I’ve always been a fan of Carlos del Junco. I think it was that mad marriage of scrappy music minds - del Junco and guitarist Kevin Breit -that caught my attention. This is push territory: The need to go places unknown.
When I cued up del Junco’s latest: Blues Etc. with whiz kid – now man-on-the-block – Jimmy Bowskill, I knew I was in for an aural feast. This is music played between the notes – that blue territory. Bowskill is in big demand, lately as part of the Sheepdogs - now gearing up for Blue Rodeo.
The harmonica means different things to different people. I clown about young folks gathered around a campfire telling ghost stories and laying down some quirky background harmonica, or cowboys laying down some brooding melodies as the horses settle in for a good night's sleep. That comes from working with comedian Robert Klein in the early '70s and his take on the blues: “I Can’t Stop My Leg,” which he did live on Saturday Night Live in 1975. I could get slapped for that but my conversation with the “real deal,” Carlos del Junco, shows he has a sense of humor about this and the manner in which Bob Dylan and Neil Young get by on the basics.
Carlos is an astounding player! Del Junco goes the distance and plays like a virtuoso – or, let’s just say he’s a virtuoso in command of many genres – from blues to jazz to wherever.
Carlos dropped by my radio show (The Bill King Show) last Thursday at CIUT 89.5 and packed a harmonica with him and gave an on-air clinic.
Here’s a bit of that conversation.
Bill King: What is the origin of your family name?
Carlos del Junco: I was born in Cuba but my family came to Canada and I wasn’t even a year old. Junco translates as, “of the reeds,” a type of bullrush. My folks came in 1959.
B.K: At the beginning of the revolution.
C.J: Exactly. They had already been out of the country prior to the revolution and went to Sweden for a few years. I have a couple of sisters born there. They were even apple farmers at one time in Ontario, near Collingwood. My father sort of believed in some of the principles Fidel stood for, but he also understood what was happening.
B.K: Your music interest started when and why?
C.J: I think I was eight. I took violin lessons at the conservatory for about three weeks with Ms. Gundy and then I quit. When I was 10, I took piano lessons with Ms. Morrison and then I quit. At 14, my hair got curly: enter the harmonica. A friend of mine played it in a rack; the neck brace, and I loved the sound.
B.K: Then came the campfire epiphany?
C.J: No – my favourite take on that is the Gary Larson cartoon. It’s the one with all the guys sitting around a campfire and one guy says, “Hey Jed, take that thing out and play it,” - and there’s a shadow behind him and in his pocket is a big grand piano.
B.K: You’ve really pushed the boundaries of the harmonica. You could have been the standard blues player and that would have been sufficient, but you are incredibly versed in all genres. What is that you are carrying with you? (Carlos reaches backside).
C.J: The traditional 10-hole diatonic harmonica like Bob Dylan plays, which he’s made popular in mainstream music. I kind of joke that it’s Bob Dylan and Neil Young who have given the harmonica a bad name; the brilliant songwriters they are. It’s an accessory to the fact with what they do to a song. (Carlos demonstrates).
The traditional blues guys did this bending thing, then there was the chromatic harmonica with a button on the end of it. I think it was invented in the '20s or '30s. The one I’m playing, the very first prototype was invented in 1825 with so-called Richter tuning.
B.K: What country?
C.J: Germany. Its popularity was quick. It was easy to carry in the back pocket and to also get a couple of chords and basic melodies. The bending thing was a complete accident. Then Howard Levy came with this over-bending thing. He played with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. He began playing harmonica at 16 and figured a way to play harmonica over-bending quite by accident - and figured out a way to fill in missing notes. The chromatic harmonic will give you that with a button, but you must work to find the missing notes. I can play slowly and pop a note and it will play a harmonic.
B.K: This allows you to play in all keys?
C.J: You’ve got to work for it, but it’s possible.
B.K: That classic blues harmonica sound comes with a specific microphone and amp. Do you go there?
C.J: It’s a coveted thing. Little Walter in the '50s made popular the sound of the overdriven harmonica. Those old bullet or ceramic crystal cartridges had a real gritty sound, not a hi-fi sound at all. Put that through a tube amp and you get this great over-driven sound.
B.K: You and guitarist/vocalist Jimmy Bowskill have a new side out. What’s this all about?
C.J: We’ve just released a new CD – called Blues Etc. on Big Reed Records. Jimmy Bowskill is half my age at 26 and he’s a brilliant musician. He’s one of these guys who picks up just about any instrument and away he goes; especially the string instruments. He grew up in a little town just north of Port Hope - Bailieboro - before I moved here about 10 years ago, and then he moved to Port Hope. We lived two blocks from each other. We started writing together. We really enjoy playing together and get together often.
B.K: Was this recorded in your home?
C.J: Yes, in my living room. I have an audio interface, a laptop and some microphones. That’s all you need. It’s ridiculous what you can do.
B.K: There’s this belief you need the large room space, ample gear and big budget, but what you need more than anything is a pair of good ears. When you think of engineer Rudy Van Gelder, the Chess Brothers etc., those studios weren’t elaborate. It was about the person behind the console. Listening to how you and Jimmy recorded and mixed this informs us that you guys know exactly what to get.
C.J: My living room has this cathedral ceiling with two different sloped edges which is supposed to be ideal. You get a bunch of reflective surfaces and stuff on the wall that’s naturally there, that helps. You try to get a bit of the room sound.
B.K: Do you have a background in sound engineering?
C.J: No, other than watching a great mixing engineer who has done my last four or five CDs - Jeff Wolpert. He’s amazing and has won Junos for his work. I used to sit and watch and he was really patient and would answer all of my questions. I’d take notes. It was like baking a pie: you don’t know how to do it until you do it yourself. Just read the instructions.