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Monday, January 03, 2011

Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica

We humans like to flock together in groups that are organized by passionate interests. Bowling leagues, book groups, trade associations, fan clubs - the list is very long. One such sub-group is the Society for the Preservation andAdvancement of the Harmonica, or SPAH. Every instrument has at least one organized group of passionate players/admirers. There is the International Trombone Association, the Guitar Foundation of America and, of course, the Ukelele Guild of Hawai'i ("UGH" for short). I have not hung out with the members of all those groups. I have hung out with the members of SPAH, because I chew on the dang tin sandwich (translation - I play the harmonica).

So the members of SPAH roughly break into three groups:

1. The Traditionalists: These folks are trying to keep a dying musical tradition alive - the harmonica group. The basic traditional harmonica group is a trio - a chromatic harmonica player that carries the melody, a chord player that provides "rhythm" harmony backing for the lead (using a three-foot long instrument), and a bass player that honks on the harmonica equivalent of a tuba. If you are old enough, you might remember the Harmonicats - that is the musical style that the Traditonalists treasure. It is damn hard to play this type of harmonica music. It harkens back to the vaudeville era - harmonica bands were big in the 1920's and 1930's. As you might imagine, the Traditionalists tend to be a bit older than the average SPAH member.
2. The Blues Crowd: I fall in this group. Playing mostly diatonic harmonicas (small 10-hole instruments), these folks worship Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Sonny Boy Williamson II, George "Harmonica" Smith, Kim Wilson, Junior Wells and the rest of the folks that made the harmonica sound part of the American pop soundtrack.
3. The Monsters: These are the folks that have become true masters of the harmonica and all of its possibilities. Most of them play jazz, but there are also classical monsters and Irish music monsters. Howard Levy, Toots Thielmans, James Conway are three players that come to mind that fall into this category. Howard Levy is a terrifying player - he must have sold his soul to the Devil to get the wicked talent that he displays on the diatonic harmonica.

SPAH has one major blow-out every year - the annual convention. The 2010 event was in Minneapolis; 2011 will be in Virginia Beach. I have only attended one of these events. They are really quite remarkable. The top players hang out with the beginners and teach, provide tips and encouragement. This would be like the Major League Baseball All-Star Team hanging with the softball team sponsored by Joe's Bar & Grill, providing companionship and coaching. People tend to stay up all night for three nights straight, blowing harmonicas and acting strange. It is a gloriously joyful event.

Check out some harmonica music when you have a chance. Stevie Wonder is a great entry point. Dig into Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Chase down Howard Levy. You will be amazed.

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