When the Georgia Straight calls up Harry Manx for an interview, we have no idea where he's located. The area code (250) signifies that it's somewhere in B.C., but that's about it. Turns out he's been residing on Salt Spring Island for the last 20 years or so. And as luck would have it for Harry, there's a music scene there.
"There is a local scene," confirms the self-described "Mysticssippi" bluesman. "In fact, the first time I played in Canada would have been at the local cafe, the Treehouse Cafe. It's an outdoor cafe and in the summertime also every night there's some live act. They pay you 40 or 50 bucks to play, and you can pass the hat. But we also have some halls, you know, and people put on their shows.
"During the pandemic I put on a lot of shows here with different collaborations," he adds. "I brought a string quartet over from Vancouver, the Yaletown Strings, I played with them. And I put on a blues night with Dave Gogo and Steve Marriner and myself. So I've exposed the locals to a lot of music, and I hope they're not gettin' tired of me at this point."
There's little chance of that, as the rootsy music Manx makes--slide guitar-laced blues blended with Indian folk melodies--is far from the tiring kind. It's a soulful, moving brew that grew from a love of music that he first discovered the old-fashioned way: by looking at vinyl LPs.
"I remember being attracted to album covers without really having heard the music," recalls the 67-year-old tunesmith. "You know those days. I think I saw a cover with Johnny Winter, he had a shiny guitar, and I liked his look and his guitar, so I bought that, and funny enough that was my introduction to the blues--his first album. So I just sort of got lucky that I fell into that, and something clicked in me about the blues right away. It seemed like a good honest music that was saying something meaningful--though I might not have understood what that was."
Manx's journey to becoming a bonafide bluesman started when, at the age of 15, he immersed himself in the Toronto live-music world, eventually becoming the sound man at the famed El Mocambo nightclub.
"I sort of got my education directly in that scene," he explains. "Like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Hound Dog Taylor--they all came through there, so that was neat. I never tried to pick their brains about how to play, but I think some of the feeling of what they were doing was really what was of interest to me, you know, the well that they were drawing from, the groove."
All that hobnobbing with blues legends couldn't keep Manx rooted in the Big Smoke, though, because he wanted to get out and see the world, and at the age of 20 he took off for Europe.
"I originally just wanted to travel," he says, "and I found out the only way that I could keep myself going was to play my guitar on the streets. I did that a lot in Europe, for a dozen years, and then in Japan for almost a dozen. I was a pretty mediocre guitar player for a long time, because I wasn't really focused on practicing anything--right away I was making a living on the street with my guitar, and I only knew a good half-a-dozen songs, so I just played them all the time.
"I wasn't interested in becoming a virtuoso or anything like that, but later in life when I discovered Indian music, that's when I started to take the idea of studying and bettering myself with the music, so I practiced like five years, four hours a day, and that pretty much solved all my problems about being able to play well."
Manx's passion for Indian music led to him studying ragas with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, a legendary Hindustani classical music instrumentalist and inventor of the 20-stringed Mohan veena Indian slide guitar. That's when he started to find a musical crossover between East and West.
"Blues and Indian music were sort of in separate compartments in my brain," he discloses, "and I didn't see the bridge between the two. But as you get familiar with both styles of music you do start to see that there are commonalities, you know. There's some notes of a particular western scale that are the notes of a particular raga, and you start to see that. So if I was playing this raga it wouldn't be any big leap to start playing a pentatonic blues scale, for instance. So then I started to see that there were places--maybe I was forcing the relationship--but there were places where they could come together, Indian and blues."
Nowadays Manx is known for his slide guitar skills, which he's been honing for decades. He started playing slide when he was a busker in Japan in the early '90s.
"By the time I met Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who's like the master of the Indian slide, I was already doin' alright on the slide. And he liked what I played. I started on the sitar, but I didn't get too far on it, so I switched to the Mohan veena, which is the Indian slide guitar, and that really was a great inspiration. I would be excited to play; I would play myself into a trance sometimes because the notes, they draw you in. The sounds draw you in and they take you somewhere else, and I often did that. I had to sort of stop and have a coffee sometimes. It was spacing me way out, the music."
Bhatt was so impressed by Manx's devotion to learning the Monah veena that he gave him one of his own.
