“When I want sax, I call Candy” was how Prince once famously described his admiration for the musical abilities of Candy Dulfer. At Bonn Folk Club John Harrison might well say the same for Paolo Pacifico and his Harmonica. The familiar sight of Paolo ambling calmly from his pint at the bar to pull a C harp out of his top pocket and nonchalantly ‘just join in’ is deceptive. I suspected that you can only ‘just join in’ if you really know what you’re doing, so I figured there was a story behind Paolo’s seemingly effortless appearances – and I was right. Here it is. Enjoy!
“Trento lies in a wide glacial valley called the Adige Valley just south of the Alps foothill range Dolomite Mountains” Wikipedia paints a pretty picture of your hometown Paolo – certainly not somewhere to get the Blues. What are your early musical memories there? Did you hear music through your parents?
Oh yes, lots of skiing, mountains, lakes in the summer, hence… not much room for the blues, I am afraid. There was a fair bit of music in my family, yes. Memories of my mum singing Autumn Leaves – she told me that this was also the very first organized sound she heard coming out of my vocal cords. I remember much piano played by my grandad and two aunties, but above all it was the singing. There is a big tradition of choir music in our Dolomites region. Dad and two uncles were part of the renowned Coro della SAT, and two aunties were singing in other choirs. I was part of a sort of a local version of the Grand Ole Opry, and music to me equalled harmony singing. On car trips with dad and mum and my younger brother we sung the folk songs of the Coro, and also…John Brown, My Bonnie, Ghost Riders… Just like that Carl Perkins/Johnny Cash song (daddy is actually a bass singer hahah, still at 93). So I am more of an Alpine hillbilly you see, not quite the Delta blues guy… My brother Michele sings in an Alpine choir in Milan (they were actually singing in Cologne last week) but I grew up following a different music path.
Who/What were you listening to as a teenager?
At 12 I was only listening to bits of symphony (Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mendellsohn…) until I found a few 45s records at home… Pat Boone, Platters, Eddie Fisher, Henri Salvador, cowboy songs… But then there was The Golden Gate Quartet LP, spiritual and gospel, something powerful and almost scary, that tickled my curiosity for a different music and also for the English language. Another LP was Afro-American bass singer and blacklisted activist Paul Robeson. Dad and my uncle had seen him singing a cappella and with no microphone in a crowded main square in Prague, when their choir performed at the 1st International Youth Festival in 1947. Then, at 14 my older cousin gave me an LP from his collection: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.. Later I discovered a Folkways American Folk Box collection at a friend’s house. Yes there was some Sonny Terry in it, but I did not pay any mind, because I was totally into the folk songs then.
How did you become involved in actually playing music? and why specifically the harmonica?
As a kid I wanted to learn classical piano, but thank God no one in my family took me seriously. They probably saved my life, musically speaking. My brother started learning guitar and I started strumming on it too, inspired by Bob Dylan and the others. Inevitably, listening to Dylan meant I got to buy a harmonica rack and a Hohner Blues Harp in A. I was never able to play the damn thing though, especially together with a guitar. However, through full immersion in Dylan’s lyrics and taking classes, at least I had started speaking English.
We were all already 18 when a friend drummer insisted that I joined their high-school rock band. They did not have anyone that could credibly sing in English, plus I had a harmonica or two and a guitar. After the first rehearsal it was understood that my guitar playing sucked, but I could stay if I sung – oh, and maybe I could play some harmonica. I guess that answers your question “why specifically harmonica”… “Friday” was the name of the band and we stayed together for 15 years, playing rock-blues covers and a handful of original songs, doing gigs regularly. Alongside the harmonica and vocals I starting playing tenor sax… percussion.. keyboards with one hand … You gotta have fun after all!
