World Harmonica Festival, Trossingen, Germany 2013.
I left home in Bristol UK at four am scraping the ice off the car and arrived in Trossingen and 3 pm local time. First job is to find a beer and the inevitable bratwurst after checking in to the hotel.
A quick walk around town reveals day-glow Hohner logos on the pavement and the sound of harmonica is getting louder as I approach the Hohner Conservatory – I must be heading in the right direction.
Trossingen has a rural feel and the lovely smell of wood smoke and cattle at this time of night. Very quiet here – apart from the harmonica players that is.
Outside and inside there are duos and trios and whatevero’s all playing at once, to the high standard that many Asian people reach. Must go to Asia one day to find out why they are all so good.
Back down Hohnerstrase, past cafes with old men playing the harmonica inside, locals singing along and a tiny Korean child jumping around playing a little lady.
Small groups of harmonica players are walking down the street playing, and soon I find the Dr Ernst Hohner concert hall where everybody is gathering, and I get my registration and workshop/judges instruction sorted out. Immediately I meet lots of old friends from the UK the US and Europe, I am definitely in the right place now and grab another beer whilst chatting with them.
So the World Harmonica Festival starts here.
I’m teaching first thing ‘rhythmic patterns for diatonic players in the first three positions’
It’s a very simple idea but really effective; we started with clapping call and response patterns in 3,4,5 and 6 time ending up with half the group of about 50 people clapping (in 6 beats to the bar) on 1,3,5 and the other half on 1 and 4 – at the same time. Then each person clapping 135 on one knee and 1, 4 on the other knee at the same time. Try it!
On to a ‘shakeyshakey’ instrument with simultaneously played harmonica to try developing rhythmic independence, and then a bunch of rhythms to underpin some great tunes like Jambalaya, Tom Hark, When the Saints etc.
Next we worked out how to find the groove in a range of tunes on iTunes ranging from classical, zydeco, and reggae through to blues.
Finally the whole group worked together but in threes or fours finding rhythms, grooves and solos. Sounded pretty good to me, and I believe they all enjoyed it as they were actively involved from start to finish.
I truly believe participants being actively involved is the way to go if you are offering a workshop.
A seminar, demonstration, talk or ‘meet the artist’ (and hear their life story!) are equally valid provided you know you are just going to listen and not be active – it gives you the chance to grab an espresso first!
Other sessions going on at the same time were Rick Estrin (of ‘and the Nightcats’ fame) ‘playing the blues’, Keith Dunn ‘the basics of solo performance’, and Fata Morgana ‘Ensemble playing; arranging for harmonica groups’.
Later the Hohner Service team offered two hours of maintenance related sessions and finally Tollak Ollestad talked about ‘modern chromatic sound shaping’
I couldn’t make these sessions unfortunately but they looked great to me.
The competion was going on all day pretty much – you wouldn’t believe how many people have entered – I heard it was 180 from Hong Kong, 100 from Malaysia, and many more from all over the globe.
There were 298 entries in total but I didn’t see any native Brits (Eva, Leonid, and Greg our adopted Brits excepted) or even any US competitors.
The competion was held in 5 venues over three days simultaneously!
In the evening Philip Achille played with Chris Collis to great applause at the ‘Young Chromatic Talents’ concert with Sirius Ensemble, Arinori Inagawa, and Cheuk Yin Ho.
If that wasn’t enough there were also three jam sessions to round off the first day; Joe Filisko and Eric Noden’s acoustic jam, Steve Baker’s late night blues session and Tom Stryker (ex SPAH President, prior to Winslow Yerxa, and my fellow competition judge) with his Jazz sessions.
Friday 1st November
I did another workshop on the same subject as before to a mostly different crowd. Another surprisingly good turnout with lots of happy campers.
Then to Steve Baker’s workshop but couldn’t get in as I missed the 11am start by a couple of minutes unfortunately. I’m sure it was good and was on the subject of tone, taste and timing – three things I admire about his playing – so I was sorry to miss it. I should have been more punctual!
The three ‘young chromatic players’ (including Phil Achille) from the previous night’s concert did a workshop which sounded good but competition jury service called so I didn’t make that one.
Open category in the competion had a wide range of acts including ‘popular music from the Italian Islands’ , a Fiddler on the roof based composition, Peg o’ my heart (when will it stop?), Swedish music, Blue in Green. Ravel’s bolero with a loop station, 1771, Tico Tico, Vivaldi concerto for two trumpets, Nemesis, In a friendly way, Danse Macabre, OBS2, Swedish Emigrant, Malagueña, Italian medley, Barber of Seville, The harmonious postman, Our delight, The Entertainer from our own Eva Phoenix and husband, and Feel free to forget our name – played by the Hippies from Hell.
