Give a Hoot!

The melodica may be a plastic flute, but it's not just kid stuff

Woe unto the lowly melodica. Why must it be consigned to the Fisher-Price page in the annals of great instruments? I can handle the nicknames: The pocket piano, toot-flute, blow accordion, wind piano, melodeon, melodyhorn, pianaca, and hooter all offend me not. But it still is shocking -- shocking!-- that, despite its contributions to some of the past quarter-century's greatest music, the melodica is forgotten, overlooked, or worse, simply laughed at.

The melodica is a polyphonic wind instrument invented by the Hohner company in the Sixties. It is almost always fashioned of plastic. It features a free reed system with a mouthpiece, air chamber, and keyboard and is played by blowing air through the mouthpiece. Playing one note at a time produces a sound very similar to that of a harmonica; two or more notes at a time brings forth an accordionlike blast. Best of all, it requires no electricity and is completely portable. Yet not many people seem to know much about the instrument, which was long considered a children's toy. Even more curious, the majority of those who do play the melodica seem to know very little about it.

For instance when I began work on this story, I sent an e-mail to prominent musicians in South Florida and asked if they could lead me in the direction of an indigenous melodica player. In addition to several straightforward nos, I encountered several folks who had never heard of the instrument and another who suggested I contact a grammar school music teacher.

Augustus Pablo: Master of the melodica
Augustus Pablo: Master of the melodica
Augustus Pablo: Master of the melodica
Augustus Pablo: Master of the melodica
Augustus Pablo: Master of the melodica
Augustus Pablo: Master of the melodica

But eventually I saw a few people performing around town who played a Hohner H32 or L34, two of the most popular models. One was Oliver Chapoy, a multi-instrumentalist hired by the Rocking Horse Winner last fall to contribute additional guitar, vibraphone, and various odds and ends to the act. When I saw him with a melodica one evening at Churchill's Hideaway, I told him I played the melodica, was fascinated with it, and inquired if he'd want to be interviewed in connection with a story about the instrument. Our chat lasted about five seconds. "I don't really know much about it," he said. "It's just that I can play anything with a keyboard."

Hmm. Lucky for me there's another melodica master in town. Jeff Rollason of the Curious Hair can be heard tooting away on the band's recent Say Hello to Happiness CD. But when I contact him, he's positive that he doesn't want to talk about the melodica, swearing that he can't think of anything interesting, illuminating, or enlightening to say about it.

As frustrating as my quixotic quest has become, I understand exactly what he means. What can you say about something you just put up to your mouth and blow through? No one goes to Juilliard to practice the melodica. Eddie Van Halen provides no glossy magazine endorsement. And even though Rollason is preparing to make the melodica a prominent part of his upcoming project called Telekinasshole, he's less than educated about the best-known melodica players around the globe. For instance he was unaware of Augustus Pablo, the late maestro of the melodica, patron saint of the plastic keyboard flute.

Augustus Pablo was only fifteen years old when he began playing the melodica in the Havendale region of Kingston, Jamaica. After he ran into record-store owner and occasional record producer Herman Chin-Loy and plied him with his minor-key melodies, the two became fast friends. Both were Jamaicans of half-Chinese heritage, and Chin-Loy suggested to a friend who was moving from the island that he leave behind his nom de plume to his young apprentice. The departing musician did so, and young Horace Swaby assumed the name Augustus Pablo in 1971.

What followed was nothing less than a redefinition of the melodica, which Pablo seamlessly wove into the tapestry of dub music, just coming into its own at the time. His plaintive, expressive playing developed what Pablo and Chin-Loy called the Far East sound, which became synonymous with giving thanks to Jah not with words but with the reedy tone and haunting strains of the melodica. That doesn't mean, however, that Chin-Loy possesses any insight into the melodica's mystery.

"I really don't know nothing about the melodica," insists Chin-Loy, who now operates a reggae vinyl store in Perrine. "I just saw that it was something nobody was using in reggae at that time, and I saw that it could be used. And that's the only thing that I know about the melodica."

