FolkWorld article by Paul Farmer:

The Harmonica in Irish music

Interview with Mick Kinsella


Thanks to his performing in 'RIVERDANCE' the playing of New Zealander Brendan Power has done much to increase the popularity of the harmonica in folk music circles around the world. At the same time Ireland's Mick Kinsella has been leaving his own marků

Donald Black's harmonica; cover of his CD Westwinds What's your story as far as playing the harmonica goes?
I've been playing about 15 years. I've always loved the harmonica but I was a drummer for years. I played in show bands and rock bands and stuff and drums was my first instrument.
The local barber in Tullow, County Carlow, sometimes when you went into the shop and he wasn't that busy he was playing, and I remember just listening. He was a traditional player like, and he vamped as well, he'd use tongue-blocking. And I'd like the sound of it, listening to him, but he'd stop when we came in. I always had one eye on the harmonica and the other on the haircut!
I never heard him play outside the shop or at sessions, there were no sessions at that time. Traditional music was played at home I suppose, it wasn't as commercial at that time. (...)
The first players that I would have heard would have been Don Baker, and Rick Epping. (...)
Then I met Eddie Clarke, he's a brilliant player and really worth mentioning, a phenomenal player in his day, it's a pity that more recordings weren't made of him in his heyday. It's a pity that someone like the Hohner company didn't hear about him and didn't have someone come over and sus him out because he was such a good player, he should have had a constant supply of harmonicas. He's very hard on harmonicas, a very strong player. And he is one of the only one's I've heard, chromatic players, that has got almost like a vamp going when he's playing, and I don't know how he does it. I think it might have something to do with having the slide in when he plays. But he has this constant rhythm like an accordion going all the time on particular tunes. I would probably play a tune exactly three times in a row, same tune, very little variation. But Eddie, when he played the second time round he would vary the tune. A great listener. (...)

What's your approach to playing Irish music?
I don't actually play so much on the diatonic. Jigs I find better on the diatonic. Reels I think suffer a little from people having to triple-note a single note. It sounds quite poppy to me, you know, tiddle-a tiddle-a instead of rolling from a note to a note, be it a semitone or a tone above to a tone below. So I think that the feel is different on a diatonic playing reels. But there are definitely players like Brendan Power and Rick Epping who are exceptions and can make reels work on the diatonic.
As far as reels are concerned, most would be played on a chromatic, with the slide reversed as I use. I use a B chromatic harmonica and I reverse the slide so when I roll it goes down a semitone instead of up a semitone. It's really a style that I picked up from Eddie Clarke, and he said that he picked it up from a guy called Paddy Bawn. (...)

Tell me about the tour that came up with Brendan Power.
It was through Brendan and Rick meeting in Trossingen where they played really well together. They both started communicating with each other and they came up with the idea of doing a tour, and Brendan rang me up and asked if I'd be interested in a 3 harmonica tour. He wanted to call it the 'Triple Harp Bypass'. I wanted to call it 'The Mouth Almighty Tour'. Then we exchanged tapes and ideas to see what we could come up with so that we weren't all playing in unison, that we would play bass notes, or an octave higher, or chords behind each other.

What are you going to have on your new CD?
Hopefully it will be an eclectic album. I'll have about 6 traditional tracks: A hornpipe, two sets of jigs - one is my own, a couple of sets of reels. I have a slow aire just done completely with harmonicas; intervals on the 64 and the melody played on blues harp, other intervals played higher up on the 64, so I blend them all together on different tracks and try and get an uillean pipes sound.

Donald Black's harmonica; cover of his CD Westwinds Like Donald Black, the traditional player from Glasgow. - Is the album predominantly chromatic or diatonic?
It's bits of everything. There would be one piece, it's called Canyon Moonrise, that I play on the 64, and it's just a slow, moody piece written by the guitar player that played on the 'Feast Of Fiddles' album with Kevin Burke. It's a really beautiful piece and it could be a beautiful piece on the chromatic if I play it right! I have a piece of my own, it's called 'Lip My Reeds'. I think it could be challenging on the blues harp, there's lots of overblowing in it, and it has quite a big head to the tune where it changes key three times. There's a really good accordion player from Dublin, Peter Brown, and he plays button accordion, it's push and pull like the harmonica, he's phenomenal! And I have banjo on it as well. Normal tenor banjo, but the guy is called Donald Siggins, a great cross picker. So that should be a good track if I can get it recorded properly. The swing is good on it so far with what we've put down. It just needs a bit of stitching here and there.

