Harry Manx is on the line from Australia. He knows Australia well – has what he calls “repeat offenders” – people who have seen him and know what they’re going to see and go again. Sometimes they bring along someone new to check it out for the first time. “That’s always nice; that’s a good deal!”
But Harry Manx – guitarist, harmonica player, singer, stringed-instrument virtuoso across cigar-box guitars, six-string banjo and the Mohan veena (we’ll get to that in a bit) has never been to New Zealand. This week marks his first trip.
“Look I’ve wanted to get there for a long time”, the Canadian blues player, folklorist and musicologist tells me before his Sydney sound check. “Actually, New Zealand’s always sorta been in my mind in a sense, when we left the Isle of Man [where Manx was born] my parents had two places in mind: New Zealand or Canada. They chose Canada. I don’t know why – but that’s where I ended up. So I’m very much looking forward to – finally – getting to see New Zealand.”
Manx will be bringing with him a small selection of guitars – the veena (in layman’s terms it’s a cross between a sitar and a guitar, capable of coaxing classical Indian sounds and lap-slide guitar ideas too) and an extensive repertoire including covers and originals.
“The great thing about playing somewhere for the first time is I can play whatever I want I guess – I can play some old blues tunes and my own material, in a sense there isn’t the expectation that there is with return trips where you are playing to some of the same audience again”.
“I was a soundman first – a roadie. I was 15 when I hooked up with a local rock band. Five years as a soundman gave me a lot of learning. I was turned onto a lot of music – through their record collections too. I lived with the band and travelling about I got to see some of the greats, Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon and Hound Dog Taylor and I was hearing all these guys on record like B. B. King and Junior Wells and Paul Butterfield. I was really drawn to harmonica players and also, with blues, it wasn’t about getting the licks down. At least not to begin with, but the groove, the feel of it, that was what was exciting to me. Also a lot of the blues guys and rock guys I hung around with listened to a lot of jazz so that was a great education”.
With this music swimming in his head Manx took off on his first big travel adventure, to Europe to learn and play music on the streets of Paris. He says the Paris training was tough and wonderful, “you learn a lot when you have to draw an audience in, you’re rewarded with some of the best crowds you’ll ever have and you work hard, you also receive some very tough crowds. I battled away and became a one-man-band, even had a drum on my back, that kinda thing. Twelve years I worked at it…”
The traveller in Manx is something he believes he inherited from his father, peripatetic due to the nature of his work with the merchant navy. His father also filled him with stories of India and that, coupled with hearing Ravi Shankar changed Manx’s world.
“I heard a Shankar record as a teen and it was just a whole new world – I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t in fact understand it, the emotion, the vibe, it was interesting. And I guess I wanted to understand it. Through hearing that and the stories from my dad the idea of India – as a place, a purpose – started to grow. I first travelled there from Europe in 1979. That was really just to visit. But the seeds were sown for when I would return.”
So as Manx would master his instruments on the streets of Europe – moving to “work in bars, cafés, wherever I could get a gig” – he would take time out to visit Japan (“a great place to busk”) and then to India. In 1986 he returned to India where he would commence study with the great V. M. Bhatt. You may know Bhatt from his work with Ry Cooder, from his own music and as the creator of the Mohan Veena – his own type of slide guitar; the instrument Manx now favours.
In 2000 Manx returned to Canada with his own veena (“and a sturdy fibreglass case”) and set to work creating his own music, recording it and touring, setting up the framework that is now his touring, travelling life. He’s made 14 albums – and enjoys a home on Salt Spring Island, Vancouver. An artist’s community, Manx is one of a handful of high profile musicians living there and he says there is a great artistic spirit, a feeling of community. He recorded his first three albums at the house of Randy Bachman (he tells me Bachman has recently left the island, relocated, his BTO offshoot Bachman-Turner a busy touring entity once again).
Despite travelling with four or five instruments at any one time, and the rarity of the veena (“I’ve had more than one built, I did lose one, I have given a couple away”) Manx is not particularly precious about his instruments and laughs that he’s not what you would call “a guitar geek”. He says, “I do attract a certain type to my gigs – I can spot them, guitar guys watching what I’m doing and we’ll have a chat after the show and though I’m always happy to have a chat I’m not what you would really call a guitar freak, I get lost in some of those conversations”. He chuckles. Adding, “you know the guitar wasn’t even the instrument of choice. The organ teacher was 20 miles away, that was some hike. Whereas the guitar teacher was five doors down. That’s really how it all came to be”.
He’s sure too, having had instruments break, having had them stolen, that “the magic isn’t actually in the instrument. I used to think that it was. But you pick up a new instrument and you find a way to make it sing, to make those special sounds again.”
Harry Manx plays three New Zealand dates this week, starting with Wellington’s Bodega this Wednesday, October 1 and visiting Okere Falls, Rotorua before concluding at Auckland’s Tuning Fork – click here for all dates/venues.
And for further information about Manx, links to his music and bio check out his website.