From the first riffs of Carlos del Junco’s debut recording, his 1993 with Bill Kinnear simply entitled Blues, it was instantaneously obvious that he was a harmonica player of the first order. He delivered one delicate run of haunting notes after another in support of the late smoky-voiced baritone/guitarist in a straightforward, pyrotechnic-free acoustic format.
Based about an hour east of Toronto, Canada, and someone who’s enjoyed a highly successful career despite limited exposure in America, del Junco – his surname translates from Spanish as “of the reeds” – is one of the most highly decorated harp players in the world today. He’s an innovator who possesses a sound that separates him from his peers.
A master of the overblow — a skill most identifiable in the blues through the work of Adam Gussow and Jason Ricci, Carlos is such a standout that the Society For The Preservation & Advancement Of The Harmonica (SPAH) nominated him for its Bernie Bray Award as artist of the year this summer – despite the fact that he hasn’t gigged in the U.S. in years.
Like his playing style, Carlos’ path to the blues is unique. Born in Havana, Cuba, six months before Ché Guevara’s military victory at the Battle Of Santa Clara — a major turning point in the revolution against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, he’s the youngest of six children, all of whom had some sort of classical music training.
His father was an apple farmer for a while, and both his world-traveling parents had spent time in Canada previously before seeking refuge in the Toronto area when Fidel Castro assumed power. Del Junco picked up the harmonica in his early teens, leaving the classics behind. “My first love has always been blues,” he says. “And everything else comes from that.”
He listened to all of the harp masters, but the person who inspired him most was Paul Butterfield. “That first record he put out — The Paul Butterfield Blues Band with ‘I’ve Got My Mojo Working’ and ‘Thank You, Mr. Poobah,’ a really cool instrumental swing…his phrasing on that tune is spectacular — started talking to me,” Carlos says. “For my money, it’s some of the best playing he ever did.
“Then I heard Lee Oskar (of War/The Lowriders) with his great tone and being so melodic and sweet…I tried to emulate that sound. At one point, I was buying any record I could by anyone playing the harmonica. I came to Little Walter a little late – not that I didn’t have any of his records. I never really appreciated what he was doing before then. And I was also listening to progressive and jazz rock, too. Billy Cobham, Jeff Beck, Yes.
A non-traditional player himself, del Junco was attracted most to harp players who blew riffs that separated themselves from the mainstream. “Guys like Paul DeLay,” he notes. “I really like what he did. He had something unique. It was so playful. And you could tell he knew a lot about music theory. He’s my favorite chromatic player.
“And David Burgin (best known for his work with Roy Rogers). When he put out the record Wild Child in the ’80s, wow! I put up a YouTube video where I transcribed one of his solos, and it’s just killer playing.”
Del Junco debuted at a student talent night at age 14, performing two Leadbelly numbers aided by his high school math teacher on guitar. He attended Ontario College Of Art, graduated with honors and proved to be an excellent figurative sculptor, playing in a swing band with fellow students in his spare time, before moving to Italy for a year on a grant to study stone carving.
Returning to Canada, he worked for a former art teacher as a poster framer part-time, allowing the freedom to perform. In the mid-’80s, he backed guitarist Buzz Upshaw, who taught him the ropes about the music business and the blues, playing alongside a sax player who schooled him in how to play horn lines and harmonies.
Carlos’ life changed forever in the late ’80s when he enrolled in a music camp at Elkins, W.V., where he met and got to study under Howard Levy, the harmonica player credited with inventing the overblow technique. Now a jazz superstar in his own right as well as a founding member in Béla Fleck And The Flecktones, he’s also recognized as one of the best 10-hole diatonic harp players in the world.
Because of Levy’s breakthroughs, the style of play has changed more for the simple diatonic harmonica in the 20th Century than any other instrument in the world. When blues moved off the plantation, most harp players were musicians like DeFord Bailey who played with the instrument in a straightforward manner at the front of their mouths with lips pursed.
