Looking back, I don’t know what I played because it wasn’t a song; it was a jam. But when I finished my little solo, the audience burst into applause. After, people came up to tell me how great I sounded for a raw beginner.
That made it all worth it, but then I had a problem. Camp was over, and I knew I’d never keep it up on my own. How would I find a great teacher in New York City when Manhattan blues clubs play mainly jazz and rock? Then I remembered two good friends I’d made at camp: Kris from Detroit and Kate from Australia. Kate was taking Skype lessons from Lee Edwards, a great blues harp teacher who lived in Wales.
Skype? Wales? What would a Cardiff local know about the blues?
A whole lot, it turns out. And while I could see only his head and part of his torso on my screen, I needed only to observe how he held his harmonica and to watch and listen to how he played. He’d have me turn sideways so he could work on my embouchure (the way I shaped my mouth to the harmonica), and when he saw that my shoulders were somewhere around my ears, he’d tell me to relax.
If he wanted me to work on a particular song, he’d email me a jam track. Every Monday at 9 a.m. (unless I was out of the country in a different time zone), his face would pop up on my computer screen. And for the next hour, I’d learn about the blues, of which he has encyclopedic knowledge. He might point out a note I was playing incorrectly or teach me a new riff or part of a new song, and I’d forget that we were thousands of miles apart.
The Universal Language
On my next trip, an assignment to write about Turkey, I went from Istanbul to Ayvalik, a two-block-long village in Cappadocia. I sat in a small park opposite a café where elderly men smoked and chatted. In the park, small children stared at me curiously but kept their distance. “Merhaba,” I said — hello, my one Turkish word. They didn’t budge. I pulled out my harmonica and played “Amazing Grace,” one of the first songs I’d learned. The children inched closer. By the time I’d finished, they had crowded around me, pulling on my arms and begging for another song. I played “Boogie Woogie.” The elderly men in the nearby café stopped talking, and when I finished, they applauded.
I have since blown the blues in Namibia, where I played for a Himba tribe in the middle of the desert; in Banff, Canada, as I rode up the ski lift; on a bike while cycling Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail; and at the base of a bronze bull in Durham, N.C.
In August 2012, I went to Caraquet, New Brunswick, for the yearly Acadian “Tintamarre,” a celebration and parade where everyone wears costumes and makes a huge racket with improvised and real instruments (“Tintamarre” means “make noise”). I was watching the parade when a group of about 10 female drummers marched by. The pounding rhythm was so infectious and joyful that I whipped out my harmonica and joined them. At first, I stayed in the middle of the group and played in the background, riffing off the beat. But as we moved down the street, I began to tap my feet, and my body started to sway, and suddenly I was playing a solo, leading the group like the Pied Piper.
If my notes sounded like a bleating sheep, who cared? I’m just one in a long line of Americans blowing out my heart with a harmonica — a “mouth organ,” a “pocket piano,” a “tin sandwich” — perhaps the most portable and entertaining instrument on Earth.
MARGIE GOLDSMITH, a New York City–based writer, has traveled to 122 countries and written about them all. Her award-winning stories appear in Robb Report, Elite Traveler, Black Card Mag, Islands and many other publications.