National Harmonica League Festival, Folk House, Bristol

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The Independent Culture

Every child has attempted to blow life into a harmonica. It is a working-class instrument; you can pop it in your pocket and play it anywhere. But many players remain notoriously shy and at this event the organiser, Roger Trobridge, was urging as many as possible to come out of the closet and take part in the National Harmonica League's annual bonanza at the Bristol Folkhouse. I was one of them.

The competition entries were closed before I arrived and contestants for what is a cross between a concert and a bit of fun milled about the hall clutching their instruments. But what at first looked like a hotchpotch of train spotters turned out to be a friendly bunch indeed. Upstairs the workshops turned into Q&A sessions, with top players full of stories exchanging ideas and techniques with the audience. This was laced with some excellent playing.

Ernie Gordon is a gentleman of the "moothie" tradition, a friend of the Northumberland moothie man, Will Atkinson, who recently died aged 95. Together with Bryce Johnstone, Ernie introduced me to fiddle and dancing tunes from the Scottish tradition played on the mouthie: lovely old country style with lots of vibrato. Inspired one day by a yellowhammer sitting on a post and singing, Ernie had worked up its song and played it for us to much applause.

"I've played for men dancing together on the deck of a troop ship in hobnail boots on the way to Malaya," he told us in his scottish brogue, "and I drank free in Crete because I imitated the bouzouki for the locals."

The folk tradition lives on too with Brendan Power, a New Zealander who plays Irish music on the harmonica with amazing dexterity. He tunes and modifies his instruments to adapt them to the music and shares what he has learnt.

In our pan-American culture, however, the harmonica is most closely associated with the blues and it is a happy coincidence that an instrument built for marching band tunes could find its way into the blues first in Mississippi and then Chicago. The American virtuoso Tom Ball shared that with us and his own acoustic blues playing owes a lot to the rural tradition.

A famous - no doubt apocryphal - story has the British blues player Cyril Davis, when asked by Mick Jagger how to bend notes, replying: "Get some pliers", a joke that probably related more to Davis's incarnation as a panel-beater than a player. The likes of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, who flirted with the sound in "Love Me Do" did much to popularise the instrument in the 1960s, much as Stevie Wonder did for the chromatic (not forgetting Larry Adler), but, the man everyone would love to play like is still Little Walter. He made the instrument sound like a hot horn section as his electrified harp tore up the microphone. Anyone needing to know how sexy that sounds should take a listen, as it stands up to this day.

National Harmonica League: www.harmonica.co.uk

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