Your harp playing at Bonn Folk Club with John Harrison is usually very laid back , but there is some footage on the internet of you playing a Festival in Trento with Charley Deanesi that really knocked me out. Especially the high energy Rock Blues parts. Tell me about the Festival – on a bill with Dr John and topped by BB King I believe which sounds pretty cool…
When you hear me play with John at FC Bonn, it is 90 percent unplanned, unrehearsed and improvised. This is great fun and actually fits my idea of music as “laid-back kid playing in the sandbox” situation. John leads and I follow. With Charley in the duo Dos Equis though the dynamics were quite different. I lead all the vocal parts, Charley comes from funky electric guitar and provides great rhythm and terrific vocal harmonies on top. After playing 15 years and more than 500 shows together, well.. everything is tight together and falls into place pretty much on its own…
In 2004 Dos Equis played two different festivals as the opening act to The Original Blues Brothers Band. Original members on that 2004 tour were Steve Cropper, Lou Marini and Alan Rubin, plus among others John Tropea on guitar, Leon Pendarvis on keyboards and a great singer and harmonica friend of mine Rob Paparozzi from NY city. He had heard us play previously and had proposed us as opening act to “the Colonel” and we got his clearance … We did not dare play our cover of Sitting on the Dock of the Bay that night though… Eddie “Knock on Wood” Floyd was with the band too, a legend and a real gentleman. The festival also featured BB King and Dr. John with his Lower 911 combo. We opened both nights, so we got to hang out with Dr. John and his musicians too. He told us we had a good groove and gave us two bottles of red wine too… I hope I find that picture that tells it all…
It must have gone down well brcause the Blues Brothers management asked us to open for them at the Moncalvo festival in Piedmont too (Western Italy Piedmont region, not Eastern US. The video you mention is actually from the Moncalvo festival.
On the subject of your electric Blues playing at the Festival there is also a picture of you onstage with Sugar Blue – a harp player most famous for his contribution to The Stone’s ‘Miss You’. Was that also at the Briasco Festival? Did you pick up any useful tips from him?
That was not on that festival. We had played with Sugar Blue on a different event, in a theater. I think it was actually his concert, we opened and then we played some together. I remember talking with him pleasantly before the show about one of his first records that I had liked a lot, and warming up together backstage. We opened for many acts in those days, in theaters, open air and clubs. I remember with harp players Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone, Paul Orta. Songwriters Elliott Murphy, Tom Rush, Ginger Leigh. Bluegrass act Kathy Kallick. A few Italian artists. Also The Them would you believe it? … well, I hope at least one original member was still there…!
I have to ask, having seen that electrifying performance from 2004, it reminds me very much of players like Kim Wilson and Mark Feltham. Would you like to be playing like that, in a Bluesy, west coast Rock electric environment again?
I had started playing amplified and loud even before I could play proper harmonica, and I did it regularly for more than 15 years, so why not? I do not miss loading and unloading those big Fender Bassman and Leslie amplifiers though. hahaha.. But the kick sure is great. I remember also playing electric with a big band, that was something too. I did a bit of musical theater, singing, acting, dancing. In a couple of them I was doing harmonica too, on and off scene. Great fun too.
You even went into the studio with Charley Deanesi to record as Dos Equis. Tell me about the recording of ‘Sonora Soul’, I’ve heard it on Spotify and it’s a great little disc – why didn’t it get a proper release?
Charley as professional musician had gained great recording studio experience and he did the production of Sonora Soul. He loved and believed in what we were doing as Dos Equis and we had started composing a few songs. A publishing company showed interest, brought us in the studio and we did the master. As often happens unfortunately they kept it there, and never got to release and distribute it.
When did you come to Germany? – and did you link up with other musicians over here straight away?
I moved to Bonn in 2006. Music was not my priority though at the time but I looked around, went to gigs, met nice people who played, got on stage occasionally, had a drink together. I find cute how in Germany the word “session” means actually bring-your-own band, and no jamming together. I was spending more time on international travels than in Bonn so I often hooked up with other musicians in other cities. I remember playing at a jam with a bass player in Berkeley, and then the next day recording harmonica on one of his songs in the bathroom of my motel. Great fun – and great reverb I must say.
Then of course you met up with John Harrison. Tell me a little of when and how you met. What attracted you to playing music alongside John?
Somebody brought me up to the Folk Club in Graurheindorf. I saw John playing a few numbers and I boldly thought “maybe I could manage to play along”. I met him and he is such a nice guy, and then he asked me to play. I said “well you sure must be kidding, I have not brought-my-own band with me, just one harmonica!” but he said “That’s Okay”. Thus…just as Androcles pulled the thorn from the lion’s paw, and the lion followed him. John pulled the C harmonica out of my pocket and here we are, you see?
