Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Masters of Harmonica... Shri Gautam Choudury

An interview with Shri Gautam Choudhury...

Shri Gautam Choudhury, settled now in Holland for the last 40 years, is one of the finest Harmonica Players from India. He was associated with Shri Salil Choudhury for a long time in his musical journey and has done several recordings along with Salil da. Gautamji emphasizes on learning the Basic Theory of Music to learn Harmonica. “Internet is a ocean of knowledge on Harmonica with great stuff for Learning from the international players”. He considers Toots Thielemans as his Guru and role model. Watch out www.salilda.com

He suggests mastering different scales on the C harmonica would be a wonderful way to learn. Especially the G, Gm, F, Ef , D are some of the beautiful scales he says.......read ahead

1.    How did the passion for Harmonica begin, how did you learn to play?

I must have been about 7-8 years old at school when another school kid brought this little strange instrument which produced heavenly sound. He refused to let me touch it. I decided there and then that I must have one of those things. A year later my grandma gave me some money on my birthday and with that I bought a "Wren" tremolo harmonica. It sounded beautiful and after a couple of days I was playing "jana gana mana" ! All by ear of course !

2.    What do you think makes the harmonica a great instrument?

Its an instrument you can take with you anywhere, play whenever you feel like and it gives other people a lot of happiness. A great way to make friends. If you play it well then you make even more friends and they take you seriously. Harmonica is a very versatile and a complex instrument. It is also comparable to any other orchestral instrument (Sax, Flute, Trumpet, Violin, Cello etc) . To play it well, you must learn it well - then you can play wonderful music alone or with other instruments.

It is very easy to play a harmonica badly - and it is very difficult to play it well.

A friend of mine once said  "With the music in your pocket you'll have music in your heart" !

3.    What styles of music do you play on Harmonica?

I guess all styles ! I play western music, Indian film songs, Bengali modern songs, Latin American music, some western classical pieces etc. Basically I love good melody and good rhythm with nice arrangement.

4.    Which way would you recommend "Learning by ear"  or "Learning by formal method" ?

"Learning by Ear" is very tempting and I guess a lot of us prefer to use that method. But it has severe limitations. You wouldn't like to play Bhairavi Raag in Sitaar without years of practice and study. It also depends on how good your musical ear is and how good is your ability to play a song exactly like the original without missing (or corrupting) a note. Unfortunately not all of us are born with the same "musical ear" !

If you want to learn any other instrument like a Sitar, Violin, Guitar, Synthesiser etc you go to a teacher ( Guru) and learn the theory and all the techniques to master the instrument. So, why we do not want to learn the harmonica seriously ? You don't need a Harmonica teacher to learn the basic concepts of music - which I think is a "Must" before you learn the harmonica.

So, my advice would be to develop your knowledge about the harmonica, the music theory and also develop your ear. A good player must have a good ear and must be good at reading notes, understand various key (scale) structures, is familiar with the basic chord progression and in general prepared to work hard to master the instrument.
Also, listen to other International Harmonica players such as Jerry Murad, Larry Adler, Tommy Reilly, Toots Thielemans etc (all to be found in YouTube) and study their tone, their harmonica holding, their techniques etc.

When I started playing there was no Internet. Now, Harmonica players have access to a huge number of resources - make use of them.

5.    What are the common problem for beginners, and what should they do to correct it?

The most common problem is not to take the Harmonica as a serious musical instrument and just start playing any song very badly ! My advice is to take it seriously as a serious musical instrument. Try not to fall into the trap of playing a song and quickly upload it to YouTube and expect people to say "Wow ! You are great !" Sadly that is what I have seen so far ...

Be inquisitive and humble and learn/practice, learn/practice and learn/practice.

Use the Internet to increase your knowledge on Harmonica, how to maintain it, how to repair it etc.

Once again : Listen to other International players. Sadly I can not name any Indian player yet as a role model.
Do not start uploading songs in Youtube randomly - you are just abusing the bandwidth and creating a bad reputation of Harmonica. This is more prevelant in India.

After playing for a while tap the harmonica hard on your palm and leave it outside for 10 min before putting it back in the case. Clean the surface and the mouth plate well with a clean cloth.

6.    Which brand -model harmonica is your favorite, and why do you prefer it over others?

It doesn't matter which model one is playing. If the harmonica is in tune and is airtight with a smooth slide action, it is good enough. A good player makes any brand sound great. A bad player will find an excuse to blame the brand/model etc. I play Hohner and Hering. I like the Hering because I like its mouth plate (being slightly narrower it fits my mouth better), it is airtight (no air leakage) and it sounds wonderful. Besides my 4-Octave Hering, I prefer the 3-Octave Hohner - not the 4-Octave Hohner due to its slightly fatter mouth plate. But - all this is my personal preference.
I use only the C-Harmonica.

7.    What do you think is the most effective way to practice?

First you must know how to blow and draw cleanly - For example : just practice "sa re ga ma..." up and down using short-notes/long notes  using "single notes" and make sure each note is clean ! DO NOT try to play in "chords". You will create noise. 

