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Interview : Vincent Bucher

Vincent BucherVincent Bucher is one of the truly original harp players of the French scene. His early years as a musician were devoted to blues, playing alongside many French blues artists, but in recent years his musical approach has diverged into other styles, especially through collaborations with malagasy and african musicians. He has brought to these styles his increadible sound and an ever-present feeling. We met him during the Condat Harmonica Festival in 2000.

Planet Harmonica: Good evening and thanks for being here. I'd like to start by asking how you became interested in the harmonica, old question I know, and also how you became interested in musical styles not usually associated with the harmonica - or at least not very prevalent.

Vincent Bucher: I started playing the harmonica around 16-17, via the Blues which remains my favourite music. Then I met Tao (Ravao) and we started playing in the street. I also met Sugar Blue at around the same time and he was the first to make me play on stage so I could get a bigger name. Then I progressively met other musicians, joined other groups and started to get into the club and live circuit.
All of that was playing Blues. I had become interested in other music through Blues just by listening to related genres which are similar, such as its African and Caribbean roots. For that, living in Paris was great; there were lots of musicians from different areas and I had the opportunity to join groups and play music other than Blues.

PH: I imagine you did some instrument research so you could adapt yourself to different rhythms, harmonies and musical styles.

VB: In fact, harmony-wise, the music I was playing was quite similar. But of course, you must listen a lot and understand the soul and above all what the music signifies. Sometimes you listen to a style of music, play over it and think it sounds good because it goes together well. In fact, you must listen to what each instrument is saying, understand its position and role it plays. It is also necessary to pay attention to certain rhythmic principles which are more or less complex according to the style of music. All this demands a lot of listening!

PH: I imagine that rhythmically there are a lot of differences in comparison with classic 4/4 Blues.

VB: Yes, there are a lot of differences. There are principles you must familiarise yourself with.

PH: Today you play a Madagascan style with Tao and a Maian style with Lobi Traoré. Are you working on anything else at the moment?

VB: I still play a lot of Blues. From time to time I play music closer to Blues with people like Charlélie Couture. I just play music….

PH: In any case it's always music! As far as the harmonica goes, has the variety of styles you play led you to work with different chord sets for example, or to develop particular techniques that fit in better with a style, or find different tones?

VB: Not really. I have a few harmonicas in different chords but I've noticed that I don't use them playing live, just when I play for myself. I use lots of different positions but I'm still quite classic compared to certain artists who use overblows.

PH: What is interesting is that you sound different none the less.

VB: In fact, it sound different because I think about the phrases and the role played by the harmonica. In Madagascan music for example, I've listened to a lot of accordionists, their place in the music, and I've been inspired. For the Maian music with Lobi, I listened to a lot of traditional Maian violins and thought that this is the role the harmonica could play. Sometimes I was very surprised as the violinists were playing phrases and melodies that would work really well on a harmonica.

PH: So you are searching for a place for the harmonica that corresponds to those instruments that already exist in the idiom?

VB: Exactly.

PH: Going back to Madagascan music, there is a harmonica player who is quite amazing, Jean Emilien. Have you met him?

VB: Yes, he's a friend. He's not only a harmonica player though - he plays the Kabosy at the same time. I've heard a lot of harmonica players in Madagascar but he really is the best. It's a bit in the tradition of accordionists, this 'slide' style which is very evident in Madagascar.

PH: Is it these contemporary musicians who have always carried traditional music in Madagascar or has the tremelo harmonica always been around?

VB: I imagine it's been a long time because it all stems from the role of the accordian, which used to be carried by priests in the churches. Then the accordian came out of the churches and became an instrument for traditional ceremonies, trances, that sort of thing. I imagine that the tremelo and chinese harmonicas that are there arrived thanks to the accordian.

PH: Do they play more piano accordian or diatonic accordian?

VB: They are diatonic accordians but they file down the slides to make extra scales that they use, they sort of re-chord them.

PH: Changing the subject, what projects are you working on at the moment with current groups or new groups?

VB: With Tao and Karim Touré, the percussionist of the group, I'm planning a new album. Apart from that I'm working with a young bluesman from Memphis on a project. I'm also working for myself a bit, digging out a few ideas.

PH: I understand that you know some US harmonica players and that a few months ago you produced the latest album by Matthew Skoller…..Do you feel that the US Blues scene, and elsewhere, is very repetitive and not very fertile at the moment?