"He was touched by the dedication I had," recalls Manx, "to practice and learn. I wasn't just interested in learning enough to impress people; I actually wanted to learn the music. So they have a great system with a teacher and a student, where you don't pay money, but you have to find a way to sort or repay them. And I always brought him things from Japan. Like they never had a Walkman before I brought one and gave it to them. And things like that--cameras. Whatever I could find to improve the quality of their life. And they were living the simple life in Rajasthan. Vishwa was supporting a house of 20 people, and I just lived down the street, so I sort of became part of that family for about five years."
The Mohan veena that Bhatt gave Manx is, not surprisingly, his most prized instrument. But he nearly lost it for good when it was stolen at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in 2014.
"I'm not ashamed to say I wept," he reveals. "It was stolen briefly for a few weeks and the police finally got it back for me. It became a big phenomenon in Chicago, because it sort of tied into a bigger story of lax security at the airport. You can Google about that--'Harry Manx lost guitar in Chicago'--there's still information online about that story."
Manx is in pretty good company when it comes to musicians who've been gifted with Mohan veena's from Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. George Harrison scored one too. In fact, it says in Manx's Spotify bio that "the only other magician to have mastered the complex Mohan veena was late Beatle George Harrison." That claim gets a chuckle out of Manx.
"It's funny what you can read on Spotify," he says. "George, you know, George came to see Vishwa Mohan Bhatt at his home during the time that I was also around, but occasionally I went south to Pune, so when I was in Pune George came twice, when I wasn't there, and visited Vishwa with Ravi Shankar. And on one occasion Vishwa gave him a Mohan veena, and he took it away, but I don't know how proficient he ever got on it. I know that he played the sitar a bit, and he was a great slide player, but it's hard to say. The veena is a tricky instrument. It's not enough if you know how to play slide; you also have to know the music. But I'm sure George knew something about that, having studied with Ravi."
Armed with formidable skill on the Mohan veena, and that early love of blues instilled by Johnny Winter, Manx kicked off a successful recording career with the 2001 release of his debut album, Dog My Cat. He released over ten albums between 2001 and 2011.
"I was doing an album a year for quite a long time," he points out. "And I managed to put out 20 recordings in the 23 years since I came back to Canada. But I'm slowin' down now. I never felt like I wanted to force it, and if I'm gonna start forcin' it then I'll stop doin' it. But I noticed that ambition wanes over time, and you have to find new ways to kind of keep yourself moving forward. We're gonna release an album very soon actually called Way Out East, and it's all songs that are Indian-inspired from all my different albums. It's basically a compilation album. I used any of the ragas which I learned in India and made tunes based on those, and all the songs in Way Out East are like that."
As well as his Indian-flavoured albums, Manx has recorded three albums with Toronto wunderkind Kevin Breit: 2003's Jubilee, 2007's In Good We Trust, and 2011's Strictly Whatever. Manx asserts that Breit may be the greatest guitarist you've never heard of.
"He's a phenomenon in Canada you know. He's the most underrated and unknown amazing musician that I've ever met. He's the guy that plays on records with Nora Jones and Celine Dion and Joni Mitchell, k.d. lang. But you dont' know much about him because he's a kinda behind-the-scenes guy. So I've always had a lovely connection with Kev. We vibe very well together, and the music reflects that, you know. Whatever crazy idea I have, I just look over and he's right there with me on it. He's a magic guitar player."
Although Marx won't have Briet with him when he plays North Vancouver's Centennial Theatre this Friday (September 16), there should be some magic in the air. His prized Mohan veena will be featured--"it's a big part of the show"--and Manx tries to be a people-pleaser when it comes to the setlist.
"I try to play some of the favorites people know from my previous recordings, and I know very clearly what they are 'cause they always yell them out. And then I"ll add a couple of new ones that I'll introduce them to. But basically I catch up with a lot of tunes that they're familiar with; I don't want to torture them too much."
When asked to name some of those crowd favourites, Manx cites "Don't Forget to Miss Me" and "Coat of Mail", both off his second album, 2002's Wise and Otherwise.
"'Coat of Mail' is interesting because when I arrived in Vancouver in 2000 I lived just in a shitty hotel somewhere downtown, and I met a homeless guy--well virtually homeless, he lived in the Yale and he was all down and out. But previously I'd known him, 25 years before, and he was a successful artist. So I wrote a song about him."
After his North Van gig, Manx will be heading Down Under for an extensive tour that includes over 30 dates so far. He's been to Australia many times, and contends that, next to Canada, it's probably the place where he's best known.
"I really like it there," he says. "I like the landscape; I like the people. It's all good. I like to go there when it gets a little cool up here."
Harry Manx plays the Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver on Friday, September 16.More