Blues, spiced with Hindustani

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Canadian musician Harry Manx brought his particular brand of fusion and his mohan veena to the MEMO Music Hall in St Kilda

Award-winning Canadian musician Harry Manx looks at first like your typical Blues/Americana/Folk musician, with his grizzled white beard, black wool hat and blue jeans. But look closer, because the slide guitar he holds is in fact not a guitar at all, but a mohan veena, given to him by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt – its Grammy Award-winning inventor. The instrument has an extra layer of sympathetic strings, making it a hybrid of western and eastern sound.

As Manx, who started out in Blues as a “roadie” at the age of fifteen, and started his recording career at the age of 46, plays some opening chords, I almost think I’m imagining the silken sound of a raag. But through the song I hear Indian classical meends, or slides, mixed with blues, and the finishing chords are distinctly Hindustani.

Harry Manx.Indian Link

Manx laughs as he tells me that his music is sometimes described as “Indo-Blues”. This, he says frankly, is mostly so he can be placed in a category, making it easier for his audience to find his music in a store. In reality, he switches deftly between styles just as he switches between mohan veena, slide guitar, and banjo on stage. He is in fact more about adding the flavour of India rather than a conscious and consistent mixing of Indian classical with western music.

“My time spent in India gave my music a little spice…I can’t seem to play any other way now,” he says.

Manx originally travelled to India in 1986 in pursuit of meditation, not music. The links between music and spirituality eventually led to him to Jaipur and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, from whom he learned the mohan veena for five years, practicing five hours a day. The greatest difficulty with learning Hindustani classical, he says, was connecting with the sound as a westerner.

“You don’t grow up with that sound… it sounds very foreign at first,” Manx says.

Harry Manx.Indian Link

He never had any intention of mixing the two styles, but ultimately he noticed commonalities between some Blues scales and Indian ragas, particularly in night ragas with their “heavy” feel.

Listening to some of his songs that have been given this treatment, I can see what he means, especially as the improvisations of renowned organist and keyboard player Clayton Doley meld, rather than jar against it. On the other hand, I find some songs that have been given the “eastern spice” too eclectic, almost psychedelic. The sound of these pieces, to my Indian ears, is more reminiscent of hippies and hashish than classical Hindustani music.

However, I respect the fact Manx is open about the difficulties of presenting true Indian classical to his almost exclusively western audience.

“First of all, I’m not that qualified to do it, but second of all, I can’t hold their interest for long enough.” By framing and ‘referencing’ Indian classical in a Blues context, he believes it becomes more accessible to western listeners. He wants the music to connect with them in the same way he connected with classical music in India.

Harry Manx.Indian Link

Looking around curiously at the audience as he performs, I’m not sure how successful he’s been. There seems to be a kind of frozen, polite quality to the way they listen to his Indianised Blues pieces, compared to the palpable enthusiasm he receives while playing classic Blues and Americana songs. And despite his frequent invitation for questions, nobody asks anything about Indian music.

But then again, as someone who lets his music ‘unfold’ with no fixed approach, Manx is hardly on a mission. In an era where fusion for fusion’s sake is ‘in vogue’, this is refreshing in itself.