Harry Manx’s Mystic-ssippi Blues

When Indian musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt invented the Mohan Veena—a guitar/sitar hybrid instrument with 20 strings—he probably didn’t imagine that a crazy guy from the Isle of Man would use it to forge some of the most unusual blues music ever recorded. He hadn’t counted on Harry Manx.
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Manx grew up in Canada listening to and playing blues standards, but he always had the travel bug. In the mid 1980s he traveled to India, where he became enthralled with Indian music. After hearing Bhatt play, Manx decided to become the Indian legend’s understudy and dedicated himself to learning the Mohan Veena, which is played lap-style with a slide.

Manx’s new album, Mantras for Madmen, shows how the guitarist uses the Indian instrument to add to, not overpower, the soul of the blues. It would be easy for Manx to let the distinctive sound of the Mohan Veena distract the listener from the essential urgency of the songs, but he skillfully blends the two flavors into a thoroughly original style.

What exactly is a Mohan Veena?

Well, veenas are common instruments in India, but they just don’t normally look like guitars. They’re more like sitars lying down, and they use a glass egg to play it. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt took a guitar and put some sympathetic strings on it and said, “Now it’s a veena!” It has two layers of strings, like a sitar, and the sympathetics run underneath the ones you are playing. When you play the top strings, those bottom strings just sing.

Can you use a standard guitar to play any Indian passages?

Yes, I can. Indian slide guitar is a whole world unto itself, and it’s an approach to notes that’s different. They have something in Indian music called the meend. The meend is how you approach the notes, like from above or below or right on it. They play in a circular fashion with their left hand. Once you learn the meend, you can do it on any instrument, really. It’s an imitation of the vocal style.

Are there any examples on the album where you play the Indian style with a regular guitar?

On the second track, “San Diego-Tijuana.” It’s a very simple song that goes from D to Eb the whole time, but I try to move it into a morning raga on a regular guitar. I also use the veena on that song, but you can distinguish between the two rather easily.

What made you think that Indian ragas would be a good marriage with the blues?

It wasn’t really premeditated. I grew up with the blues, and when I was a busker on the street in Europe I played blues. When I learned Indian music, I would just sit alone in a room and play it for myself. And then when I was hanging out with Mohan I started mixing the two together, just for a joke when we would jam at night. For instance, Rag Dhani is the same note sequence as a major blues, so as I was playing the raga, I’d throw a few blues licks in there and everybody seemed to like it. So I thought, “Maybe this is something I can play around with a little bit.”