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Hendrik Meurkens: Harmonica Virtuoso

By Published: April 6, 2011
HM: Bossa nova is a simplified version of samba. With some of the same important elements, but it's slower, with different instrumentation. Choro has that Brazilian swing, too. It's mainly instrumental music, and very much comes out of Western classical piano music. It was composed by great piano players, resembling baroque as well as other influences. So it was originally piano music, they found its instrumentation, with the little cavaquinho and the seven-string guitar.

It's instrumental music with a lot of improvisation, but it's usually not the melody guy: it's the seven-string guitar; it's the bassist who plays a counter-line. Those are the things that are improvised. The melody instrument can solo, and does occasionally, but it's not usually done. You just follow the form, A, A, B, A, whatever, while the guitar plays a counter-melody. That's a choro thing.

[In addition to the cavaquinho (a Brazilian version of the ukulele) and a solo instrument like saxophone or flute, the typical choro ensemble usually includes a pandeiro, or hand tambourine as well].

AAJ: You play the Hohner, versus a couple other reputable makes now on the market.

HM: Yes, there are two other companies making good chromatic harmonicas, Seydel and Suzuki. I play the Hohner because that's what I started on, and I just like it. There's sound to it the others haven't got.

AAJ: Harmonicas require a fair amount of upkeep, I understand. On your Web site, you mention a restoration shop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Fathead Musical Instruments, run by Mike Easton, where you get your harmonicas re-tuned, or repaired... new reeds, that sort of thing?

HM: They go out of tune all the time. It's a pain. It's usually one or two notes that you use a lot, like G or something. [Mike] has a bunch of my harmonicas—we trade them back and forth. I have several in my bag, and I play one until it goes out. If even one note is flat, you cannot use it. I put it down at the bottom of the bag and grab another. After a while, I have several to send to Mike, and he sends me the ones he's worked on.

AAJ: How many gigs can you expect to get out of a fresh harmonica?

HM: Mmm... that's hard to say. A bunch.

AAJ: Do you have to break in new ones?

HM: I don't ever play a new one: Mike and I just rotate them back and forth. I'm an anti-harmonica freak, not like those guys who go to conventions and collect them. I just don't care about that stuff, that's all. What I do care about is that it's a three-octave Hohner chromatic with that wood tone, because that is the sound that I like.

AAJ: There has been any number of pick-ups and other gizmos created to amplify a harmonica in live performance with a modern combo.

HM: Those are all for the diatonic, for the blues guys.

AAJ: Perhaps more than any instrument I can think of except the human voice, the harmonica requires good microphone quality, and microphone technique seems a crucial element of the instrument in live performance. Do you have any preferences in that regard?

HM: I just use a [Shure] SM58, and later I found a Trace Eliot acoustic guitar amp that just happens to have a great sound for harmonica.

AAJ: That amp is quite small. Between it and your bag of harmonicas, it must make travel a bit easier with smaller luggage than many musicians have to carry.

HM: It's the best I've found in all these decades, but the best thing is to have a really good PA system. That's better than any kind of amp and enhances a really good sound for harmonica—open, clear like Toots, with expansive reverb—that's the sound you want to get.

AAJ: Technically, it's a wind instrument, but I would think that the physical demands of the harmonica are unique.

HM: It's related to the bandoneón. That is the closest relative to the harmonica. With the bandoneón [a member of the concertina family versus the accordion family], if you push in, you get one note; if you pull out, you get another [aka "bisonoric"]. Plus, it produces a single note from a single reed. With the accordion, if you do this [squeezing together motion] or this [pulling apart motion], it's the same. And you get several notes from one bar: that's why they call it an accordion. It's definitely not related to the flute or trumpet or anything like that.

AAJ: I presume you don't smoke cigarettes?

HM: No, but that might not really make much difference.

AAJ: Do you do special breathing exercises?

HM: Not really. I just practice, so I'm playing all the time. You have to remind your body of what it is you are doing. It's a special kind of breathing unlike anything you would do in your daily life. It's very light, very rapid—it's completely specific to playing the harmonica. If you don't play it, you lose it. Harmonica is a bit like sax, or flute or violin: it's high maintenance. You have to stay with it all the time and practice.

AAJ: I'm feeling a bit remiss about focusing on the harmonica to the exclusion of the vibes.

HM: Vibes is a double for me; I play it because I play it, but most of my daily work is the harmonica.

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