It’s like playing the white keys on the piano, Carlos del Junco says of his harmonica.
Sometimes it sounds like a trumpet. Sometimes it sounds like a violin.
With his diatonic, or single-tone, harmonica in hand, del Junco says he simply adjusts his embouchure to bend and over-bend the notes available to add the sharps and flats that lift and drop his music through different emotions as the dark keys on a keyboard would.
“The instrument has a stigma that it’s not a really serious instrument,” he said, noting he blames the Bob Dylans and Neil Youngs for the tarnish.
“People associate the harmonica with those guys sitting there with one of those little neck braces…(and) they really aren’t beginning to show what the instrument is capable of.”
Now 52 years old, del Junco is an experimental blues player with a unique style which leaves him more than up to the task. Mixing the blues backbone of his music with sophisticated jazz influences he’s developed a world renown sound that’s won him plenty of international praise.
“I’m trying to marry the sort of gut-bucket raw quality of a lot of blues styles with the more sensitive tones,” he explained. “The instrument is capable of all these different textures and colours…and it can be very eclectic stylistically.”
Spelling this out to the average listener is complicated and at first he’s a little reticent to do so—even in an interview.
The long and the short of it, he says, is that the instrument is traditionally only played in one key, but he’s learned a technique to blow the traditional boundaries wide open.
He likes to give his audience a taste of what’s happening when he’s on stage, he said, noting he explains a little of this musical background as he plays. Del Junco has been playing since his teens, tours Central Europe annually and has had the opportunity to learn from the masters.
He counts jazz virtuoso Howard Levy among his teachers, but says there was a significant amount of learning he had to do by ear, really listening to the music.
“It’s always the thing that attracts me most playing any song—really listening to the melody and the rhythm rather than the lyrical content.
“The way I hear music is through the feeling—whether it’s a good feeling or a sad feeling,” he said.
As a one-time visual artist who has always worked in creative ventures, del Junco also has an eye for the quirky, unique elements of any art form that will catch people’s interest.
Following this well-honed gut instinct, he doesn’t really worry about genres or themes or market labels when it comes time to make an album. Each time he issues a new release, his listeners get a slice of his own listening predilections.
“I like to take my favorite songs from different genres and put them all on one disc,” he said.
The smorgasbord style has served him well. His latest effort, Mongrel Mash, is being marketed as a “collection of the old, new, borrowed and blue.”
In 2010, Steady Movin’ was nominated for a Juno—his second nomination.
Born in Cuba, del Junco immigrated with his family at the age of one and grew up in Toronto. He has been named Harmonica Player of the Year seven time in the Maple Blues Awards 14-year history and also won two gold medals at the Hohner World Harmonica Championships in Germany.
Carlos del Junco plays the Mary Irwin Theatre on March 12. Tickets are available through www.selectyourtickets.com