Harmonica ace Carlos Del Junco’s first album purchase was The Paul Butterfield Blues Band


By Steve Newton

The first blues harpist I really got into was Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band. Back in high school I used to play the live Full House LP for hours at a time, marvelling at Dick’s command of the instrument, especially when he blew his top on tunes like the harp-driven tour de force “Whammer Jammer”.

Lately my old fondness for the harmonica has been rekindled by the incredible talent of Toronto’s Carlos Del Junco, who brings his blues quartet to the Yale next Thursday (April 22). Del Junco utilizes a technique called overblowing, which he learned from jazz virtuoso and former Bela Fleck & the Flecktones harpist Howard Levy.

“Most people play blues harmonica by shaping the mouth to produce different pitches,” explains Del Junco from his Toronto home, “and overblowing is a continuation of that sort of method. Basically, what it does is it gives you all the missing pitches that you would normally not be able to get. It’s like being able to play all the white and the black notes on the piano, every single one of them. So that’s what I’m doing a lot on the Big Boy CD.”

Del Junco’s fourth CD, Big Boy—Some Recycled Blues and Other Somewhat Related Stuff showcases his astounding harmonica work alongside Toronto session player Kevin Breit’s killer guitar. Breit—who has recorded and toured with the likes of k.d. lang, Cassandra Wilson, and Holly Cole—also handles Dobro, mandola, and mandolin on the sprawling Big Boy, which veers from traditional blues to quirky jazz-ska to African-influenced world-beat blues in 5/4 time. A classy rendition of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” is dedicated to Del Junco’s mentor, Levy.

When he isn’t touring the country with various blues-oriented lineups, Del Junco’s career includes recording TV jingles and radio plays. He also composed and played the music for the touring production of Tomson Highway’s acclaimed play Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.

“That was a great experience,” he relates, “just working with live actors and taking cues off of what they were doing. I was the only musician, and it was a solo voice, sort of representing different aspects of this guy’s dream, so there was a lot to play with.”

Del Junco bent his first note on a harmonica when he was 14, about the same time he purchased his first blues album: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. In 1993, he won two gold medals—in the diatonic blues and diatonic jazz categories—at the Hohner World Harmonica Championships in Germany.

That same year he released his debut CD, simply titled Blues, which was a collection of Delta blues tunes performed with the late guitarist and singer Bill Kinnear. Two Del Junco albums were released in 1995: the electric Just Your Fool and the acoustic Old Way Blues, the latter recorded with singer-guitarist Thom Roberts.

Apart from his musical endeavours, the Havana-born Del Junco also earned an honours degree from the Ontario College of Art, where he majored in sculpture. He draws parallels between the aural and visual arts. “It’s a lot more immediate,” he says of blowing harp, “but it is just another way of creating textures and shapes. I think music has a very three-dimensional quality, so the creative process is similar, whether it’s painting or sculpting or making music.”

Although he’s clearly a virtuoso on his chosen instrument, the 40-year-old Del Junco has had to rely on grants from the Canada Council for tour support, as well as for his two months of study with Levy. Millionaire singers and guitarists are a dime a dozen, but you don’t see many blues-harp specialists gracing the cover of Rolling Stone or Spin. So why hasn’t the harmonica ever been hip?

“It’s just an incredibly difficult instrument to play,” says Del Junco, who was named Canadian Harmonica Player of 1998 by the Toronto Blues Society. “It has a very unique sound, and it’s very compelling, but it’s quite a little miracle that you can get what you can get out of it.

“And there’s a lot of really terrible harmonica players out there. Most blues harmonica players play riffs, and they have stock licks that they do. Very few people have taken it to a new level and put it into a different musical context than just straight-ahead blues, and I’m tryin’ to break out of that mould. I’m really trying to treat it as a fully chromatic, melodic instrument.”

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