Frédéric Yonnet: Don't Underestimate The Harmonica

Frédéric Yonnet plays a song from his working album Reed My Lips: The Rough Cut. i i

Frédéric Yonnet plays a song from his working album Reed My Lips: The Rough Cut. Amy Ta/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Amy Ta/NPR
Frédéric Yonnet plays a song from his working album Reed My Lips: The Rough Cut.

Frédéric Yonnet plays a song from his working album Reed My Lips: The Rough Cut.

Amy Ta/NPR

When it comes to the harmonica, some people may think of honky-tonks, country music and the blues. But Frédéric Yonnet is giving it an urban jazz feel. The French-born musician is known for his dynamic and energetic performances, and has collaborated with the likes of Prince, Stevie Wonder and John Legend. He's currently working on his album Reed My Lips: The Rough Cut.

In a performance chat with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Yonnet says he embraced the harmonica after playing the drums and realized it wasn't a practical instrument to travel with. "I couldn't carry my drums anywhere I wanted to — I didn't have a car," Yonnet says. "My neighbors hated me because I was the loud neighbor upstairs. So I had to take out my frustration on something that can fit in my pocket."

Now, Yonnet travels with roughly 40 harmonicas — each, he says, with their own personality.

Collaborating with Fans and Music Giants

Yonnet is inviting the public into his creative process. Latest material from his working album, Reed My Lips: The Rough Cut, are downloadable from his website, where fans can comment on the music, song titles and album artwork. He plans to incorporate constructive feedback and suggestions on his final CD, and credit the people who submitted them. Yonnet expects Reed My Lips: The Final Mix to be released in 2013.

Yonnet also tells Martin about his special relationship with Stevie Wonder. The two met backstage during the 2006 Grammy Awards, when they were introduced by comedian Dave Chappelle. Yonnet says it was an extremely intimidating moment until they began talking about harmonicas, and Yonnet played one of Wonder's songs. Now, they try to play together if they happen to be in the same city, Yonnet says.

NPR's Michel Martin with harmonicist Frédéric Yonnet. i i

NPR's Michel Martin with harmonicist Frédéric Yonnet. Amy Ta/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Amy Ta/NPR
NPR's Michel Martin with harmonicist Frédéric Yonnet.

NPR's Michel Martin with harmonicist Frédéric Yonnet.

Amy Ta/NPR

Getting Health Benefits from the Harmonica

The harmonica has also helped Yonnet manage his asthma, which he grew up with.

"When you have asthma, if you forget your inhaler, that's when the monkey jumps on your back," he says, "and I realized that when that actually took place, it was easier for me to pull the harmonica out of my pocket and practice a lot harder."

Yonnet is sharing that realization with kids who have asthma, teaching them to control their breathing by using the harmonica. He's also teaching them to incorporate the instrument into music they regularly listen to, and use it in their own, creative ways.

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