Have you got a title for the album?
I was going to call it 'One Eye On The Business' or 'One Eye On The Music', I don't know, I haven't thought about it seriously. (Mick lost his left eye in an accident)

What about the state of harmonica playing in Ireland?
Well there's a pretty good blues harmonica scene here.
Most of the players I know of seem to have concentrated here in Dublin. There's a couple of good bands like 'Parchment Farm'. They have a harmonica player called Tony Poland who plays kind of Chicago style. There's a band called 'Fattening Frogs For Snakes' with a harmonica player that plays saxophone, great saxophone player that plays lovely harp called Eamon Murray. There's of course Don Baker who doesn't play harmonica all that much any more, he sings and plays guitar, he's kind of a ragtime picker. There's Brian Pan who plays with the Mary Stokes Band, he's an American player living over here. And there's myself, I do the odd blues gig up here myself as well.
To learn harmonica in Dublin there's a school called Waltons, they're a big music shop enterprise over here. They have a school here I used to teach at myself. A teacher called Michael Mackinerney took over, he plays chromatic and blues harp. There are a few blues players around the country.
Traditional harmonica is pretty lively here. They have a competition every year, the Fleadh Ceoil it's called, and you have 4 provinces; Leinster, Ulster, Connacht, and Munster. You have to win your county competition first, then move on to your province competition, then you go on to the All-Ireland. You can enter from anywhere, you can enter from New York, Australia, it doesn't matter as long as you're playing Irish music. Unfortunately they don't allow the chromatic into the harmonica section, it has to go into miscellaneous because they reckon it has an advantage over diatonics, octaves, and tremolos. It's mostly only ever tremolos played at these events.

I wonder what they'd think of overblowing with the diatonic?
It's funny because I have a hornpipe, 'The Wind In The Rhubarb' and I use overblows in it. But I'm wondering 'what would they think?'
I've never gone into competitions like that. I've only gone to see the kids section and stuff, they're so professional putting vaseline on their harmonicas so their mouths don't stick, they're very competitive. Tremolo is probably the most popular instrument now with the Tombo ones. They've got a full scale from the top to the bottom of the harmonica. (...)
But there's a few very good players. Both former All-Ireland champions Rory O'Leorachain, a young guy from Atlone, and his teacher Austin Berry, they both play tremolos, the Tombo tremolos, and they're very good and they do gigs in unison. They're really lovely players, very stylistic like the Murphy's.

Another really good player called Noel Battle is a really great tremolo player as well, very good rhythm. The Murphy's of course from Wexford, Pip and John. John has a pub now and he has bands coming through all the time, and they have a festival every year called the Phil Murphy Memorial Weekend. It's for their father who used to play in the band with them.
Almost everywhere you go you'll come across a tremolo player. Not always great players, not up to the standard of the Murphy's, Austin Berry, and those. Very few chromatic players playing traditional, I haven't come across a lot. The only important one really for me for years was Eddie Clarke who doesn't play any more. And for me his style, the reverse slide and stuff like that, opened up traditional music for me, and it's just a pity he isn't playing.
There's Tom Clancy, he's about 80, but he writes lovely tunes. He's a tremolo player, and two of the tunes, one of them was called 'Tom Clancy's ' and was written for tremolo but is really nice to play on any instrument.

Traditional music on the harmonica's pretty healthy here. If you got to the fleadh you'd see some of the best players in the country. Not a lot of people making albums on the harmonica but you'll hear the odd track with it on.


The photo shows the cover of a superb album of Scottish Mouth Organ Music of Donald Black: "Westwinds" (CDTRAX091; Greentrax Recordings)


This article is in its original version more than 6.000 words long; so the editors needed to shorten it a bit. What got lost are especially the technical things on how to tune or play the harmonica. If you like to know more about Mick Kinsella and his techniques, you might contact the author of this article, Paul Farmer in Australia.

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