You can play in "Octaves" - but it requires a lot of practice and the harmonica must be in perfect tune.
Use variations like "sa ga pa, sa re dha, re pa ni" etc.... Write down these sequences first. Use any vocal excercise book for this.

Learn to read notes. Use any music book (Indian books are fine) to practice your notes.

Play "sa re ga ma..." using different notes as "sa". 

You MUST learn how to play a song in a different scale than just C. So, try the note "D" (5D) as sa for example....

My advice would be to start learning the staff notation. It is international music language. Also it has longtime been a standard in Mumbai/Chennai Film music world also.

8.    How do you see Harmonica as a musical instrument being perceived in India as differently from other countries ?

It is not percieved as a musical instrument in India and it is not really taken seriously. Primarily because we, the harmonica players, do not take it seriously. We also don't have any harmonica teaching methods/Teachers/Schools to teach harmonica. No role models either. Unfortunately we don't have any well-known harmonica player (yet) who plays the instrument correctly according to the International standard. In other countries harmonica is taken a bit more seriously and nearly every harmonica player I met can read music. They also have many brilliant players as role models. 

9.    How do you foresee the Harmonica Movement as we see in a few cities in India...

The movement is very encouraging but they have no future unless the instrument is studied seriously like any other serious instrument. There is still rampant "vamping" and "hand vibrato" coupled with futile efforts to play Hindi Film songs incorrectly ! Nobody even tries to better himself/herself.

10.    A few tips and advice for the Harmonica Club members …

I guess, the answers to the above questions may give you many hints. I don't want to repeat those answers.
If you feel that my answers are not sufficient, let me know. You can also write to me or call me.

We would also request you for
a) Your memories with peer group / people you were associated with…

To write about all my memories/peer groups would take a long time. Shortly, I knew Larry Adler quite well. I have met Jerry Murad and his Harmonicats, Tommy Reilly, Toots Thielemans etc. I also know many International players quite well. I am also a member of NHL (National Harmonica League <UK) and SPAH (US). I wrote about SPAH recently in HarmonicaIndia.
I used to have my own Harmonica Group "Bloworms" (many years ago) in Kolkata with me playing the Chord Harmonica and my friend Parimal Dasgupta playing the lead (Chromatic). I also played the Bass Harmonica for many years with a couple of groups in Europe.

In the '70s we made a BBC documentary called "Playing The Thing" - dedicated to Harmonica. Many world class players had performed in that documentary.

I have also participated in numerous Harmonica festivals and know many International players.

b) Discography (details of the albums released, music company, any online site where these can be purchased).

I have recorded three cassettes and two CDs so far (many years ago). One cassette and the CD of Bengali songs of Salil Chowdhury "Durer Thikana" (1996) , one cassette of Hindi songs of Kishore - "Tribute to Kishore" (1994), one hindi cassette of Salil Chowdhury songs "A Tuneful Tribute to Salil Chowdhury" (1993). I don't know if HMV still sells them ! Try the Internet. These days everything is pirated!

the latest upload of Shri Ghoudury's uploads on the net...


Please note: the notes presented here are the personal views of Shri Gautam Choudhury, please read the disclaimer and conditions of use.


kunalz said...

Impressive Answers, I agree to your opinion and views. I'm someone just got hit by an apple and want to learn harmonica like an expert but its very small help available even on Internet too for hindi songs player. Everyone else is talking about playing like blues and after going through many theories I'm still confused with different note patterns while reading music. What you suggest? My email is krunal619@gmail.com. I'm a keen learner please help...

Suzuki Harmonica said...

I am impressed by the question as well as the answers regarding harmonica. Thank you for one more important write-up. I read your full post.I just ordered my Suzuki Harmonica at PIJ! I’m excited! I’m going to have these in week!

kiran said...

you are underestimating our indian players..i dont like your comments


As a matter of personal taste & from listening experience I can say that - the Indian players simply do not appeal to me. Gautam Choudhury excluded. Listen to Toots Thielemans, Stevie Wonder, among many others. They mesmerize me. Others may have different taste which is very personal to them :-).

Ranjit Gulvady said...

Kiran, feel free to dislike his comments, but whether you like it or not, he's making a very valid point.

aanandam said...

I agree with Mr. Kiran"s view. Western players may have more power in playing the instrument.and get more exposure than the indian players. . Indian players can play any branch of music. They are accostomed to
western music only.But indian players are. versatile
I am only 3 years of my association to MH at the age of 66.I have no basic training in any type of music.
Out of passion I listen, hear and practice I play and produce music.
I tried tamil film, classical, hindi, malayalam, telugu songs and produced more than 170 vedios.
I feel it is wrong to make comparison among music or players.
Some music is to enjoy and some for the soul.
The output of the player is to make him enjoyeble and to make others enjoy the music.
Music has no barriers.It has only carriers.