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Monday, August 20, 2007

Society for the Advancement and Preservation of the Harmonica

Yes, there is actually a national organization dedicated to harmonicas, once again proving that the United States is home to an infinite number of odd sub-cultures that lurk below the radar. And I attended the national convention of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (aka "SPAH") from Tuesday through Saturday. A couple hundred harmonica nuts assembled in a Sheraton in suburban Milwaukee to ponder the mysteries of the instrument - rapid tongue switching, over-blows, pros/cons of alternative tunings and dozens of other obscure topics. It was a true geek-fest, and I fit right in.

There were very many awesome harmonica players at the conference, ranging from the great jazz musician Howard Levy (he just stopped in to play at the jazz jam) to Charlie Musslewhite, the legendary bluesman (headliner for the Friday night concert). In the crowd were fantastic players like my teacher, Joe Filisko, Irish harmonica God James Conway, New York Bluesman/college professor Adam Gussow, jam band rock star Jason Ricci, elderly ass-kicking classical chromatic players like Stan Harper, the legendary Milwaukee blues harp stars Steve Cohen and Jim Liban, 13-year old harmonica phenom L.D. Miller and the larger-than-life Superman of the Blues, Buzz Krantz. I connected with one terrific player that I have heard about for years, Rosco Selley, who plays harmonica for a fabulous alternative rock band called Maybe August. Here is a picture of Rosco, rocking out:

Rosco combines blazing technique with a high level of musicianship - a combination rarely seen in a harmonica player. He lives in Bay City MI and he operates a small business to pay the bills (harmonica honking is generally not a high-paying profession). Pick up a copy of the Maybe August CD - it is great stuff.

The one really strange aspect of the SPAH convention was the lack of African American harmonica players. Some of the best players around are black, particularly blues players like James Cotton, Billy Branch, Sugar Blue and the rest of the "real deal" guys. It would be great if they would join the geeky world of SPAH - we need them.


Adam Gussow said...

Nice write up. I agree with you completely about the strange absence of African American harp players. I don't necessarily expect them as members of the organization, but I do expect the organization to invite them as performers--and to make a special effort to do so. Call it affirmative action, if you want, although that terms seems inappropriate when what we're talking about is a tradition (blues harmonica) in which 95% of the great players before 1960 were black guys. (I'm thinking about Wayne Rainey as the token white guy.) Given the proximity of this year's SPAH meeting to Chicago, more could have been done.

Mr. G said...

Hi Adam -

It is hard for an all-volunteer organization to do everything that could be done to construct a perfect event, and the Milwaukee Harmonica Club and SPAH put on a solid event. Inclusiveness may have not been a priority; the blues is not a topic of interest for about half of SPAH's membership. If African American participation is to increase, SPAH members (like me) will have to step up and make it happen.

Great to meet you at SPAH