Unlike its sister instrument, the chromatic, which is double-reeded top and bottom and has a button that enables the player to play all 12 keys on a single instrument much like a piano keyboard, the diatonic is keyed to a single scale and much more limited in the tones it produces.
The sound changed dramatically when Sonny Boy Williamson and others started tongue blocking by placing the instrument as far back in their mouths as they could. That enabled them to develop techniques that alter the way air passed over the reeds, allowing them to create low draw and high blow notes not present in the instrument’s standard tuning. And it changed even more when Mojo Buford took the microphone off its stand in the late ’40s and started cupping it behind the harp with his hands, creating the sound that most aficionados enjoy as the true blues sound today.
But the most dramatic changes occurred in the early ’70s, when Levy began tinkering with diatonics, which, because of their limitations, forced players to switch instruments frequently to remain in key, sometimes within the same song. But that was before Howard discovered a workaround. He discovered a new, revolutionary way to play by making precise changes to the physical structure of the instrument. Among them, he reduced the clearance between the reed and its plate to create tighter tolerances and improved the overall level of air tightness throughout.
Now, with one of those instruments in hand, a skilled player can overblow and overbend all 10 holes of the diatonic, both top and bottom – something never possible in the past. Difficult skills to master, they enable the musician to do virtually everything on a diatonic — all 12 scales — that can achieve on its more sophisticated cousin – and, del Junco says, to do it more expressively than on a chromatic: “It’s like blowing through a prism and being able to hold all the colors in the rainbow in your hands.
“You really have to be really kinda stubborn to get into the overblow thing,” he cautions. “It’s a lot of work. Having your harp set up right, technique, musculature…everything.”
And that doesn’t take into consideration the mechanical and metal-working skills needed to refashion a stock harmonica if you prefer to do the work yourself rather than purchasing the harp from a builder.
As time as proven, there’s no doubt that del Junco was an excellent student. But he was already garnering attention before crossing paths with Levy. In 1991, he toured in the play Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing, after composing the musical score for playwright Tomson Highway. It that captured two major Canadan awards. Two years later, Carlos did the unthinkable at the Hohner World Harmonica Championships in Germany. He captured separate gold medals for blues and jazz diatonic performance.
Despite that acclaim, the old-school blues album he recorded with Kinnear followed, and, although stellar, only hinted at his development as a harp player. But his early 1995 all-electric release, , was an eye-opener to anyone with an open mind and ear for progressive harmonica.
Another release that year, the acoustic Big Road Blues with guitarist Thom Roberts, earned a Canadian Council For The Arts grant, which enabled del Junco to study at the foot of the master. For two months, he lived in Chicago, taking private instruction from Levy.
“By that time, for me, it was more about learning jazz theory and how to do things in different positions than it was about harmonica technique,” Carlos recalls. “I’d already kinda figured out how to overblow on my own.”
Like Howard, del Junco primarily plays Hohner’s Golden Melody harps, which have rounded edges, softer reeds that are encased within a plastic comb. “I started out using them because that’s what he used,” del Junco says. “Out of the box, they just seemed better for overblows. But now it’s because I like the way they feel in your hand because of the smooth edges.”
Carlos remanufactures the harps himself using techniques he picked up from another Chicagoan, Joe Filisko, the acclaimed acoustic player who’s one of the top harmonica technicians on the planet. Among the changes del Junco makes are altering the reeds for what’s called “just intonation,” which makes them sound smoother, and “equal temperament,” which enables the melody reeds to sound more harmonious when played. He also replaces the instrument’s cover plates to make it more open for brighter and louder.
Since those lessons, the awards keep flooding in. In 1996, Canada’s Blues Report Magazine tabbed del Junco as its blues musician of the year. The 1998 release, Big Boy, garnered his first Juno Award nomination for album of the year, the equivalent of an American Grammy. And he’s won Canada’s top blues honor, the Maple Blues Award, eight times as harmonica player of the year.
His forays into the U.S. have included an appearance at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, one West Coast tour with Mark Hummel’s popular Harmonica Blowout and the 2000 Harmonica Summit in Minneapolis, where he conducted a workshop and shared the stage for a performance with Levy and Toots Thielemans, the Belgian-born jazz superstar.
