Thursday, August 05, 2004

 
Whammer Jammer
The Standard has been running occasional pieces I've recycled from Shenzhen Zen and they've had a mostly positive impact. Recently, I was asked to turn my latent reportorial skills to something fresher and the result was an assignment to have my way with the Fifth Annual Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival. I just filed the story for our weekend edition, but here's a sneak peek for anyone who can't be bothered to wait til Saturday or otherwise doesn't have easy access to a newspaper in Hong Kong.

The security guards at the Fifth Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre didn't look like anything I couldn't handle.At the moment I lacked hard credentials, harmonica, press or otherwise, but I'd also spent 12 years as a rock 'n' roll journalist and had bluffed my way backstage for the likes of Metallica and occasionally been booted out by the best.
If I could handle ``Roadzilla'' - an infamous, burly rent-a-goon for a slew of bands ranging from Van Halen to Slayer - the fresh-faced high school and college volunteers guarding access to the 1,500 attendees and harmonica superstars like South Korea's Lee Hea-bong, Singapore's Shen Chin-sik and Hong Kong's own Rocky Lok Ying-kei would be no problem.
And indeed, the magic phrase ``I'm with the press'' worked wonders. As you might imagine, the humble harmonica gets very little press. To most uninitiated minds it's vaguely associated with Bob Dylan, the intro to the Beatles' Love Me Do, lonesome cowpokes moping around flickering black and white Warner Brothers campfires and perhaps names like The Harmonicats - whose recording of Peg O' My Heart shot to number one in 1947 and would go on to sell 20 million copies.
Harmonica fact #1: In 1965 a tiny Hohner ``Little Lady'' model blown by astronaut Wally Schirra in the Gemini VI spacecraft became the first instrument played in space.
Certainly few realize that it's also a classical instrument, particularly in Asia where performers and groups such as Yasuo Watani of Japan, the King's Harmonica Quintet and Beijing's China YanHuang Harmonica Chamber Music Group tackle the likes of Rachmaninov and Mozart as well as contemporary compositions such as The Last Time We Met Larry Adler in Hong Kong.
Larry who? you might well ask. I know I did because virtually every Chinese harp player I queried mentioned him as an inspiration and looked at me askance when I pleaded ignorance. Turns out that Adler, who at age 12 won the Baltimore Sun's harmonica contest in 1927 by playing Beethoven's Minuet in G and went on to lucrative and creative career as a performer and film composer, was also was blacklisted in the early 1950's due to his opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He went into self-imposed exile in England where he died in 2001 at age 85.
A leftist politically martyred legend. No wonder he's a harmonica god in China.
``Larry Adler is the best,'' 23-year-old Zhang Wei told me through a translator. Zhang came to the festival from Beijing with his newly-formed quartet to compete and had saved his yuan for two years for the opportunity. ``By way of fact, he says it is a pity you do not know him,'' I was told.
``How about Charlie Musselwhite? Little Walter? Or Magic Dick from the J. Geils Band,'' I asked, mentioning three American blues harp legends. ``Ask him if he's heard of them''
He hadn't, but it took a British-by-way-of-New Zealand blues/jazz/Irish music harp legend, Brendan Power, who has recorded with Sting, Paul Young and Van Morrison, among many others, to explain why. I had collared Power as he was on his way to a rehearsal for his Friday night festival concert mainly because he looked vaguely familiar and, judging from his appearance I astutely surmised that he probably spoke fluent English. My friendly translator - who also spoke Korean - had been reassigned to deal with a South Korean group who was apparently carping about their lodging arrangements. Sort of like the members of Van Halen throwing a fit over finding brown M&Ms in their backstage catering, I thought. Maybe this was closer to rock 'n' roll than I had imagined.
``Blues and western rock music is not a big part of Chinese culture,'' Powers told me patiently. ``They prefer a sweeter sound which is why classical and folk harmonica music is more popular. Personally, I'm also interested in what they play and their traditional music - particularly the erhu (the two string Chinese violin).''
Harmonica fact #2: The harmonica has its roots in China where the first free-reed instruments were developed around 3,000 BC. Some say Marco Polo brought an early version back to Italy from China. Others credit a French Jesuit missionary who shipped a free-reed wind instrument called the sheng to Paris in 1776.
Perhaps Hong Kong's biggest harmonica champion is the festival organizer, Rocky Lok Ying-kei who, when he isn't playing with his King's Harmonica Quintet also works for the China branch of the Campbell Soup company. He formed the quintet 30 years ago with schoolmates from King's College and - unlike most pop and rock music bands that self-destruct or splinter after a three or four year run - they're still together.``The harmonica is an extension of your personality, of your soul,'' Lok told me passionately. ``If you can draw a breath, you can make a sound. It's the most natural musical sound there is, apart from the human voice. Not like a trumpet or a saxophone.''
Lok also noted that ``the barrier of entry'' to playing a harp makes it an attractive option for any musically inclined soul who can't afford a guitar, trumpet or sax. ``I was 11 or 12 when I began playing,'' Lok said. ``At my school, King's College, everyone had to take part in a cultural thing, like music, and a sports thing as well as our normal studies. My family was quite poor in Hong Kong and a harmonica was cheap - 20 or 30 dollars. For the price of box lunch I could enter the musical arena. It's funny though. After a few years of playing I also found it is also not so cheap. Now I have a couple of $50,000 harmonicas.''
Lok also had his hands full during the festival's opening day, particularly dealing with a medical emergency when one attendee fell on some stairs and cut his head.The last time I had personally experienced blood being drawn at a musical event was when I'd seen an enthusiastic young man crack his nose and forehead open while stage-diving during a performance by an justifiably obscure American punk band called Kentucky Fried Children.
``It's all right. He's conscious,'' Lok told me after being briefed by the festival staff.
A floor below I could see and hear Zhang Wei's quartet on the open stage giving a harmonica twist to something by Mozart. A more soothing sonic background than Kentucky Fried Children, I thought, particularly if you've split your head.

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