During the Seventies Pablo was one of reggae's most prolific artists. Although other Jamaican musicians took up the instrument as well, including Peter Tosh and Glen Brown, Pablo made the melodica the centerpiece of all his songs, of which there are plenty. With hundreds of singles and a dozen albums released during the Seventies, Pablo was as well-known in reggae circles as Bob Marley. More important, Pablo deified the instrument. From its beginnings as something impossible to take seriously, Pablo made it soar heavenward.

His early material is especially inspired, including his 1970 debut, Rebel Rock Reggae, and 1975's King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown. His work with King Tubby, one of dub's progenitors, is stunning -- thunderclap bass grooves, echoing guitar shards, ping-ponging snare drums -- all topped with the nimble, reedy birdcall of Pablo's melodica. Today the fruits of this pivotal collaboration can still be heard as the framework of the music of the Orb and Massive Attack, to name but two.

Pablo continued to create music during the Eighties and Nineties, never topping his early achievements while releasing album after album, all cut from the same increasingly generic cloth. But the mystical Far East breeze blowing through each composition remains hair-raising. Probably the best introduction to his work is the 1995 Island Records retrospective, Classic Rockers. In addition to his signature tune, the spacious, delicate dub-retooling of Jacob Miller's hit "Baby I Love You So," the pinnacle of the collection (and maybe the most transcendent melodica moment ever) is Pablo's rarity "Jah in the Hills," a magical instrumental that forever links Pablo to the melodica as closely as Louis Armstrong is to the trumpet. More than 40 albums had been issued under his name by the time he died of a nerve disorder in 1999 at age 46.

"Augustus Pablo is one of my all-time favorites of any genre," gushes Calvin Johnson, the eccentric impresario behind the groups Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic Sound System and owner of the Pacific Northwest's dynamic independent label, K Records. "I have almost every record he's ever made. He's definitely one of my idols."

But Johnson, who began adding the melodica to his recordings about six years ago after a punk fashion, doesn't consider himself qualified to become the instrument's spokesman. "Oh, I don't feel like I know anything about it," he says softly. "I just make it up as I go along. I just really enjoy playing it."

Listen for Johnson's buoyant blasts on his albums Echoes from the Scene Control Room, with passages reminiscent of Pablo fronting the JB's, and Boot Party, a showcase for more dubby funky fun. Johnson also employs some of the same production values heard on Pablo's seminal Seventies work. "I take a lot of inspiration from the fact that a lot of his best records were recorded on the most primitive equipment," he says.

But Johnson claims never to have heard of Bernard Sumner, the vocalist-guitarist for the British New Wave stalwarts of New Order. That's odd, considering New Order's significant cultural reach, and the fact that one of the group's biggest radio hits ever, 1985's "Love Vigilantes," begins with a bleating fanfare from Sumner's melodica. Some of the band's most evocative songs, like the placid, gorgeous "Your Silent Face," depend heavily upon Sumner's melodica melodies for their emotional impact.

Blissfully unaware of Pablo, Sumner, or any other contemporary practitioner, for that matter, is Ukrainian classical musician Mikhail Alperin. Long championing the indigenous music of the former Soviet Union, including the throat singers of Tuva, angelic Russian choirs, and Moldavian jazz, Alperin is as much a collector and theorist as he is a musician: He has a collection of fifteen melodicas from around the world. "I know everything about melodicas!" he crows in his thick accent. "I can show you!"

Alperin explains that his first melodica was "a Weltmeister -- an old shit melodica. It was almost impossible to find good melodica in Russia. When I started to travel in the West, I look for them. My first good melodica was made by Seiko. It was very small, yellow, made of plastic. With a beautiful tone. I have [it] at home still."

The list doesn't end there. The number of melodica players is growing. The Hooters named themselves after the instrument. Smashing Pumpkins used one on their song "Glynis." Scottish group the Wannadies play around with one, as does Toronto reggae/rock band Big Sugar. Psychedelic pop darlings the Apples in Stereo are using the melodica more and more, from the sound of it. You never know where one will turn up. Still, it's hard to locate a nexus of melodica players sharing stories, songs, experiences. "It's just a child's instrument, a kid's toy," explains Alperin. "That's why people don't pay attention."

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