(This article is sponsored by Dog My Cat Records.)
Salt Spring Island singer-songwriter Harry Manx has been a genuine seeker throughout his adult life. It's led him to live at an Indian ashram for seven years; reside in Japan, where he survived by busking; and immerse himself in the slide guitar, banjo, harmonica, and several Indian instruments, including the 20-stringed Mohan veena.
Manx's deeply spiritual blend of western and Indian music—he calls it "Mysticssippi" blues—has earned him seven Maple Blues Awards, a Canadian Folk Award, and six Juno nominations.
His newest and 12th album, Faith Lift, includes a bluesy cover of a George Gershwin classic infused with emotionally laden classical Indian ragas. It's unlike anything the early 20th-century U.S. composer could have contemplated.
"I use the [Hindustani] death melody, the Gurjari todi, with Gershwin's 'Summertime', which sounds like a disaster," Manx says with a laugh. "It actually all ties together. I let the strings play that really heavy melody and I stay with the chords and the vocals."
More recently, Manx's inquisitive nature has led him to collaborate with string quartets in Australia and different parts of Canada.
On October 21, he'll join the Yaletown String Quartet at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver for an unforgettable evening marrying east and west, classical and blues, and Hindustani and North American sounds.
"I got interested in the Yaletown Strings because I was looking online and saw them do a wicked version of a Led Zeppelin tune," Manx says. "It was just rockin'. I thought they've got the whole classical thing going on, of course, but they also think outside of the box. They've got the chops."
A founding member of the Yaletown String Quartet, violinist Mark Ferris, comes with serious musical credentials. The Yale University grad is concertmaster with the Vancouver Opera Orchestra and was with the CBC Radio Orchestra for 17 years, playing on two Juno-winning albums.
Manx has also performed with string quartets at Koerner Hall in Toronto, the Montreal Jazz Festival, and the Banff Centre for the Arts. Faith Lift includes songs recorded with Sydney Opera Strings, including "Death Have Mercy" and "Point of Purchase".
Each features Manx's trademark slide guitar along with his haunting and raspy vocals. They're juxtaposed with magical sounds of Indian instruments. Traditional western strings mostly play a supporting role in the background.
A video of "Death Have Mercy" on his website features him in the back of an Indian rickshaw filming the sights of Pune, where he used to live in the state of Maharashtra.
Born on the Isle of Man and raised in Toronto, the lighthearted and ever-curious Manx attributes his wanderlust to his father, a member of the British Merchant Marine.
"He kept sending us postcards, pictures of exotic places, and bringing back things," Manx recalls. "He definitely stirred my imagination."
Manx first hit the road at the age of 15, crossing Canada as a roadie. By 19 he was travelling across Europe and then overland to India.
"That was pre-Internet," Manx says. "You really had to go and see stuff if you wanted to know about it."
He joined a famous ashram created by Osho, an Indian spiritual teacher and meditation advocate in Pune, which is a mid-size city about 150 kilometres from Mumbai. The bearded mystic urged his followers to live authentically in the present and to celebrate courage, creativity, and humour.
The orange-shirt-clad Oshos also embraced open attitudes toward sexuality, which generated a great deal of media hype in the 1980s. In retrospect, Osho appears to have simply been ahead of his time.
"If you listen to my lyrics, they're all so informed by Osho and other spiritual masters, without trying to preach or say things too directly," Manx says. "If the music and sounds are deep, I want the words to be as powerful."
Manx has long been drawn to the slide guitar, citing Duane Allman, Jesse Ed Davis, Jerry Douglas, Ry Cooder, and David Lindley as his influences.
Lindley is a legendary session player who's collaborated with artists ranging from Jackson Browne to Bruce Springsteen. Lindley has also toured in the past with Manx, including a stop at the Vogue Theatre.
"I've told him a few times, 'Dave, you're a big hero of mine,'" Manx says with a chuckle in his voice. "He doesn't like to hear that."
But Manx's most influential teacher was Indian musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. After leaving the ashram in Pune, Manx spent five years with Bhatt in Jaipur, a popular tourist destination and the colourful capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan.
As a result of Bhatt's mentorship, Manx has concluded that there are intriguing similarities between the blues and classical Hindustani music. In India, for example, musicians learn about the meend, which involves gliding from one note to another.
"Everybody learns that: how do you approach the note from below, above, or do you go to another note to get to your note?" Manx says. "I started to think about people like B.B. King. He has his own meend. As soon as you hear him play one note, you know it's him."
He adds that the same is true of slide guitarist Derek Trucks, who's developed his own style of approaching notes.
Manx also learned in India that each raga has a certain state of mind or emotion attached to it.
"Some ragas are about contemplation," he says. "Others are sadness. And others are joy. When you listen to the notes—how they're played—you really get that vibe."
To Manx, music is yet another way to embrace other cultures. And that's what he's hoping listeners will appreciate when they attend his concert at the Vogue with the Yaletown String Quartet.
"The music was kind of an audio description of the environment I was in," Manx says of his time in India. "It was very deep. It could say things that books wouldn't be able to tell me about the place."
Harry Manx and the Yaletown String Quartet will play the Vogue Theatre on October 21. Tickets are available here
(This article is sponsored by Dog My Cat Records.)More