Fusing blues, funk, Latin, swing, ska and other themes into a cohesive package, Carlos prefers playing small concert halls rather than clubs and has toured Europe extensively. He’s recorded frequently with and been strongly influenced by Kevin Breit, the quirky, eccentric guitarist whose resumé includes work with Cassandra Wilson, Celine Dion, Nora Jones, Hugh Laurie and Rosanne Cash.
And del Junco’s most recent release, 2016’s Blues, Etc…, pairs him with a guitarist nearly half his age: Jimmy Bowskill, 27, who received his first Juno nomination as a bluesman in his early teens. It was recorded in semi-acoustic format and captured, mixed and mastered in Carlos’ living room in Port Hope, Ont. “That’s the way things are going nowadays,” he laughs, “and I learned a lot about the way things are glued together sonically…I love that challenge.”
Del Junco is an avid instructor. As you’re reading this interview, he’s conducting two workshops at Hohner headquarters in Trossingen, Germany, for the World Harmonica Festival, the new name for the event in which he won those gold medals. In addition, he’s be serving as a judge for this year’s competition before a tour of Belgium and Finland.
It’s the first time he’s hit the road in five years. “Back then, I was so sorry for myself that I was going to quit music,” he notes, recalling a time when his life was in upheaval after the demise of a long-term relationship. “But I got my wits together. It took a while, but I did.”
Plans to tour with Bowskill to promote their album were dashed because of Jimmy’s other commitments. “We wanted to tour,” Carlos recalls. “But he got snagged up by two big bands – The Sheepdogs and Blue Rodeo, a folk-rock band that’s big in Canada. So he was unavailable.
“This will be my first time getting back into it – and with a new record, too.”
Del Junco is in the finishing stages of that effort, also created at home, which will be a stripped-down acoustic trio composed of harmonica, guitar and upright bass with Breit serving as a guest artist. “It’ll be my usual potpourri of half instrumentals, half vocals,” he says, “with songs from both Canadian and American writers, two of them from Kevin.”
His forays into America remain few and far between for various reasons, however. The current political climate makes it both a chore and expense to get a visa to work in the States, he explains. “Also, I’m not interested in playing the ‘wing’ (bar) circuit.
“If I were younger, I might want to go on the road to make a name for myself. But at 59, I prefer playing quality shows at local community centers or little theaters as well as doing guest spots with other bands to have some fun and keep my chops up.”
Sadly, American audiences are really missing out. While other overblow artists are flashy and some pyrotechnic, he possesses the sweetest tone of all players using the technique today.
“It really is important for me to sound good on the instrument,” Carlos says. “While it’s possible to play in the key of F-sharp on a C harmonica — which is the farthest key you can get away from C — why bother? It’s gotta sound good. Whereas Howard and other people I know can actually do that and make it sound good, to my ear, you can still hear the overblows.”
Why not, he wonders, play those notes without overblow in different positions using traditional techniques? “My goal is to play in those key centers because they’re juicy, he adds. “The farther you play away from that key center, the less juicy the note.
“You can do some pretty cool things with overblows, but the diatonic harmonica has such a fantastic blues voice…it doesn’t matter how much music theory you’ve packed in…if you don’t study that first, you’re missing out on something.”
Fortunately for American audiences, however, virtually all of his catalog is available through online retailers. And Carlos enjoys sharing his knowledge with other players around the globe – so much so, in fact, that the literature accompanying his CDs often includes information about the key of harmonica he’s playing and the position he’s using for each song.
You can get a big taste of it through the performance and instruction videos he’s shared on YouTube and his website, www.carlosdeljunco.com. While you’re there, check out his sculptures, too! He also offers private lessons via Skype through a dedicated website, www.harmonicapractice.com.
If you’re unfamiliar with his work, check him out. He’ll be music to your ears!
Check out Carlos’ website at: www.carlosdeljunco.com
Interviewer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. His first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.