The French Short-Harp Scene
France has traditionally been a country very open to musical influences and very receptive to the 60s blues boom. This influence can still be felt today on the French harp scene. There are many experienced players touring France and many more arriving on the scene every year. Before you decide to join the fun at the French Harmonica Festival in 1999, heres a little guide to French Diatonic players.
It is of course impossible to discuss French diatonic without mentioning Jean-Jacques Milteau. In fact a lot of what is happening today can be attributed to his long hard years of work promoting the harp and turning youngsters into fine performers. J.J. picked up the harp sometime in the 60s, a fierce lover of Sonny Terry, Sonny Boy 2 and Charlie McCoy. Since then, Milteau has been backing most French pop or rock artists and his playing can be heard on hundreds of albums. His style is very fluid, with a big tone and in his later years he has traded flash for feeling. Although he shines in blues and country, Milteaus repertoire is now much more versatile, incorporating trad jazz, French musette, south african folk, celtic and other stuff besides.
Milteau also encouraged a second generation of French players amongst whom we find David Herzaft, a very technical player who plays country blues and bluegrass as well as a technically powerful brand of jazz, Xavier Laune, a very fine acoustic player who performs both on the country-blues scene with the Mojo Band and on the celtic scene with Distant Shores and Laurent Cagnon, a strong player who plays in an R&B formula and does more unusual things besides.
Greg Szlapczynski is now Milteaus right arm and has started to take over most of the harp tuition and promotion tools that JJ started years ago. Greg is a very good player in his own right who manages to sound unique with an innovative approach to modern jazz diatonic. His range of talents and styles is featured very well on his first album Ternaire Madness.
Jazz is a musical style that seems to be quite popular amongst diatonic jazz players in France today. In that genre we find Michel Herblin, a very skilled and technical player whose first album Matin aux Pommes is a collection of jazzy tunes that showcase his mastery of the diatonic. Another important jazz player is Sébastien Charlier who runs a diatonic school and specialises in be-bop. He has just released a jazz tuition video for the diatonic, and plans on releasing an album soon.
Of course, blues is still the most popular style. Benoit Blue Boy is a long time player on the French scene whose particular blend of swamp blues with French lyrics is quite popular. His approach is very downhome and authentic. He has also backed several other French artists amongst whom california based guitarist Paris Slim. Another player who is starting to emerge is south of France based Nico Wayne Toussaint who has just released his second album of west coast flavoured blues entitled My kind of Blues.
Quite a few players in France earn their living backing other musicians : Steve Verbeke is the resident harp player of Karim Albert Kook, his playing is very Chicago style. Pascal Mikaelian has been the harp behind French slide guitarist Patrick Verbeke for years with a funky southern sound. His most recent release is a duo with guitarist Claude Langlois, featuring both traditional blues and French compositions.
Vincent Bucher has also backed Patrick Verbeke as well as Bill Deraime and Paul Personne, a French rock/blues singer and guitarist. His particular blend of deep tone and fast playing fits these tough blues styles well. Interestingly enough this same mixture has been adapted to his duo with ethnic songster Tao Ravao for a very unusual and musical collaboration of malagasy folk music. Ravao and Bucher have released three albums together.
The French players are not absent from the folk music scene where one man in particular illustrates himself : Bruno Kowalczyk is a man of many influences with a special focus on the traditional music of Quebec. His album Cest pas Pire features him on diatonic, chromatic and tremelo harps in a very pleasant blend of celtic styles.
Speaking of chromatic, our country isnt devoid of fine players of this instrument. They certainly deserve another article since Im no specialist on the subject. Theres one newcomer that Id like to mention though : Olivier Ker-Ourio has played jazz with the greatest including a long association with French pianist Michel Petrucciani. He has just released his first album Central Park Nord and been praised by the man himself Toots Thielemans.
There you are, a quick overview of the French harp scene. Many more artists would deserve being mentioned but for lack of space and accurate information I cant do so. You will find hereafter references to all the records I could find by the artists mentioned and where to acquire them.
Here is a little guide on how to contact the artists find info or acquire their albums. Albums followed by a Ó should be widely available. Others can probably only be acquired by using the address, phone number or internet contact given.
JJ Milteau ; http://www.milteau.com
David Herzhaft ; +33 (0)6 11 21 63 61;
Xavier Laune ; +33 (0)3 21 84 68 14;
Michel Herblin; +33 (0)6 09 82 19 17);
Benoit Blue Boy ;
Nico Wayne Toussaint; +33 (0)5 59 45 47 41);
Steve Verbeke : ; +33 (0)1 69 89 21 49;
Pascal Mikaelian : ; +33 (0)1 48 45 87 45;
Vincent Bucher ; Cobalt 145, rue de Ménilmontant 75020 PARIS Tel : +33 (0)1 47 97 69 99 Africolor@hol.fr;
Bruno Kowalczyk; firstname.lastname@example.org ; Cest pas pire
Olivier Ker-Ourio; +33 (0)1 42 02 52 99) : ; Central Park Nord Ó