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Harmonica Blues With A 'Brand' New Beat

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Harmonica Blues With A 'Brand' New Beat

Harmonica Blues With A 'Brand' New Beat

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(SOUNDBITE OF HARMONICA MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: The bluesy riffs and the sort of wah-wah drone of the harmonica, the mouth harp, is a staple of American blues. Its sound from 1960s Memphis has influenced modern rock from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton. These days, few young artists pick it up.

Twenty-year-old Brandon Bailey is an exception and an exceptional musician. His debut album, "Memphis Grooves," brings a new take to traditional blues harmonica. Bailey uses a looping pedal that combines harmonica and beat-boxing. But he calls it harp-boxing. Brandon Bailey joins us now in Studio 4A. Welcome the program.

BRANDON BAILEY: Hello there, very glad to be here.

WERTHEIMER: So tell me, what is harp-boxing?

BAILEY: Well, harp-boxing is basically a mixture of beat boxing and harmonica playing, utilizing the lips, tongue, mouth as a percussive instrument.

WERTHEIMER: And what is this looping pedal? Could you give us a little demonstration of what looping is?

BAILEY: Sure. Well, looping, it's a way of basically playing phrases over yourself. Something like...

(SOUNDBITE OF A MUSICAL EFFECT)

BAILEY: And it starts repeating over itself. And from there I can add extra rhythm or bass, something like...

(Singing)

WERTHEIMER: And then it'll loop back.

BAILEY: Exactly.

WERTHEIMER: Huh. And at some point you add the harmonica.

BAILEY: Exactly. I sort of considerate it a modernization of the one-man band.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: The opening track of the album is an original song. It's called the "Blues Ball."

BAILEY: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: It uses the looping pedal a lot.

BAILEY: Exactly. It's sort of a showcase of the roundabout skills of harp-boxing.

WERTHEIMER: Can you do it for us?

BAILEY: Certainly, I'd love to.

(SOUNDBITE SONG, "BLUES BALL")

BAILEY: (Singing) Well, come on. Come on. Come on to get just dancing. Come on. Come on. Come on, let's have a party now. Come on. Come on. Come on, we're that sure now. Come on. Come on. Come on, the beat is smooth now. Come on. Come on. Come on, get ready. Come on. Come on. Come on, the beat's steady. Come on. Come on. Come on, let's dance now. Come on. Come on. Come on and have a blues ball.

(Singing) Well, come on. Come on. Come on to get just dancing. Come on. Come on. Come on, let's have a party now. Come on. Come on. Come on, we're that sure now. Come on. Come on. Come on, the beat is slow now. Come on. Come on. Come on, get ready. Come on. Come on. Come on, the beat is steady. Come on. Come on. Come on, let's dance now. Come on. Come on. Come on and have a blues ball.

WERTHEIMER: Brandon Bailey performed "Blues Ball" here in Studio 4A.

You know, if I hadn't seen it I wouldn't believe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Why did you decide to take such a serious look at the harmonica?

BAILEY: Well, it actually originally started from stories that my grandmother told me about my great-grandfather playing train songs and rhythms on harmonica to essentially serenade the family. And that sort of inspired me to cajole my mother into buying me a harmonica.

Got a few books from the library, started watching some instructional videos on the Internet, and that really sparked my interest in the music; especially once I became exposed to the very large history. Classic players like Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Walter Horton - that tradition of the instrument is extraordinarily important.

WERTHEIMER: Did your grandmother live long enough to hear you play like this?

BAILEY: Yes, actually my grandmother - I live with my mother and grandmother - and...

WERTHEIMER: Oh, so she's enjoying the whole thing.

BAILEY: Exactly. Definitely w one of my biggest fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAILEY: She sort of helped me to realize the power of using the harmonica, as a chordal instrument. I started off playing train music, basically...

WERTHEIMER: What? Explain train music.

BAILEY: Well, originally the grand measure of any harmonica player was expressed as your ability to play train songs and people trying to imitate the sound of a speeding train engine.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARMONICA MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: That's sort of the whistle but also the wheels.

BAILEY: Exactly.

WERTHEIMER: Did you ever find somebody who could kind of mentor you with this instrument, who could teach you?

BAILEY: I've actually found quite a few people. But originally my main mentor was actually a guy who I began watching his YouTube videos, about three years ago; a professor at old Miss University - Dr. Adam Gussow, who basically had a large series of YouTube videos or 200 videos that I studied and studied. And fortunately, as it turned out, he only lived around an hour away from me. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: You could go see him.

BAILEY: Exactly. So he eventually I've met him and at this point we worked together fairly often. And he was my original, primary mentor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERSTITION")

WERTHEIMER: You do a great cover of the Stevie Wonder classic, "Superstition," on the CD. Let's listen to the recording for just a little bit.

BAILEY: Sure.

WERTHEIMER: Am I right that that's a bit of a collaboration with your YouTube professor?

BAILEY: That's correct. Mr. Gussow is playing along with me. It's basically harmonica duo performance.

WERTHEIMER: Well, while you're working your way through this music, you're also working your way through a pre-med program

BAILEY: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: ...at the University of Memphis?

BAILEY: That's correct.

WERTHEIMER: I mean you obviously are very modern sort of musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAILEY: Basically, I don't really know very many harmonica players/doctors. But it's I'm far too heavily invested in both fields to give either one up at this point.

WERTHEIMER: What are you thinking your specialty would be?

BAILEY: Pediatric neurology.

WERTHEIMER: Well, that would be good. I would think it would help...

BAILEY: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: ...to be able to play a little music for children.

BAILEY: That'll be very good. I found that music is an extremely soothing and healing ability. So definitely, I think it would very useful.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we'd like to ask you to play us out with another song.

BAILEY: Certainly.

WERTHEIMER: Before we do though, I'd like to say thank you for coming into the studio.

BAILEY: Thank you very much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: What would you like to play?

BAILEY: There is a somewhat traditional blues song, entitled "Squat that Rabbit," that was written by one of the premier blues artist of his age, a guy named Taj Mahal.

WERTHEIMER: Okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SQUAT THAT RABBIT")

BAILEY: (Singing) Hey you, young brothers, don't you play the fool like me. You, young brothers, don't you play the fool like me. Those outside women will never let you be. Let you be. Let you be...

WERTHEIMER: That's Brandon Bailey playing "Squat that Rabbit" in NPR's Studio 4A. You can hear the full song on our web site, NPRMusic.org. Bailey's new CD is called "Memphis Grooves."

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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