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Interview with a Harp Player

Harmonica great Howard Levy talks about intimate rooms, tongue blocking and his love of world music.

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Although he's perhaps best known for his efforts in co-founding BAcla Fleck and the Flecktones, Howard Levy's harmonica skills are world-renowned. The New York native has appeared on more than 200 albums, and won a Grammy for the Best Pop Instrumental Performance in 1997. Style Weekly caught up with Levy before his recent appearances at In Your Ear Studio and his stops at various Richmond schools for educational outreach performances.

Style: When did you begin playing harmonica and piano?

Howard Levy: I first started playing piano when I was 8 and I started improvising right away. I studied classical piano but I always improvised. Then I got into rock, jazz, blues. … when I first heard the blues, I got attracted to harmonica and that's how I first got attracted to piano. Having an instrument in your pocket that can bend notes is appealing. A friend of mine started messing around with the harmonica and sounded great after only about a month.

How did you discover your revolutionary technique of overblowing to bend your notes?

The way bends work … German people who designed it just wanted an instrument that could play notes for folk music. This bending is purely accidental. It became the perfect instrument for playing blues. All the blues harmonies and notes are naturally there. It's one of the strangest coincidences in music. It's like learning how to ride a bike and you're falling all over the place and all of a sudden you're riding. It's a great feeling. So I finally got the sound I was going for and thought, ‘Gee. Playing blues licks is great but I can’t play the same licks on this octave as second one.' Well it's an instrument. It's got to have all the notes on it. So I just started playing. It was kind of like being Columbus. People thought you'd sail this far and fall off the edge of the earth.

You've played with Paul Simon, Bobby McFerrin, Dolly Parton, Bela Fleck. … how does this 80-person setting suit you compared to larger halls and arenas?

You know, it depends. Every room is different. Sometimes playing in small clubs can make the experience much more intense. I can feel the energy of the people sitting right there. It sometimes creates a more immediate and intimate experience. I really like small places as long as it's comfortable. I just played a small solo concert at a little place in Maine for about 100 people and it was wonderful.

Through whom especially did your love for world music outside of the United States begin to flourish?

Growing up in New York, I heard a lot of Latin, African, salsa. … that got into me. When I was in my early 20s, I started getting very interested in Bulgarian women's choirs, and I got into early Balinese music. What I realized is American pop was not satisfying to me. I wanted to get into the roots of music and got into what is now called world music. I got tons of records from countries all over the world. I learned to play it and I was fascinated by all the scales and rhythms and I feel it really nourished me. It gave me a lot of material to draw on. It also made me understand the different frames of mind that people have in different parts of the world. It's like a person learning to speak a lot of different languages, if you can express yourself in seven or eight different languages, it's a good thing.

I've noticed you're a pretty sweet pianist as well. Will we see any of that at the In Your Ear shows?

Yes. I see the harmonica as a piano in my mind. The harmonica is the only instrument in my mind where you can't see it. There are no eyes involved. I realized I was organizing my musical thoughts like a piano. Playing both instruments at the same time … it's really one big instrument to me.

Explain to me how you get that droning technique while still playing percussively on the other notes like when you're playing the blues.

Oh you mean tongue blocking? The melody is basically coming out of both sides of my mouth. Sometimes I play chords in between. A whole lot of different techniques are going on at once. I wanted to emulate Irish pipes and figure out a technique that would allow me to do that.

How do you hope to tailor your performances for the younger audiences you'll encounter through the Richmond schools?

I really like doing this stuff. I relate really well to children. I've played in hundreds of schools and I really enjoy explaining concepts and doing humorous things as well. I really enjoy it. … explaining the history of instruments -- all sorts of things that I think adults were interested in as children.

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