Believed to date back to an ancient Chinese wind instrument called the sheng, the harmonica as we know it today was developed in Europe in the early 19th century. A distant cousin of the oboe and bassoon, the pocket-size instrument truly came into its own in the New World — the harmonica is an essential ingredient of cowboy ballads, folk music and blues.
The harmonica has also found a home in classical music and jazz, and rock's mouth-blowers include Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Bruce Springsteen and Bono. Still, it's never quite been able to shake the stigma that it's something less than a true musical instrument. Chatter asked Marc Lempert, director of the documentary Pocket Full of Soul — which screens Saturday night before Lone Star harpmaster Delbert McClinton performs at Verizon (see "Playbill") — to speak up for "the people's instrument."
Chatter: How and why did the harmonica acquire the stigma that it's not a "real"instrument?
Pocket Full of Soul screens at 8 p.m. Saturday, December 26, at Verizon Wireless Theater, 520 Texas (Bayou Place), 713-230-1600 or www.livenation.com.
Marc Lempert: The "toy" stigma associated with the harmonica, in my opinion, comes from its size. It's always easy to pick on the little guy, and the harmonica is the smallest. It will always be the consummate underdog instrument.
C: Of all the musicians you interviewed,who had the most surprising or insight-ful comments?
ML: Every artist I interviewed for this film brought their A game. They each had a very distinct, unique perspective on the instrument. John Popper was like an encyclopedia. Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band was also highly informative but more technical. Jerry Portnoy of the Muddy Waters Blues Band was more emotional and coming from a totally different place.
But, considering all the artists I did get to sit down with, I'd have to say Charlie Musselwhite was the most insightful to me. His interview was kind of a gospel on the harmonica.
C: Name one thing people who watch Pocket would (probably) be surprised to learn about the harmonica.
First, how much exposure they have to the harmonica in their life. Second, how difficult it is to play it well. And third, the various genres of music that use the harmonica as a primary instrument.
C: Personally, who are your two or three favorite harp players? (Living or dead.)
ML: Let's see...Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, Charlie Leighton, Charlie Musselwhite, John Popper and Robert Plant, to name a few. I could go on and on...Annie Raines, Lee Oskar, Magic Dick...this new cat, Jason Ricci. Oh, you said two or three.
C: Finally, how would you rate your own harmonica skills?
ML: On a scale of one to ten: four and a half.
We've never heard it phrased quite this way before, but the meaning is pretty much the same. Last week, popular downtown cabaret-style nightclub Sammy's at 2016 Main announced it would be "Reinventing Celebration" — in other words, shutting down for six months for renovations and general retooling. "Given the economic conditions, we have found that many people are not celebrating as they have in the past," owner Jon Deal said in a press release. Two of Sammy's most popular recurring performers, '80s nerd-revengers the Spazmatics and feel-good R&B ensemble Faye Robinson & the Mid-City Players (with Sammie Relford), have one more show at the club apiece on December 29 and 31, respectively. The club is tentatively scheduled to reopen in June.
3710 Main, 713-533-9525, www.sigslagoon.com
1. Various Artists, More Dirty Laundry:
The Soul of Black Country
2. Various Artists, Dirty Laundry:
The Soul of Black Country
3. Various Artists, Back to Peru Vol.2
4. Little Joe Washington, Texas Fire Line
5. Lee Fields & the Expressions, My World LP
6. Nick Gaitan & The Umbrella Man,
Nick Gaitan & The Umbrella Man
7. Little Ann, Deep Shadows LP
8. Various Artists, Forge Your Own Chains LP
9. American Heist/Hell City Kings, split 7"
10. Chicha Libre/Dengue Fever, split 7"
1. Reik, "Inolvidable"
2. Aventura, "Su Veneno"
3. Pitbull, "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)"
4. Luis Fonsi, "No Me Doy Por Vencido"
5. Shakira, "She Wolf/Loba"
6. Aventura, "Por Un Segundo"
7. Tito "El Bambino" feat. Zion & Lennox,
"Mi Cama Huele A Tí"
8. Anahi, "Mi Delirio"
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9. Chayanne, "Me Enamore de Tí"
10. Carlos Baute & Marta Sanchez,
"Colgando en Tus Manos"
(Lists compiled by Chris Gray)