It was so tough to judge with some outstanding performances. Eva came near the top but wasn’t able to beat the Asians unfortunately, but very few can as they all seem to play from school days and are trained to win competitions from an early age. I can’t imagine the Asian Pacific Harmonica Festival – I’m told many thousands of people attend – we had 3,000 here which seems a lot to me, and the APHF is supposed to be bigger. Must go along one year.
I had to miss workshops from Keith Dunn, Rachelle Plas, Sirius Quartet, Kathrin Gass on teaching children (I’ll need to follow that one up), Yasuo Watani on sound phrasing.
Fata Morgana played but I went to see the amazing Rachelle Plas ripping up a storm, Keith Dunn with his incredible solo act, and finally Rick Estrin and the Nightcats showing us how to play the blues.
After that we got to play with the Nightcats at Steve Baker’s late night jam – I played Watermelon Man and I can tell you those guys are mind readers, they allowed me to stretch out, blow when I wanted, drop the sound down to pin drop level and come back in with the final head on max. Now THAT was a treat!
Tom’s Jazz session was great but it was a long day…
Saturday November 2nd
Excellent workshops for Joe Filisko and Rick Estrin on their take on the blues and then off to the Hohner Factory to do some filming on the subject of harmonica education – I have some views on that subject.
Next, with pockets full of sweets (a reward from Hohner!), I joined a factory tour where I was able to see the factory in operation from manufacturing the combs, the reeds, the reed plates, stamping the coverplates right through to the finished produkt. I’m pretty sure there is a video on YouTube about how a harmonica factory works if you are interested.
There was a chamber concert I am kicking myself that I forgot to go; I was told it was outstanding.
It featured the trio ‘Triological Moments’ (the brochure says ‘Logical…Triological’. Who says the Germans have no sense of humour? Don’t answer that…)
This was followed the award winning Hong Kong Harmonica Association Orchestra.
There is so much going on here it’s hard to keep up as well as eat, drink and sleep.
I decided to go to the German harmonica museum instead which was, as always, rather fascinating. I notice that the Director, Martin Haefner (not sure if that’s the right spelling) was wearing lovely white side whiskers and looked not dissimilar to Matthias Hohner himself. I’m told he will shave them off on Monday and has been growing them for some time. There’s commitment for you.
Ben Hewlett on a tour of Hohner’s factory in Trossingen
In the evening we have the world harmonica gala. It features the 20 year old Konstantin Reinfeld who has been playing for only four years but would compare very well with some of the finest jazz players in my opinion. Unbelievable.
Yasuo Watani follows Konstantin and is a man who has taught at, and originally studied at, the conservatory in Trossingen. He reminds us how to play classical music on the harmonica and get a very lengthy applause for his efforts.
Tollak Ollestad is an amazing all round musician with high levels of skill on diatonic and chromatic as well as being a great singer, keyboardist, and songwriter. This show keeps getting better and better with every new act.
Finally Marcos Coll and Los Mighty Calacas take to the stage where the microphones are sporting some pretty fancy skeletons ‘calacas’ in Spanish. They start with some Latin salsa type of music and everybody starts dancing between the front row and the stage. Maybe not everybody, but I am told this is a first for The World Harmonica Festival. They play a mixture of blues, soul, funk, and Latin music with Marcos being very dynamic on the harmonica. Another great show full of humour excellent music and showmanship.
More excellent blues and jazz jam sessions round off another cracking day.
Sunday, November 3rd. The first part of the final day is the prize giving ceremony which seems to go on for very many hours. Rob Janssen from the Fata Morgana harmonica quartet founded in 1980 in the Netherlands, is the master of ceremonies and he invites to the stage the entire group of people who have performed each category, one at a time.
There were about 300 entries to the competition including groups some of which had 20 people involved. Whilst I saw many people who have entered multiple categories the majority seemed to be one off’s. I think you can read the results on the world harmonica Festival website and there are many videos on YouTube now for you to have a look at.
After this most of the Chinese speaking community hopped onto buses and vanished whilst I lot of people including me went back to the Kesselhaus for Steve Baker’s chillout concert, where he together ‘with master guitarist, singer and composer, Dave Goodman and drummer Oliver Spanuth create a breathtaking mix of energy, virtuosity and unrestrained Joy of playing which promises to bring the world harmonica Festival 2013 to a fitting close’ it says here in the program.
And they certainly delivered exactly that; it was a great way to say goodbye to old and new friends have a chat with some of the performers I had been meaning to talk with and to generally round things off.
Since my flight was on the Monday I went for a last evening meal with the Los Mighty Calacas and we found ourselves in the only place that was open so almost everybody else including the organisers was there as well. Interesting to find out that this band live between Spain and Mexico so don’t really get together unless they are playing or touring. The music they produce is excellent so clearly it works for them but must be very difficult to manage I would imagine.
I say my good nights and goodbyes to the organisers and tutors and head for home.
Many trains, planes, and motorway miles later I get home to Bristol and sleep for 17 hours.