VB: It's actually a general problem within Blues. It has become a musical style whereas before it was a popular and community music. Now it is still popular but it has become a style, so the musicians feel obliged to do exercises in style. There is still lots of talent, people who do interesting things from an instrument point of view, but there is a real repertoire problem. You have to provide a new repertoire. You can stay in the 12 bar or get out of it, that's not a problem, but you must play new songs. The Blues became known because its songs and that's what is lacking a bit at the moment. Often, musicians do tracks that are just an excuse to do a solo. It's a shame really. The solos should be there to accentuate a song, not the other way around.

PH: I agree. One of the aspects about Blues now that saddens me is that the guys don't write anymore. There aren't many who talk about real life, who say what's what.

VB: You're wrong, there's lots who do! The thing is, since the end of the 70s, since Blues began to be listened to by the Rock fans there has been a kind of compromise: bluesmen have been made to play with rock stars because the public demands it, but this isn't the essence of Blues. It goes against nature a bit…

PH: Do you travel a lot with Tao and Lobi?

VB: These last two years we're travelled a lot. We've been to Africa, before that we were in Canada, the West Indies, Reunion Island. At the moment we don't have any plans to go abroad but anything could happen.

PH: At the moment it seems there is a sort of ethnic revival with good and bad examples. Would you include yourself in this revival or is it something you find unhealthy, a commercial exploitation of traditional music?

VB: It's a bit of both. To begin with the label 'world music' means nothng really - as if there was a music that isn't 'world'! That's a bit strange. It's true there is a kind of global village idea, a tendency to mix up everything which is a bit unhealthy. At the same time, it also means we can discover lots of music and artists we wouldn't have heard otherwise. At the end of the day, music has become a business and it's up to people to decide for themselves what they like and what they want to hear. There is a positive side and a negative side. In any case 'world music' doesn't mean much, it's just a marketing label.

PH: When you go on tour and meet local musicians, do you get to play with them or do you simply listen to them play?

VB: Of course, that's the whole point. When we go on a long tour of Africa, we meet local musicians in every country; in Kenya we actually played with them. In other countries we just listened to them and then talked to them afterwards. It depends on how much time we have and the opportunities. In any case it's one of our objectives to do so.

PH: Does it inspire you and give you ideas? Does it allow you to integrate elements, approaches and styles?

VB: Absolutely. Sometimes musicians offer instruments to Tao, giving him ideas. For myself, after one tour I went back to Eritrea to work with a group there. It opens horizons and it's the aim of the game, where we can, to listen to people whether we play with them or not. At least to get to meet them.

PH: Do you have any plans to go to Asia or South America or any countries like that?

VB: I would love to go to Asia but I don't know really. It's easier said than done. It's hard to organise and budget for that type of tour. We have been lucky to be able to go where we have so far….

PH: And concerning Harmonicales de Condat, what is your opinion of this 100% harmonica festival?

VB: I think it's great. It could be good or bad depending on the organisation of it. I've known Laurent for a long time and I know he's a good organiser. It gives a musical view of things. If it's happening to hold a harmonica competition for a prize then I'm not as interested. On the other hand if it's different groups and music with harmonicas then the instrument becomes a vehicle for discovering new musicians who are not specifically harmonica players. I like that. It's nearer to the spirit the festival was organised for. It's not interesting if it's simply a huge harmonica demonstration. It has to allow groups to be discovered. There is an interesting side to showing what a harmonica is. It's an instrument that can be accessible to a lot of people. It's good when festivals improve an instrument's image a bit.

PH: Finally, when can we hope to see this new album with Tao and Karim?

VB: I think we're going to try and record it in the first half of this year and it should be released around September. There are lots of reasons why an album does or doesn't come out though.

PH: For now, I would imagine that the two main reasons are whether or not it works and whether or not it is available.

VB; Yes, it must sell but it's omly a small distributor. If all goes well financially it's OK. But to say whether or not it works from that is some distance. But there we go, that makes the group exist, people will be able to hear it, we will sell it at our concerts and we'll sell a few in the shops. At the least it will keep us alive! And of course it's always interesting to record because we learn an enormous amount. Even if it's hard to not be critical about what we have done at the end of a session.

PH: It is a way of looking at what you've done with an outsider's view?

VB: Yes. Sometimes when we listen again to our old albums we say 'well, that was pretty good!' It's a different perspective.

PH: Well, hope to see you again when the album comes out. Thank you for your time.

BF (Trad Nick Harrison (