Friday, August 5, 2005

A musical wind will come
blowin’ into town

A "Harmonica Recital" Sunday is a chance
to hear the instrument's heavenly sounds

Free program

Hawaii Harmonica Society presents a "Harmonica Recital"

» Where: Mission Memorial Auditorium, Mission Houses Museum, 553 S. King St.

» When: 2 p.m. Sunday

» Admission: Free

» Call: 833-4336

Lest one think the term "harmonica recital" is simply a cover phrase for a confederacy of blowhards, reflect instead on the noble history of this humble instrument.

According to Al Tober, president of Hawaii Harmonica Society, the harmonica was invented -- like, apparently, everything else, in ancient China -- and the harmonica is, well, small. "The pioneers could put it in their pockets when they went west," explained Tober. "That's one of the reasons it became so popular in the 1800s; it could be carried and played anywhere."

Which seems to explain why, when cowboys are slouched around the campfire shoveling down beans and biscuits on the ol' prairie, the plaintive notes of the harmonica sets the scene. A crusty cowpoke thundering on a rack of kettledrums or tinkling away on a harpsichord -- that's just wrong.

"The lonesome wail of harmonica is the sound of the pioneers," said Tober.

The members of the HHS are sponsoring just such a "Harmonica Recital" on Sunday afternoon in the newly refurbished Mission Memorial Auditorium in the Mission Houses Museum. We're talking about pieces performed by the Reed 21 Hawaii Harmonica Band from the Honbushin International Center in Mililani and the Small World Harmonica from Beretania Neighborhood Park. No word on whether they'll have a reed-bustin' battle of the bands, but since most of the members are senior citizens, that could get to be one ugly smackdown.

One thing you won't hear is the draw-and-blow, side-playing, lip-smacking, cheek-puffing, eye-squinting, note- bending, tongue-curling, glottal-flopping screech of the blues or country harmonica, those little 10-hole jobs with which players forge juicy hollers by challenging the English of the played note. No sqonking sevenths or spitty minor runs hacked out here. The harmonica societies play banks of heavenly sounding 21-hole harmonicas, largely in the feel-good key of C, and the music is ethereal, other-worldly and eerily compelling.

They essentially play four kinds of harmonicas to give the music depth and weight:

» A "standard" 21-hole harmonica that plays the melodies.

» An octave harmonica that plays a register below for a low tone.

» A "chording" harmonica that beats out phrases like a guitar, to keep the beat.

» A bass harmonica and the very bottom register, which also keeps tempo.

Although the refurbished auditorium has terrific acoustics, Tober says the sound will be amplified with the use of pin mikes and boom mikes. The members learns songs by a numbering system instead of musical notes -- you blow in the hole, that's one note, you suck or "draw" in the same hole, it's a whole different note. The society members largely prefer Tambo harmonicas ordered directly from the factory in Japan, although there are some hard-core renegades in the ranks who prefer Suzukis.

What will we be hearing?

"A variety of modern music from Western, European and Asian sources," said Tober. "Rap? Hip-hop?? No, rap doesn't, ah, translate well to harmonica."

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