Making the Instrument Their Own


Multi-act pop music concerts by design lump together like-minded, similar-sounding groups.

The recent summer seasons, for instance, have featured such genre festivals as Sunsplash (reggae), Lollapalooza (alternative rock) and Warped (punk).

Today, the San Juan Capistrano Multicultural Art Series presents something of a departure. The common thread of the World of Slide Guitar is self-evident in the title. It features Martin Simpson, Bob Brozman and Debashish Bhattacharya, plus his brother Subhashish Bhattacharya on the tablas, each a respected, dazzling slide guitar player.

But the three musicians hail from far different places, broadly representing American, British and Indian forms of music. They each perform a 20-minute solo set, then offer cross-cultural selections as a group.

Brozman, a 43-year-old American, is a self-described "maniacal ethnomusicologist" who literally wrote the book ("The History and Artistry of National Resonator Instruments," [Centerstream, 1993]) on the National line of metal-bodied guitars. He plays a mixture of American and world-music styles, encompassing old-style folk, jazz and blues, plus African, Caribbean, Hawaiian and Django Reinhardt-style swing.

Northern England's Martin Simpson, also 43, mixes traditional Celtic, British folk and rural American blues into his eclectic repertoire. His eerie, often mournful slide playing graces much of his work, which ranges from Cat Stevens, Big Joe Williams and Blind Willie McTell covers to his own well-crafted compositions. (His new release, "Cool and Unusual" from Red House Records, offers a rich collection of primarily traditional, folk-based instrumentals.)

Rounding out the trio is Indian musician Debashish Bhattacharya, a master of the Hindustani slide guitar. His musical education included studies under Pandit Brij Bhusan Kabra, the "father" of North Indian guitar. About 14 years ago, Bhattacharya designed and built his 22-string Hindustani slide, which includes a full set of sympathetic strings and two sets of chikari strings. These innovations give the instrument a unique tonal quality somewhere between the standard guitar and the sarod, a multi-string, lute-like instrument.

Launched in Canada about a year ago, the World of Slide Guitar tour has circled the globe. Considering their geographic, cultural and stylistic gaps, it's a wonder the three ever got together.

"It was actually [blues and ragtime scholar] Stefan Grossman who thought it'd be a good thing if we toured together," Bhattacharya said.

"We really didn't know what to do or how to even start," he continued. "We didn't rehearse. When we collaborated, we simply got up onstage and started playing."


As the tour progressed, they would sit in hotel lobbies and talk about areas to explore.

"We'd ask ourselves how we could bring together all the different ideas, textures and colors within our separate styles," Bhattacharya said. "Then we'd try them out in concert."

Bhattacharya, 34, is a firm believer in technique.

"If you don't have a style, your music's not representable in front of other people," he noted. "Technique allows you to make an instrument part of your body, or an extension of yourself."

Now based in Calcutta, where he lives with his wife and their 1-year-old daughter, Bhattacharya grew up with a love and appreciation for the culture and tradition of his country. His parents, both professional singers, taught their children that music and spirituality are inseparable.

"My brother and I started learning music before we even knew the alphabet," said Bhattacharya, who picked up the guitar at age 3. "My mom and dad worshiped music, and felt the closeness of the super power through singing. In India, music is a very religious experience."

He says sharing the music of his homeland with young audiences, particularly here in America, has been a blessing.

"The Hindustani slide is an instrument which I created only 14 years ago, but I use it to play music that's thousands of years old," Bhattacharya said. "Even though materially we're not a rich country, I believe our heritage is priceless."

* World of Slide Guitar tour stops tonight at San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real. 7 and 9 p.m. Adults, $6; children 12 and younger, $3. (714) 248-7469.

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