Fri, Sep 24, 2010 - Page 13 News List

Not just a pocket instrument

Sirius Harmonica Ensemble challenges the boundaries of harmonica music with arrangements of some unlikely tunes

By Catherine Shu  /  STAFF REPORTER

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People who associate the harmonica with campfire songs might be surprised by Sirius Harmonica Ensemble’s (天狼星口琴樂團) repertoire, which ranges from pop and jazz to classical and folk songs. Just as unexpected is the appearance of the sextet’s instruments, which they will play tonight at Witch House (女巫店).

The small chromatic harmonica, which plays the melody, is what most people picture when they think of harmonicas. The long and thin chord harmonica, on the other hand, resembles a metallic baguette sandwich. It is used to keep the rhythm, along with the squat, wide bass harmonica.

Harmonicas are often used in blues and country music or folk tunes, but Sirius challenges musical boundaries by finding unlikely songs and arranging them for the instrument. The group’s repertoire includes Handel’s Water Music, jazz standard As Time Goes By and Pablo Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs).

“For us, one of the best parts of performing is that we can twist traditions and change what people think about harmonicas,” says Sirius founder Chen Yang-ming (陳彥銘). “It’s actually a very versatile instrument.”

While there have been harmonica ensembles in Taiwan since the 1940s, it is still a relatively obscure instrument. Chen estimates that there are about 10 harmonica ensembles that actively perform in this country. But its players are passionately devoted.

“I think what makes the harmonica special is that it is so close to the musician. You create the sound by breathing and that’s also how you control it, so it’s like the sound of your heart,” says Jang Li (李讓), Chen’s friend and a member of Judy’s Harmonica Ensemble (茱蒂口琴樂團).

“I never thought of it that way,” says Chen appreciatively.

PERFORMANCE NOTES

What: Sirius Harmonica Ensemble (天狼星口琴樂團)

Where: Witch House, 7, Ln 56, Xinsheng S Rd Sec 3, Taipei City (女巫店台北市新生南路三段56巷7號). Tel: (02) 2362-5494. On the Net: www.witchhouse.org

When: Tonight at 9:30pm

Admission: NT$300 at the door

On the Net: www.siriusharp.idv.tw


Chen first discovered the harmonica in high school. While choosing between instruments, he nearly decided to study the guitar because of his interest in folk rock, but picked the harmonica instead because it is more unusual.

“You can use it to create some very interesting and unique sounds and music,” says Chen, who formed Sirius in 2001 while an undergraduate student. Currently a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at National Tsing Hua University (國立清華大學) in Hsinchu, Chen balances his studies and teaching harmonica lessons with Sirius performances. Along with music festivals and other events, the group appears every one or two months at Witch House.

At the end of July, Sirius performed on the TV talent contest One Million Star (超級星光大道) with pop singer Queen (魏如昀), who asked the ensemble to accompany her on renditions of Stefanie Sun’s (孫燕姿) The Moment and Wang Lingrou’s (王柔) When We’re Together (當我們同在一起).

Chen says the group wasn’t nervous about appearing on the popular television show, but worried about how they might impact Queen’s overall score. But the singer fared well, with judges praising her for choosing an unconventional accompaniment.

“People usually think of accompanists as pianists or guitarists, but I think the One Million Star performance helped change people’s minds about harmonicas,” says Chen. “Our main goal is to get people to look at harmonicas with new eyes.”

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