Bob Brozman dies at 59; guitarist and ethnomusicologist

Bob Brozman dies at 59; guitarist and ethnomusicologist
Bob Brozman, left, is shown with musician Cyril Pahinui. In recent years, Brozman traveled extensively, performing in Europe, Asia, the Americas and the South Pacific. (Shuzo Vemoto)

Guitarist and ethnomusicologist Bob Brozman, who progressed from an early fascination with the delta blues of the South to a consuming passion for the traditional music of Hawaii and became a leading authority on the National steel guitar, has died. He was 59.

Brozman was found dead April 23 at his home in Santa Cruz. His death was ruled a suicide, according to the coroner's office of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department.


Brozman emerged in Santa Cruz in the 1970s as a street musician, playing a decidedly uncontemporary American roots style of music ranging from obscure jazz tunes to Hawaiian chanties. From that start he began a recording career and released his first solo album in 1981, "Blue Hula Stomp." He put out about 30 more albums, including many collaborations with musicians from all over the world.

In 1993, he wrote the definitive work on National steel guitars, "The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments."

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.

Born March 8, 1954, in New York City, Brozman discovered the National steel guitar at 13. It was, he said, a turning point.

"At the very beginning Bob was fascinated with the bottle-neck," said his longtime friend, collaborator and producer Daniel Thomas. "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.

Anthropological understanding was always a feature of Brozman's music. He was intent on documenting and eventually actively participating in all the ways the guitar interacted with local cultural traditions.

"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," Thomas said. "He told me, 'I just feel like I'm here to follow the guitar to all the places it finds a home.' "

Brozman collaborated with musicians in a number of cultures. Thomas remembered a Canadian tour in which Brozman led a performance with musicians from India, South America, Europe and Japan.

"We had 16 musicians who had mostly never met," he said. "We had a Greek speaker with no translator, a Japanese musician with no translator, and others from India, South America, all over the place. We had one day to rehearse, and without exception every one of these virtuoso musicians were terror-struck, except for Bob. He just said, 'Don't worry, I'm the hub here, plug your spokes in and here's what we're going to do.'

"The very next day we were in front of 20,000 people at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, with a 16-man band, and one day of rehearsal."

Brozman was severely injured in a car accident in 1980, and carried pain with him the rest of his life. Still, he kept up an extensive traveling schedule.

His survivors include his wife of 15 years, Haley S. Robertson, and a daughter, Zoe Brozman.