Harry Manx’s Raga Blues: An Ethereal Spell

While surfing the internet one early November evening, I discovered that Canadian acoustic-blues master Harry Manx would be playing at a small venue in Lafayette, Indiana. Since Harry was on my bucket list, it was easy to “click and purchase” my way into this event sponsored by the nonprofit group “Friends of Bob,” even though it meant a six-hour drive each way. By the time I was speaking to Harry, post-concert, at the CD signing, I appreciated even more deeply my choice to attend.

Harry Manx

As I entered Duncan Hall for the Manx concert, I noticed on stage three instruments: an acoustic guitar, a banjo, and something that looked like a cross between a guitar and sitar—the 20-string Mohan veena. A type of Indian lute, it consists of three melody strings, five drone strings, and 12 sympathetic strings underneath that vibrate only as a consequence of the sound waves generated by the other strings.

Manx spent five years in India studying the veena with its inventor, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. During his earlier years as a soundman, Manx learned slide blues guitar in the nightclubs of Toronto. After India, Harry blended both musical experiences into his distinctive Indo-blues hybrid.

“Indian music moves inward,” Harry explains on his website. “It’s traditionally used in religious ceremonies and meditation, because it puts you into this whole other place. But Western music has the ability to move out, into celebration and dance. There are ragas that sound bluesy, and there are ways to bend strings while playing blues that sound Indian.”

During the concert, Manx easily glided from one instrument to the next. Along the way, he also played harmonica and provided percussion through foot pedals.  Right foot was bass. Left foot was high hat. When he played the veena, his shining steel bar glided across the lower strings while he simultaneously plucked upper strings. The result sounded like a mesh of slide acoustic guitar and Indian sitar. His ethereal sonic spell captivated the audience deeply. Many had only come to the concert because it was a Friends of Bob event, and some told me they had never heard of Harry Manx. Based on the consistently enthusiastic applause, there were many new converts to Manxism on that night.

Since 2001, Harry has released ten CDs, plus the 2010 compilation, Isle of Manx (he was born on the Isle of Man). On Isle of Manx, you can find music from from Harry’s first decade of recordings, including Harry’s cover of J.J. Cale’s “Tijuana” and the classic “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” All tracks are worthy of your ears.  I especially appreciate “Forgive and Remember,” an instrumental piece on veena that showcases Manx’s talents for American blues while upholding classical Indian stylizing. The notes twist deliciously, wrapped with nuance and subtlety, enticing the listener to endorphin-laced realms. The afterglow lingers pleasantly. Beyond Isle of Manx, I encourage investigating Harry’s deep music library, including these favorite tracks: “Nine Summers Lost,” “Looking for a Plan,” and “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.”

At the end of Harry’s concert in Lafayette, I went to the CD table, purchased a copy of Isle of Manx, and waited. Soon Harry approached the area. When I told him that I had been promoting his music in Southeast Iowa for the past three years and that there are lots of fans who would love to have him play in Fairfield, he smiled, shook my hand, and looked closely at my KRUU-FM business card. “Sounds like a good idea,” he said.

I challenge you to listen to the music of Harry Manx. Don’t be surprised to find yourself joining the list of local fans who will be anticipating a future visit from this master of the Mohan veena.

Join Andy on Fringe Toast every Wednesday at 8 p.m. on KRUU-FM (100.1 FM), kruufm.com.