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.