"On the trail of the German harmonica"

Apr 28, 2017

Blues Enlarge image (© Jeremy R Valdez ) Since the 1860s, over one billion German harmonicas have been brought to the United States, probably more than any other finished industrial product from Germany. That the harmonica is often considered quintessentially American – it has even been called the “most American instrument” – has its origins in the mass immigration of Europeans in the 19th century. Germans, above all others, carried this small and light-weight instrument with them across the Atlantic. Soon, regular import and distribution channels satisfied growing demand in the United States. After the Civil War, African Americans began using the German harmonica in their emerging blues music, making them a particularly important consumer group. Until now, however, little attention has been paid to the relationship between the German harmonica and the development of the blues.

Herbert Quelle, the German Consul General for the Midwest in Chicago, has filled this gap. In his new book Monika’s Blues – On the Trail of the German Harmonica and African-American Blues Culture (NCSA Literatur, Indianapolis, 2017; available through Amazon, Bookpatch and soon as an e-book), he argues convincingly that the harmonica added a new expressiveness to the blues, and thereby extended the lifespan of the genre. On the other hand, African Americans who played the inexpensive and easily accessible instrument discovered entirely new tonal ranges and forms on the harmonica, enriching the instrument itself as well.

Consul General Herbert Quelle Enlarge image Consul General Herbert Quelle (© Alexander Fiedler) In his fact- and fun-filled fictional novella, which tells the story of a road trip from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta, Quelle makes many other fascinating observations. He solidly puts Seydel (founded in 1847), the oldest still-operational harmonica manufacturer in the world, back on the map. Its existence was for too long overshadowed by Hohner (founded in 1857), for two reasons: first, that Seydel, in the “Musicon Valley” of Saxony, lay behind the Iron Curtain; second, that the only historical archives of harmonica manufacturers that survived WWII are Hohner’s. Of course, the story of the blues can hardly be told without the story of the musicians who developed it, and Quelle delves into African American history and its intersection with the musical genre. As one Amazon reviewer notes, “The journey from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta provides sometimes funny and more often haunting insights into the life of the American South and its violent past as well as its continuing social and political complexity.

The German-produced instrument and innovative African-American playing style have constituted a relationship that has been extremely fruitful for the blues, a widely appreciated and enormously influential genre of music. Quelle, who himself plays the blues harmonica, began telling this story at universities and cultural institutions throughout the Midwest in early 2016 and found that it was received with growing interest. His work was featured on Deutsche Welle TV in March, in a segment filmed in Memphis, Tennessee: http://www.dw.com/en/monikas-blues/av-37865856

While he was visiting the National Instrument Museum in Berlin, before being posted to Chicago, Quelle was struck with the idea of organizing an exhibition on the subject. However, he soon realized the challenges of realizing this project, and decided instead to use his extensive scholarly research on the German roots of the harmonica as the basis for a book. The result is Monika’s Blues, at once a road-trip novella and an engaging, educational dive into the harmonica’s past and present as a German product and an American icon.



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