The Asian Harmonica Scene

The Asian harmonica scene is extensive and well organised. The focus is on group playing rather than solo performance. As the pictures show.

Western players are often self taught, or have lessons on an ad hoc basis. Many Western players begin as adults. I started when I was 20.

In contrast to this, Asian players start young, like these kids at the 2010 Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival in Singapore.

Harmonica teaching is well organised in Asian countries. Master players train students, some to very high standards. Leading students then start their own teaching, the result being a network of well trained teachers. Many schools teach harmonica, similar to the recorder in Western schools.

While the harmonica is common in Asia, the 10 hole diatonic is not. Most players begin with the tremolo, many then move to the chromatic. The 10 hole diatonic is a great blues instrument, of course, however less suited for tune playing, due to the bending needed for the missing notes on the bottom holes. It is easier to teach tunes on the tremolo, where all the major scale notes are available without bending. This is perhaps why Asians favour the tremolo as a school instrument.

Young Asian student groups range in size, larger ones easily have 50 players, lead by a conductor.

In Western countries, female harmonica players are rare. I'm not sure why. In Asia it is different. At least half the players are female, as the student goup photos show. Many of the elite players are female also, particularly the younger ones.

Competitons are a key focus for the Asian harmonica community. The Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival, held every two years, attracts over 2000 competitors.

The standard is very high, featuring virtuoso pieces, many adapted from the classical repertoire. The halls of the festival are filled with competitors, practising their pieces. The result is a confused mix of harmonica music, no doubt a surprise for unsuspecting visitors.

In addition to the (many) competitors, there is a community of elite players. For example, the Kings Harmonica Quintet comprises five Hong Kong players who began playing together in the 1980s. Shown in the photo opposite (well, 4 of them), they arrange classical chamber pieces for chromatic and bass harmonica. Their music is exquisite and unique.

Other leading groups include the Fresco Harmonica Ensemble from Malaysia and the Judy's Harmonica Ensemble from Taiwan.