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Hendrik Meurkens: Harmonica Virtuoso

By Published: April 6, 2011
AAJ: You started playing music very early. As a youngster, did you have your own combos, play in school bands?

HM: School band was one thing. I had a very inspiring, helpful music teacher. In Germany, after what you call elementary school, middle school and high school is one block, called gymnasium. All the years I went there we had a great music teacher. And in the school big band I went through a lot of instruments. You could borrow instruments, take them home, check them out for a few weeks. So, I had that, and I had my little garage band. When I started to playing vibes, I found a jazz band in the Hamburg area to play with.

AAJ: How did you wind up at Berklee? Was there a competition or something?

HM: Well, there were several things. First of all, Berklee was and maybe still is the most visible American jazz school. If you wanted to study jazz in the States, Berklee was the thing to do. Another thing is that Berklee was the only school that offered vibraphone as a major. You didn't have to be a percussion major and go through all the percussion instruments, which I also do not play.

AAJ: Was Gary Burton
Gary Burton
Gary Burton

HM: Yes, but he was on a leave of absence, so I never studied with him. But that was the only school that actually offered vibes as a major. I don't play percussion, never did. I played a little drums as a kid, you know, but as far as vibes major, Berklee was the only school. So those are the two reasons.

AAJ: How long were you at Berklee?

HM: Three years.

AAJ: Of course, you'd heard Brazilian music long before then; your parents played it on the record player, and I take it that your interest in that music developed further while at Berklee?

HM: Well, it was a process, actually. I'd heard it before and I'd liked it before, but it just grew on me. Berklee was really be-bopy. There was a little Brazilian here and there, but Berklee was mainly a hard bop place at that time.

AAJ: That was...?

HM: '77 to '80. That was definitely Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
transcribing and all that. That's what we did then. Brazilian music wasn't really a topic. There were a couple of guys, but Berklee was not really a Brazilian period for me.

AAJ: And then?

HM: I went back to Germany for a year and a half, then to Brazil, and then back to Germany for eight years before coming to New York.

AAJ: Coming to the U.S. from Germany, of course, meant negotiating a second language as a student. I realize that most Europeans know English, more or less...

HM: English was fine, that's a school language.

AAJ: But going to Brazil, to actually live there for an extended time and gig—that meant picking up Portuguese, not such an easy language to learn, I'm told.

HM: I learned Portuguese when I was there, and then later on.

AAJ: A reference to your Brazilian wife?

HM: Yes, you have to know how to speak Portuguese in Brazil, because people don't really speak English. Now it's better than when I was there, but still, English does not really help you. But that's part of the whole deal. If you want to learn the music, you learn the language, too. That's a part of it—a very important part.

AAJ: And that was in...?

HM: '81 and '82.

AAJ: You mention sitting in with the local players at Rio de Janeiro's storied Bar 21. Did you play with anyone who might be known to fans here in the U.S.?

HM: Not really. I played with some of the original bossa nova guys, some younger guys, but they were the local players, and mostly unfamiliar to Americans.

AAJ: I think that while Americans, although to a lesser extent among jazz fans, tend to lump everything south of the border into the general category of Latin music, that's changing as mainstream Americans become more familiar with the distinctions involved.

HM: Brazilian music is not Latin music.

AAJ: We distinguish, say, Gato Barbieri's Argentine thing from Paquito D'Rivera's Cuban thing from Gabriel's Mexican thing, each distinct from Claudio Roditi's Brazilian stuff, for example. Going a step further, I think you have to be prepared to consider Brazil's regional subcultures—different dialects, different music—to really get the full picture.

HM: You do have a common element in Brazilian music, however. Even though there are many styles, there is a Brazilian swing that is definitely recognizable.

AAJ: In addition to samba and bossa nova, one other Brazilian style, chorinho, or choro, figures prominently in what you term your "samba jazz" music. For the benefit of those of us not quite as familiar with that third genre, could you perhaps explain its distinguishing characteristics, without being too technical, of course.

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