Meeting genres with mouth harp

Harmonica harmony

Meeting genres with mouth harp

If you have seen Hollywood westerns, you know that next to his gun, a cowboy loves his harmonica. After a hard day of riding mad bulls and shooting it out with bandits, the rugged cowboy unwinds at night in front of a campfire, drinking whiskey and playing the harmonica. To add to this Hollywood myth, there are several wild-west stories about the musical instrument.

Frank, brother of the notorious outlaw Jesse James, was saved from a bullet aimed at his heart by a harmonica in his shirt pocket. The notorious outlaw Billy the Kid and the even-more-notorious lawman Wyatt Earp were harmonica players.

But the harmonica is not just for cowboys. Most players of this instrument might not agree that it was meant for only solo performances and was not invited to be part of the friendly ensemble family. Only recently has the harmonica been given the identity and popularity it deserves, thanks to musicians like Jerry Adler, whose virtuosity helped adapt it to any musical style, including classical, jazz, blues and folk. And his student and protégé, Antonio Serrano, is continuing this great legacy today. A brief interaction with him proved to be quite insightful.

At the age of 7, while most boys were throwing toys and tantrums, Antonio was practising the harmonica. When asked about why he chose it, his reply was: “My father was a harmonica player and teacher. I learned from him at a young age. I didn’t choose the instrument, the instrument chose me.”

Though people knew young Antonio was talented, few realised his potential until he, at 13, performed in Paris with Larry Adler, one of the greatest harmonica players the world has ever seen. This concert proved to be a turning point in his life not just because it threw him into the international spotlight, but also because Larry Adler became his mentor and tutor.

Today, Antonio himself is considered one of the best harmonica players in the world, but he is thankful for the rare opportunity that was afforded to him. “I was only 13 when I met Larry Adler and spending time with him influenced me as a player and as a human being. I learned to respect myself and to take music seriously. The fact that I caught Larry’s attention with my playing made me believe I was special in some way. This has given me confidence to work hard and not give up in difficult situations.”

Through Adler’s expert teaching and lots of self-styled practice, Antonio soon shaped his own playing technique on the chromatic harmonica that would suit all styles of music, from pure classical and jazz to rhythm ‘n’ blues, tango and flamenco. His early classical leaning was made obvious in 1992, when at the age of 18, he performed the Malcolm Arnold Harmonica Concerto.

But Antonio’s passion slowly expanded to cover other styles as he began performing with blues, jazz and pop musicians. Soon, Antonio’s harmonica playing was featured on hundreds of records of various musical styles, and he became a celebrity in Spain, his home country.

Naturally, he doesn’t “think any particular instrument suits any particular style of music. As long as the player understands deeply the style he plays, the music will be fine, despite the instrument he is playing.” Over the years, Antonio played and recorded with prominent musicians like Larry Adler, Toots Thielemans, Wynton Marsalis, Jerry Gonzalez and Lou Bennett, among others. Antonio had been a featured musician of the symphonic orchestras of Venezuela, Belgium, Cologne, Heidelberg and Kiel, playing original concertos for harmonica composed by H Villalobos and Malcolm Arnold, and also arrangements of composers like Enescu, Gershwin and Piazzolla.

Antonio Serrano’s harmonica playing could be distinctly heard on recordings of leading Spanish pop and rock artistes and also on the soundtracks of many films by the renowned Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. But the status of a Spanish musician would be incomplete if he or she did not perform with Spain’s celebrated flamenco guitarist, Paco de Lucía. It was no surprise that the guitarist invited Antonio to perform with his band. Since flamenco music features traditional instrumentation, and since the harmonica does not fit into this category, it was indeed a special honour for Antonio, an outsider, to be invited. Now, he “would like to make a flamenco harmonica record with all the amazing musicians I’ve met during the years I was part of Paco de Lucia’s band.” He now tours the world with the flamenco guitarist and also pursues a solo career, making albums and performing with other musicians. He recently performed at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (Jodhpur RIFF) 2015.

The harmonica (French harp/mouth organ) is no longer an instrument used to express a lonely cowboy’s moodiness. It was used extensively by African-American blues musicians, but nobody noticed this instrument until the Beatles used it in their 1963 hit single Love Me Do. After this, blues and folk musicians like Paul Butterfield and Bob Dylan featured it quite prominently. But Antonio thinks that the harmonica has still not expressed itself to its full potential. “It’s getting popular. If it isn’t as popular as the flute yet, it’s only because it’s a newer instrument and there aren’t as many professionals yet. It will catch up for sure.”

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