Describing Harry Manx’s music presents something of a challenge: it is like nothing you have probably ever heard before. If you are a fan of Harry Manx, and there are many, you already know what to expect when he arrives in Calgary for two intimate dates.
The best way to do this is to let Manx speak for himself. As he puts it, there are two strong components to music: the first is the “ability to manipulate strings or to blow instruments,” the other aspect is the content, “what you are going to say, what you are going to reveal with the song.” It is in this regard, in the lyrics of the song, that much of the character of the musician is revealed. In Manx’s case, much of his distinctive sound and, by extension, his personality, was shaped by the 12 years that he spent in India — the key to understanding Manx’s music is a recognition and appreciation of the intense spirituality of it. “That just happens in spite of me,” he says. “That is just where my art wants to be. I think it is more interesting to my audience if they can feel inspired by my word rather than just hear about me and my struggles.”
Among Manx’s many influences are Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. He received his main instrument, the Mohan Veena, from him over twenty years ago. As a sad aside, since I talked to Harry Manx his Mohan Veena was stolen at the airport after a recent performance in Chicago. Whether or not he gets it back in time for his Calgary performances remains to be seen. Doubtlessly, this will affect the style of performance that he can give.
Fortunately, though, he has a myriad of instruments he can choose to play and a lot of stylistic influences to draw upon. Many musicians have impressed Manx and helped him to develop and mould his sound. “I began my musical journey listening to the great American slide guitarists, like Ry Cooder, David Lindley and Jerry Douglas. When I was introduced to Indian slide guitar music, that gave me a whole other set of influences to draw upon. When I went to India I sort of tuned into that. I don’t try to imitate them or to sound like them, but they are musicians who I respect and who inspire me,” he adds.
Thus, it was perhaps by accident, or a happy twist of fate, that Manx had to develop his own unique sound. “When I began to play slide guitar, there was not much information on how to play available.” As a result, he notes, people who learn how to play slide guitar, they sort of work out their own style. This provides a lot of freedom for the artist. “If you take 10 slide players they all play different,” he says. Manx admits that he likes this aspect of slide playing and suggests that this is one of the reasons for the style’s popularity. “Slide is attractive to people because, like (with) the human voice, there is no steps between tones. You can glide between tones and that opens up a whole other area for playing.”
Still, there is no denying that the core of his music has changed little over the years. Asked to define his sound, Manx says that it remains an amalgam of Indian classical music and the blues. That is about as succinct as you can get. If you want to learn more about Harry Manx, his instruments and his music, get to one of his Calgary dates. You won’t regret it.
Catch Harry Manx at Festival Hall (Calgary) on March 14 and 15.
By Bruce Pollock