man a fire and you keep him warm for the night. Set him on fire and you keep him warm for the rest of his life.”

Links

BobBrozman.com
My interview with Bob Brozman.
Bob Brozman Spotify playlist
Bob and other ukulele masters showing off.

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11 Comments

  1. Jim D'Ville May 2nd, 2013 3:31 pm

    Al, best tribute to Bob I’ve seen! Thanks so much for posting.

  2. mictoboy May 2nd, 2013 4:03 pm

    Nice tribute Al, and thanks for summarising some useful info about this great musician.

  3. Steven Strauss May 2nd, 2013 4:06 pm

    What people call bored with their own playing is really a kind of despair after improving. Every student I’ve had (except for one nine year old) has been deeply frustrated by the gap between the music they like and the music they make. I think there’s always room to improve what you’re already doing. When a student says they’re tired of what they’re doing I try to resist the impulse to dangle shiny keys in the form of new progressions, inversions, fingerings, tunes, and refocus attention on the way the student is already playing. Just getting the student to develop a few different dynamic levels for strumming returns some attention to the actual sound being made – something often forgotten while concentrating on sophisticating the fretboard choreography.

    I always thought that Bob’s way of playing music was full tilt. How exciting he was.

  4. Phil Doleman May 2nd, 2013 4:09 pm

    A lovely tribute. I learned pretty much everything I know about playing guitar from Bob’s videos, and so when I saw him play uke I knew I had to give it a go. What I maybe didn’t realise wad that I was also being exposed to some amazing philosophies about music and culture, too. Meeting him proved he was as charming and interesting in real life. A huge loss.

  5. RobNY May 3rd, 2013 12:24 pm

    Well done Al.

  6. Woodshed May 3rd, 2013 2:39 pm

    Jim: Thanks so much.

    Mictoboy: Cheers.

    Steven: That’s a good point. A lot of truth in that.

    Phil: Thanks very much.

    RobNY: Thanks, Rob.

  7. Kevin Carroll May 3rd, 2013 4:25 pm

    Great tribute!

    I am still stunned by this sad news, yet, so appreciative of Bob’s thorough efforts to pass on his vast knowledge and passion for music.

    Did you mean to say your Uke-abomber style shack?

  8. gunnee May 3rd, 2013 9:52 pm

    I thought those were some awsome vedios, I ‘ll have to look in to him some more thanks

  9. Alistair C May 5th, 2013 3:09 pm

    Thanks for posting this Al. Not for the first time you have pointed me in the direction of a whole load of important and interesting music.

  10. Liz May 8th, 2013 3:33 pm

    Thanks so much for introducing me to this amazing man! What a beautiful tribute. I was devastated to learn that he took his life, though I can understand why.
    And thank you for this wonderful website! Been a guitarist most of my life, till a friend gave me a ukulele last summer and revived my interest in making music again. But I only recently got serious about it and sent off for your book, which led me to your site – can’t wait for it to arrive!

  11. Julie Hendriks June 12th, 2013 1:01 am

    In a couple of days we will be on our way to Maui for George Kahumoku’s workshop, but I will so deeply miss Bob, who was slated to teach there again this year. I will miss his energy, his passion, his humor. Don’t know how I’m going to survive next week without those jungle drums in the middle of the afternoon. Sigh…

    Julie

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