Published Aug 22, 2011The wandering spirit of Salt Spring Island, BC's Harry Manx comes out in his guitar playing. His easy, conversational style of performing was perfected by decades of busking and is grounded in profound and atmospheric blues. Plus, he's got a secret weapon: the mohan veena, a 20-stringed guitar that lends a profound, unique Indian feeling to his music. And, like any bluesman worth his salt, Manx has a hell of a back story.
"I got started with the music business when I left my home at 15," Manx begins. "I lived 'round Lake Simcoe in Ontario and I started working with bands in the '70s [like] Crowbar; I even did a tour with Rush. I worked at the El Mocambo club as a soundman and that's where I really got interested in listening to blues. I slowly started to play the guitar; not so much taking licks from guys but just trying to capture the feeling, the groove. That's still what I do; find the groove that everyone's into. So I did that roadie thing for a few years and went to Europe and became a busker on the street at about age 20 in Paris. I stayed for about a dozen years and slowly got better and better."
He moved on to Tokyo when he first heard and fell in love with a recording of the mohan veena, as played by the instrument's inventor Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Composed of three melody, five drone strings and 12 sympathetic strings strung underneath and parallel, it incorporates sitar-like effects and slide guitar techniques into a richly textured, hypnotic sound.
Manx moved to India and after many years, met Bhatt. Once Bhatt played his mohan veena in person for Manx, "I felt like I was falling into the music. Nothing else had meaning into my life. Nobody, no place, no thing. Right away he gave me a veena and said 'my son will get you started.' I stayed there for five years cause I knew I had arrived at what I was hoping to get to without knowing what it was."
Being a student at this school didn't involve paying tuition. "He takes responsibility for you learning your instrument," Manx explains. "He was quite willing to have me around. In return you have to find a way to repay. Some students would clean his house, cook food, go shopping. I was a westerner so I was able to get things from the west for his family.
"He's the one who really upped my playing. He had me practicing four hours a day for about five years and that really changed the whole direction of my music. When you study one style of music it spills into all the other sides so I was able to play blues with a different authority or flavour than what I was doing before."
As he prepared to leave India, he went to Kolkata and bought five mohan veenas from the builder of the original instrument. Since then, he's given three of them away and acquired two North American models, but inevitably "there's something about the Indian instruments that are hard to replicate. The ones I have were made with no electric tools whatsoever; no drills, no saws. It was literally homemade on the floor."
Manx doesn't play with a pick. Amplification comes from "an electric pickup between the two levels of strings. It floats and it's supported on each side. It gives a really good sound. I use fine pre-amps; API 500 Lunchbox. I try to give the people out front the best possible sound." Throw in a little reverb ― nothing too psychedelic, he says ― and that's his sound.
"Classical Indian music is by nature introspective," Manx reflects, as he assesses the importance of his instrument and its origins to his music. "It's been designed for thousands of years to have an effect on you. It can almost deepen your silence. It has the depth of spirituality and that's not unrelated to the blues, it's a very old music that comes from Africa and has a spiritual essence. I started to have a deeper feeling about the blues after that."