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Most people look at the harmonica as a small little instrument/toy that one could learn to play a few songs on (e.g. Oh Suzanna, Red River Valley,
etc.). I felt the same way. Like many people, I just thought it was be a neat little "hobby" to have. Then, when I started to learn how to play it, I was exposed to some of the most powerful and beautifully sounding music - blues music in particular Ð ever recorded where the harmonica was the lead instrument.
This music came from players like Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Rice Miller, George Smith, Norton Buffalo, Mark Hummel, Kim Wilson, and Rod Piazza, just to name a few. These performers make that little "toy" make sounds and move people in ways I just did not think possible. After learning more about blues music and the harmonica's contribution thereto, I have since developed a much deeper love and respect for this little 10-hole instrument, one that Muddy Waters piano player Otis Spann called "the mother of the band."
My first harmonica lesson came from ordering a beginner's instructional tape called Blues and Country Harmonica for the Absolute Beginner
, by Jon Gindick and B.B. King. From this tape I gained a strong foundation in blues harmonica music. Of course, I wanted to learn more, and this led me to a workshop class, which taught the fine art (and dare I say science) of playing blues harmonica.
I decided to sign up for the intermediate level workshop, which was held in Honolulu, Hawaii (not a bad place for a workshop, I might add) in late-July 2002. I, along with over a dozen other participants from all over the country and as far away as Japan, learned the various blues harp techniques that professional players regularly use to dazzle their audiences. The workshop culminated to a Saturday evening concert, where each of us performed individual blues harp solos. The concert closed with a spectacular three-harp improvisational blues jam. It was one of the best summer experiences I have ever had. Since then, I try to practice on my harmonica for at least 20 to 30 minutes every day.
Whenever I get lazy or discouraged about my progress on the harmonica, I frequently go back to an email I received from harmonica player Norton Buffalo, one of the most versatile harp players on the planet. I emailed him several months ago just to express my appreciation for his music and harp skills. Surprisingly, he wrote back saying that he was glad that I liked his music, but even more so that I was "digging the harmonica." He has been playing harmonica for 43 years, and said that it's his love of the instrument that has always kept him going. He ended his email with some words of encouragement that always keep me going:
"Keep wailing on that harp!"
U.S. Embassy Rabat