Harry Manx interview

Photo by Francois Berton

My friend Jamie Hailstone has interviewed many musicians for many magazines – Jimmie Vaughan, Warren Haynes, Joe Bonamassa and many more, for magazines such as Blues Matters, Maverick, R2R, Acoustic (UK) and many more.
Not all of his interviews get published – which is a shame, in my opinion.
Jamie’s agreed that I can share some of those interviews with you here, dear reader. All of the copyright with these interviews sits with Jamie – feel free to link to this interview, but please don’t lift the post – if you want to publish any of Jamie’s interviews, or commission him to do an interview for you, get in touch with me and I’ll put you in contact.
Here’s the first, with Harry Manx, a wonderful cross-cultural musician.

Harry Manx is not your average Blues musician. He takes the Blues, folk and Hindistani classical music from India and fuses them into a unique blend, which is guaranteed to take listeners into what he calls “the Harry zone”. This interview was originally done to promote his “Bread and Buddha” CD, which was released in 2009, but he has just released a new album entitled “Strictly Whatever” on Stony Plain Records (May 2011) with Kevin Breit.

JH: What first made you want to become a musician?
Harry: I became a musician because it was the only thing that was working for me; the only thing that pulled me, made me want to get up early and go to bed late. I really had no choice but to submit to it.

What did you learn from Vishwa Mohan Bhatt?
I met Vishwa Mohan Bhatt in India after I had been living there for many years. I knew how to play slide guitar at the time and I was studying some Indian music, but I only realized the potential for playing ragas on the slide after I met Vishwa. He encouraged me to learn ragas and to practice with an intensity that I had never really brought to my playing. I was at his home every morning at 8am and remained there until the early afternoon, at which time I would go to my own flat and practice alone. He basically told me that you have to worship at the church of intense daily practice!

You were born on the Isle of Man, grew up in Canada and then moved back to Europe. Did this upbringing give you a taste for the road?
My mother came from an old Manx family and my father was from near Glasgow. He was a merchant marine during and after the Second World War and he travelled all the time. I rarely saw him, but he always sent us presents from exotic places. He sent me carved elephants from India and photos from Africa. That had a huge impression on me. I realized that there was a big world out there and I wanted to see it. I’ve pretty much been travelling ever since.

You play a multitude of different instruments. Which one was the hardest to master and why?
The most difficult instrument to learn was the Mohan Veena. It’s not so much the instrument though as it is the music. You need to have the sounds in your head before your hands are going to be able to reproduce them. I listened to Indian music for the entire 12 years that I lived in India. Then I struggled many years to be able to play the instrument in tune. In general, any slide instrument is a challenge to play exactly in tune. It’s an instrument you need to use your ears more than your eyes to find the proper pitch.

Can you tell us a bit about your self-built cigar box guitar?
I’ve made a few different cigar box guitars over the years, but the cigar box I play at the moment was originally constructed by a friend in Memphis. I then took the instrument and modified it to be able to make it work for me. It’s basically two broom handles run through a cigar box with a couple of beer caps holding the strings in place. It has one bass string and three guitar strings. If you listen to my version of ‘I’m on Fire’ on the CD “In Good We Trust” you can hear the cigar box playing both the rhythm and the lead tracks.

Your music is a real mixture of Western and Eastern music. How important is it for you to fuse different styles and cultures?
I came upon the blending of Indian music and Blues more by accident than intention. I always loved the Blues ever since I was a teenager. I got into a matinee show, when I was 15 to see Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. I suddenly understood what the Blues was all about by watching those guys. It was an approach, a feel, an attitude and a vibe. It was the cure, not the illness for whatever was ailing you. Later, after many years of playing Blues, I ended up in India where I fell in love with the music. It came to me once during a late night jam with Vishwa and his sons that I could add a few Blues licks to what I was playing. That was where it all began for me. People who heard me doing that responded immediately to it. At that point I took that on as a goal; to find common ground between the two styles. For me, it was the meeting of Heaven and Earth. I’m still on that journey.
What is the Harry Zone?
The Harry Zone is the place I go to when I get into the music. The key to making the music work for me is to get deeply into it myself, almost as if I was playing alone somewhere, oblivious to what’s around me. At that point, the only thing that exists is ‘this moment’. It’s not an intellectual place. It’s not about excitement or impressive technique. It’s just about getting out of my own way and allowing the music to be the only thing happening. The crowd seems to love to go there too, I’m glad about that.
When I first arrived in Canada in 2000, I went first to a small outdoor cafe near Vancouver and asked if I could play for the people and pass my hat. The owner eyed me suspiciously and said yes, but he wanted me in the corner out of the way (and not too loud!). I sat in the corner and took out the Veena to play for the 10 people sitting around. I got lost in the music for about 15 minutes and completely forgot about the people. When I finally stopped, opened my eyes and looked around I had close to a hundred people standing around in complete silence, staring at me. The owner came out and offered me anything I wanted. I told him I’d be back when I figured out what that was. That was the day my career started.

You used to do the sound for various visiting bluesmen in Toronto when you were much younger. Who did you meet and were they nice to you?
I was a soundman at 18 in Toronto. The club where I worked was a great venue that played host to some of the blues greats. I did sound for Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Houndog Taylor – all the cool players. I got from those guys something that I can’t even describe. Maybe a sense of ‘groove’.  I never learned many licks or chords or technique from them but I got the feel of the Blues from watching them. I met John Hammond during those years and in the last few years I’ve got to know him and we’ve spoken about those days and when I did his sound. I guess that was in 71 or 72. I suppose that I’ve arrived at the place I had been dreaming about back then.

What did you think of the Grammy award winning Ry Cooder/Vishwa Mohan Bhatt collaboration “A Meeting By The River”? Did it inspire you?
I was living in Jaipur (Vishwa’s home) when Vishwa left for the States to make that recording. When he came back and told me about it, I was thinking that it was a perfect match. It’s a great recording. In a way, my sound is very much in the direction of that CD.

To what extent to you think music is a universal language?
I sell more CDs in French speaking Canada than anywhere else. In fact, my new CD spent six weeks in the top ten best sellers there. Yes, music sits comfortably between silence and words. Is it the universal language of the human spirit.

Do you think music can build bridges between different communities?
I would hope that it is a doorway to understanding other cultures. I try to do my part.

You were ‘Blues Artist Of The Year’ 2009 in Canada – what does that mean to you?
In fact, they’ve given me the award five times over the last seven years. I’m grateful that the people who vote on that have seen fit to acknowledge my music. I’m playing music that has elements of Blues, but by no means is limited to that. The Blues community is a great bunch of folks all over the world and I’m happy to be part of it. 

Having travelled so much, can I ask what is your favourite part of the world?
I’m at home wherever my family is. These days we live on a small island in British Columbia. It’s as beautiful as any place I’ve seen yet. JH

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