East is East and West is West and never the train shall meet is how the saying goes. Often used to describe two diametrically opposed opinions, the sayings origins rest in the supposed separation between the philosophies of Western and Eastern thought.
Thankfully for the fate of the world there are people who refuse to buy into that statement, and attempt to bridge what was formally seen as an unbridgeable gulf. While in the past we have seen some Western performers either work with musicians from India or incorporate instruments into their songs, very few have successfully melded the two into one sound.
One musician who makes the integration of these supposed opposites seamlessly is Harry Manx. This Canadian based musician has mastered the intricacies of the multiple rhythms of the Indian ragas and blended them with Mississippi delta blues, and a touch of Gospel to create something funky and beautiful..
His CD West Eats Meet is chock full of examples of how successful this seemingly bizarre marriage works. The first track of the disc, “Help Me”, only shows hints of what is to come. Having established his blues credentials with some slick guitar work and aching harmonica, the sitar in the guitar solo near the end of the song comes as a surprise.
It’s not until the third track of the album, “Shadow Of The Whip” that the full implications of what we are hearing come clear. From the pulsing of the tabla drums in the percussion to the guitar lead that evokes the shimmering of the sitar, Manx is blurring the line that separates East from West musically.
I don’t know if you can tell from the picture above, but if you go to his web site you’ll be able to get a better idea of how he is able to generate the sounds he does with his guitar. He plays a Mohan Veena-a, 20-string guitar/sitar. The instrument was designed by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, best known for his collaboration with Ry Cooder on the disc Meeting By The River. Manx studied with Bhatt for five years in the mid eighties, and at the end of that time he was given the guitar.
From what Manx says on his web site it sounds like it could have taken him the entire five years just to learn how to tune and play the instrument. The additional strings are what he calls sympathetic, which I would assume to mean that they resonate in relation to what is being done on the principal strings. He also describes the slide techniques used by Indian musicians as being a circular motion instead of the up and down the fret board style that we associate with the blues.
The fact that he spent five years of his life studying the playing of this instrument, and learning about the music that’s to be played upon it, lends creditability to his efforts. It sure makes it difficult to lump it into the novelty act type of thing that rock stars in the past have done. There is none of the “Oh wouldn’t a sitar sound cool here” attitude about his work.
Harry Manx’s music is a wonderful mix of gospel, delta blues and traditional Indian folk songs. In the hands of a less sincere sounding musician this melding of styles would just be an embarrassment. But Harry doesn’t waste this musical melange on traditional pop fluff, or even the regular topics associated with the blues.
Without crossing the line into New Age pap, his songs would defiantly qualify as spiritual, in that they attempt to celebrate the potential of the human spirit. On “The Great Unknown” he ruminates about what it takes to keep going in this world. What type of faith do we need to overcome the sadness and difficulties that surround us is what he seems to be asking?
Harry Manx is a gifted musician and songwriter. Whether he’s playing the standard guitar, banjo, harmonica or his Mohan veena-a, his playing is superlative. His voice is expressive and real, giving everything he sings about a down to earth quality missing from far too much acoustic music these days. He may sing about the ethereal on occasion, but there is nothing airy about him.
West Eats East is his fifth album and number six, Mantras For Madmen is forthcoming in November of this year on his own Dog My Cat record label. You can listen to a cut, “San Diego/Tijuana”, from his newest album at his web site. It begins to load automatically when you enter. (If you are on dial up like I am it will take quite a wait for the site to load) If you are looking for something new to listen too in the field of blues music, than you can’t go wrong with Harry Manx. This is great stuff.