Award-winning harmonica player Brendan Power
has come to China with big ideas. He already has a mind boggling career behind him; having done everything from recording on the Oscar-winning soundtrack for Atonement to playing with Sting and Van Morrison. Now, the UK-based Kiwi is here in Shanghai to bring his genre-sprawling sound to the huge range of musicians at the JZ festival, where he also hopes to combine a newly created instrument with an old school sound to inspire Chinese musicians to embrace the potential of the harmonica.
On Sunday I found Brendan at the Wooden Box, collaborating with a local guitar player he met just a few hours before the concert. A translator sat between them to fill in the linguistic gaps although they had little problem communicating musically. Brendan plays his harmonicas in virtually every genre of music imaginable, but that night he favored Americana and Blues as, Brendon explained, that was what the two had most in common.
Brendan also plays solo gigs. Using a looper, he lays down percussion using a mixture of harmonica and beat boxing, adding some chords from his harmonica and proceeding to play improvised melodies, sing, or even occasionally rap over top of his loops. He is also the inventor of a technique called mic-tapping, which creates a subtle pulse underlying the music. When Brendan first started making music in the late 80s, none of this was possible, but with new technology comes new opportunities.
Traveling to new places, meeting new people, figuring out the common denominator, and incorporating local sounds is Brendan’s specialty. Whilst chatting, he eagerly cracked open his box of specially designed harmonicas. Generally speaking, harmonicas are meant to be played in a certain key, but Brendan has designed a range which are better suited to embody the flavor of certain traditions. He pointed into his box, showing me harmonicas and explaining that 'this one was suited for Irish music', or 'this one works particularly well for traditional Bulgarian music.'
Brendan hopes to bring the harmonica full-circle back to China. He explains that the free reed originated in China, then traveled to the west where they became oompah-pah instruments for 19th century Germany music. Next they traveled to the States where the African American community developed their use and discovered the happy accident in design that the notes could be bent to play in a Blues style.
Right now, all of the Chinese free reed instruments lack the ability to bend notes which is odd, seeing as note bending is quintessential to the flavor of music across China. This is why Brendan is so keen to complete the harmonica’s circumnavigation of the globe.
I sat in awe as Brendan took out his new instrument and played 'Moon Reflected on Second Spring', flawlessly emulating the style of the erhu, the two-stringed Chinese fiddle and catching the attention of several other patrons of the Wooden Box. Brendan then handed me a demo of his Chinese repertoire, a CD I am now obsessed with.
As a fellow Westerner who has studied Chinese music for four years now, I demanded to know how he had managed to master the Chinese flavour. He explained casually, “I first came to China last December and I just sort of got interested in Chinese music.” His nonchalance belies his gifted ear and world-class harmonica skills, which are now pushing his instrument to higher levels of development and possibility.
This Saturday at the JZ Festival
, Brendan will perform with pop singer and pianist Fei Er. When I asked what we should expect to hear at his concert, he said he didn’t really know yet. At the time of the interview, Brendon had yet to meet Fei Er but was undeterred as they have scheduled practices during the week to figure out their sound.
Brendan promises that he likes to keep a good mix of genres and styles at every concert to ensure the audience stays interested and on their toes. Take my advice; come and hear Brendan Power collaborate with Fei Er this Saturday at the JZ Festival
and witness his boundary-pushing sounds.
WORDS: ENDER TERWILLIGER