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Jul 04

Women of the Harp

Why so few women of the harp?

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.

Women of the harp

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.

About The Author

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.

9 comments

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  1. Candye Kane

    You missed several female harp players and that’s a shame, both for the overlooked women and for audiences looking for female harpists. Cheryl Arena of Boston, Mass has been playing harmonica for many many years, making CDs , teaching and hosting blues harmonica camps and singing and writing songs. She has appeared alongside some of the greats in blues – including Duke Robillard , Sax Gordon and many more.

    Rochelle Raya from Phoenix Arizona is a great harp player who played in an all female band, called “Sistah Blue” for years. They won best blues band from the Phoenix blues awards and were extremely popular with locals as well as tourists who frequent the iconic blues club, The Rhythm Room owned and operated by harmonica player/producer, Bob Corritore. Their singer Lila was also an amazing force of nature.

    Noticeably missing, and probably the most famous living female harp blower is Gaye Adegbolala of the famous group, Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women – plays harmonica, guitar, djembe as well as sings and writes amazing female empowerment songs such as “I got big ovaries.” Saffire recorded at least ten records for the Alligator Records Label, many on which she plays harmonica.

    There are others, less well known – Big Nancy, of New York who has recorded with Sonny Rhodes among others. The late “Little” Jenny Bohman of Stockholm, Sweden was a prolific songwriter, guitarist, singer and harmonica player. She recorded many CDs in English, including a song she and I co-wrote. She died last year from complications due to a long cancer fight. Mumzer is an out and proud lesbian songwriter, singer and harmonica player from Humboldt, California. Washboard Jo is a harmonica player from Kansas City who for awhile was taking lessons from Jason Ricci, one of the best living male harmonica players.

    I know there are more so I have put the word out there to alert you to them as soon as I hear from dome of my other musician friends.

  2. Jordan

    Hey Candye,

    We do appreciate your knowledgeable contribution to the article on female harp players. We certainly weren’t looking to shortchange anyone and would welcome more mentions as they come in! Thanks for taking the time to write in!

    ~ Jordan

  3. Paula Rangell

    Check out Paula Rangell of Paula and The Pontiacs out of
    Orleans, La. Google her, she’s been around a long time !

  4. Jumpin Johnny

    Diane Blue has been playing a mean harp up in the northeast US for quite a few years. She plays mainly in the New England area and is known to jump onstage whenever Ronnie Earl has a gig and has been recorded on several of his albums. She is on 4 tracks and featured on the newest Ronnie Earl CD, “Good News”. Diane is really quite.
    She also recently recorded an excellent album with Italian bluesman Roberto Morbioli of MorBlus.
    Her Album “Live at Chan’s” will give you a taste of her incredible chops and harmonica abilities.

    1. Jordan

      Ahh yes, another wonderful suggestion! Diane is a wonderful talent!! We have a number of her tunes in rotation here at BluesMusicFan Radio.

  5. Lloyd Jones

    Fantastic website. The “Big Mama” video stopped me in my tracts! Just wonderful to read everyone’s input on women harp players too.
    I worked with Big Mama in the early 70’s and visited with her at her very last gig before she passed. Not only powerful but, she had a delightful sense of humor. One night George Smith dropped in to visit Big Mama on her gig. George decided he wanted to sit in on drums for a song. About half way through the tune Big Mama pushed George off and started playing the drums herself, stuck her chin out , as if to say,”don’t mess with me, I can do anything you can do too!” They were good friends and good sports. Taught us a lot about the music and kindness. Thanks for the video. It brought back wonderful memories.

  6. Joyce Ettingoff

    I am a female harmonica player. I have played since age 3. Jason Ricci asked me to co host Female Harmonica players with him a while back..I was honored and I continue to do it. Since Jason has obligations at times and I am frequently in front of the computer it works. I have extensively played harmonica in public for about the past ten years when I lost a bet that I was happy to lose and wound up playing on the CSA Jamboree..something like Maryland’s answer to the Grand Ole Oprey. The show aired for 53 years and ended when Frank Gosman, the founder and host passed away. During and after this time I played in numerous blues bands, at festivals. I played a variety of styles..mostly blues but some country, some jazz, big band and Klezmer.
    Early on I was endorsed by the Lee Oskar Harmonica Company. They have great minor key harps that work well in Klezmer.
    Since giving Jason Ricci a hand I have been exploring Suzuki harps as well.
    I played Piedmont Blues on a very regular basis with Warner Williams for about four years. My latest adventure in blues is The Electric TRAIN SET which includes Joe Dicey, son of the late Bill Dicey. We are optimistic that this will be a great project.
    By t he way my mother was a trumpet player in the Big Bands basically playing with Eddie Fisher..so harmonica..why not for females?

  7. Joyce Ettingoff

    Thanks for posting. i really appreciate it. I look forward to many more years of playing. Harmonica is healthy for the body and for the soul. Toot on!

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