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by Liam Ward, LearnTheHarmonica.com
Aside from the indomitable Jason Ricci getting to up to his old antics (http://tinyurl.com/m2l4ru8), it’s hard to catch anything other than an aging man playing the blues harp. Perhaps even more than guitar, the world of harmonica has remained a staunchly male environment for a very long time. Why do so few women take it up?
It’s a real shame that it’s such a restricted group and that the women who do play – when discussed at all – are usually compared only with other female players (e.g. “she is one of the best female players I have heard” etc.) Now, you might say that the history and calibre of men on the instrument means it’s unfair to compare apples with pears, but I have a sneaking suspicion that women out there doing their thing on harmonica wouldn’t like to be sidelined in this way. (The only woman I know in my area who brings a harp to jams certainly wouldn’t. If others disagree, please let me know because I’m not trying to speak for you!)
So why so few? At risk of dragging everyone down into a feminist pit of despair, I suspect part of the problem is culture-wide. Just as with any other instrument (or any other arena for that matter) women are much less likely to get noticed if they don’t look the way that some media exec wants them to look, and that isn’t nearly as big a problem for men.
When it comes to harmonica, men get all the attention. Not today! This is a tribute to the ladies. Let’s look at some of the big players in the other corner…
Historically, Big Mama Thornton is the most well-known woman of blues harmonica. (You have probably seen the famous photo of her with that brilliant grin of hers.) Thornton worked first as a dancer in Georgia before taking to blues and playing extremely confident harmonica to accompany her strong vocals. She became a star in the ‘50s, recording with the likes of James Cotton, Muddy Waters and Otis Spann.
Big Mama Thornton was rare in her time, and sadly female harp players are still hard to find. There are some gems out there, though, if you know where to look. Let me give you a few names.
Unsurprisingly, the US has a sizable offering in the blues arena. Annie Raines (http://www.paulandannie.com) is an extremely accomplished country blues player, who along with Paul Rishell has won a Blues Music Award. Over the course of a distinguished career she has become an important authority on the instrument.
Another American who keeps getting mentioned is ‘the New York Blues Queen’ Roxy Perry (http://www.roxyperry.com). She’s big and strong and her playing really packs a punch.
Outside the US, Christelle Berthon has become known through her famed YouTube performances. She has an extremely emotive style of playing and has shown her prowess over a number of years (check out an interview and some clips here: http://tinyurl.com/p65pfhl).
Sandra Vazquez (http://tinyurl.com/nja8uss) is a new and refreshing name to me. She is a member of Argentinian band Mulheres Gaitistas, has studied with Lee Oscar and is billed as Argentina’s best harmonica player.
Kat Baloun (http://tinyurl.com/op4f3zp) is a Berlin-based harmonica player who grew up in a musical family in Ohio. Look her up to see her big attitude on stage and hear some inspired harp.
If you want to find out more about female harmonica players, there’s a great – and brilliantly titled – resource on the web (http://www.hermonicas.com) featuring information and videos from players of all genres and all over the world.
Liam Ward is a UK-based harmonica player and teacher, and founder of Learntheharmonica.com. He is a former National Harmonica League Player of the Year and a regular contributor to Harmonica World magazine and Blues in Britain. Liam currently plays with hokum blues outfit The Rumblestrutters as well as appearing as a guest with many other artists.
Janiva Magness Original
Janiva’s new album is out and if you are a Janiva fan you’re going to love it … and if you’ve never heard of Janiva you’ve been missing out.
The album is a departure for Janiva in that she’s broke out on her own label and is wading in the waters of not having a big label promote her new endeavor.
So what’s this new one like? I think that although more soul oriented than what we’re accustomed to hearing, it’s magnificent. All the songs on the album were written for this album. Janiva wrote seven out of eleven of the tunes with Dave Darling or other members of her supporting musicians for this album. The songs themselves have been inundated in an ocean of blues she’s experienced in her life and it shows from the first song on.
Out of the eleven songs on this album, you won’t find a single filler. All are more than worthy of inclusion. Hope, despair, joy, it’s all here from the first song. Bring Him Home to the last song Standing you won’t be disappointed.
Personal favorites on this collection are Twice As Strong an upbeat song about overcoming adversity and looking ahead to When You Were My King which is simply heart wrenching and brilliant in it’s lyrics and the melody. . Janiva has always had a way of delivering a song like this to make you feel what she’s felt. When You Were My King and Mountain shows that she’s never lost that ability. The album closes with Standing — another dazzling bit of song writing that is a perfect ending to what is a true roller coaster of a ride from the highest highs to the lowest lows.
What a great album Janiva, huge accolades to you!
You can buy this album on her site -HERE-
Or on Amazon -HERE-
I picked out Tanita’s album simply because it was on of the best blues album released last year. Tanita hails from Louisville Kentucky and belongs to The Kentuckian Blues Society in Louisville for some background. Let me start off that the caliber of her vocal delivery is second to none. She can wail like Big Momma Thornton or Koko Taylor. If you are looking for a more soft vocal well it’s mixed in there as well.
Lets start off on her first song, AT&T Blues which is a slow blues number. Odd to start off an album with slow blues till you give the whole album a listen. Seems to me most albums start with the first song to be an upbeat number to get your attention. This is the power of Tanita’s voice to make you pay attention right off the bat.
Lay Me Down the second track is a soul number very reminiscent of Aretha Franklin s delivery. It shows off her softer side.
Midnight Screams is the third track. Man oh man this one had the hair on the back of my neck standing up and goose bumps on my arms. What an amazing slow blues number and what a show this is. To me this song alone was worth the cost of the cd. Great mix great guitar that fits the mood of her voice and again that vocal delivery.
So just when I think I’ve heard the best track on the album the 4th track comes up. I’ll Sing The Blues. Great upbeat number with a wonderful mix and again Tanita’s vocals on this just cements the whole song together. Shades of Koko Taylor and Big Momma Thornton all rolled into with with more of a melodious voice when she’s not belting you with her amazing growl.
Mood Elevator is a funky fun track followed by I Don’t Have To Understand You. This song has a great melody!!! Man once again you just have to hear her sing to get what a great track this is.
Touched In The Night . More of good shuffle and again more great vocals followed by Another City Day a jazzy number that has just more great vocals.
The album ends with Rock & Roll Till The Cows Come Home, a great rocker which once again shows off her rougher side her vocal delivery.