The two of you do a largely traditional Roots Blues set. Is it important to you to keep the old Delta style alive? I think with John’s anecdotes about the music and original musicians it would make a marvellous touring show – maybe even for schools – that would promote learning a musical instrument. Any thoughts on that?
We talked about it. As much as I enjoy, love and respect Delta and traditional blues, I do not see myself in such project. I see this maybe more as an open group of FCB musicians proposing different styles, not only blues. John is the right leader for it and I would be happy to participate occasionally.
I mentioned Kim Wilson and Mark Feltham earlier. Who are your harp heroes past and present?
I love Kim Wilson’s playing and actually Mark Feltham was my third harmonica hero. I saw Nine Below Zero in August 1980 at the 100 Club in London – they had just recorded their ‘Live at the Marquee’ the week before. I had just started playing harmonica that year with a similar quartet so that disc was pure gold to me ….his harp playing together with Dennis Greaves’ accent got me! In time I managed to understand what Mark Feltham does on that record. I still don’t understand half of that Cockney jive though.. My second harmonica hero was Andy J. Forest, an American player active in Italy in the 80s, now a New Orleans resident. Very nice guy and the one who gave me the basic and most useful hints.
My first harmonica hero though is undoubtedly Paul Butterfield. I had one week to prepare for a test at the university. I spent that week with the tape recorder and a C harmonica, studying hard what Butterfield had done in the introduction of Little Walter’s ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’, in front of 500,000 people at Woodstock. Next Monday I had not passed the test, but I had started a good journey in music..
Of course I love the masters of blues harmonica too (Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, Sonny Terry, to name three) but …. do I really need to say it by now?.. I am not a blues harp player! …well I am blues oriented… I did not even mean to be a harp player… I always liked and listened to harmonica players – blues or not – who were singers too and who eventually played more and beyond blues. With one outstanding exception: Magic Dick – when he played with the J. Geils Band. My main influence when I was playing electric rock-blues.
Present harmonica heroes? I guess I do not listen to harmonica players much nowadays to mention heroes, but Adam Gussow, Jason Ricci, my friend Rob Paparozzi… Charley Musselwhite exactly for being Charley Musselwhite…
Who is the biggest influence on your own playing?
If I have to name one, then Norton Buffalo. We had been in touch for years but we never met in person. We were almost meeting in Germany, sadly he died before that happened.
I love the showmanship of the best players. Sonny Boy playing with a whole harp literally inside his mouth… have you tried that? You often play a line or two through a beer glass, did you get that idea from anyone?
Harp in mouth?, Rick Estrin can do that Sonny Boy trick well. I do chord rhythm with the harp lengthwise in my mouth, sometimes when I need both hands for a percussion… I’ve seen a few playing through a glass, Andy Forest was probably the first. When playing in bars with the electric band, I started roaming around and sometimes drinking up friend’s drinks then playing in their glass. You do not want to play that trick with everybody, of course…!
Harmonicas have pretty well disappeared from the musical map onstage these days. Certainly not seen in the pop charts, and not even one in the recent British Folk Awards I saw recently. Yet there was a time when the likes of Larry Adler made them a valid Jazz instrument. Is there a place for the humble Blues Harp in music these days?
Hm..I find “blues harp” a narrowing definition and state of mind. There is always a place for “the harmonica”, be it diatonic (the so called “blues harp”) or chromatic (the one Larry Adler, Toots Thielemans, Stevie Wonder play). I am not sure there is much wider place in music for “the blues harpist” though… from the content of our conversation I am sure you understand what I mean by that.
But..I saw recently someone winning one of those TV prime time talent shows playing harmonica beatbox, so you never know..
For the harp players reading this, what make do you use, how many do you own, and most importantly, do you soak your reeds in anything? (although I believe Will Wilde told me most harps have synthetic reeds nowadays!)
I am not really fussy.. I have gathered many harmonicas during all these years and there’s a bit of every brand. I am still playing a few Hohner 20, Golden Melody and Marine Band that I used at the beginning. It is not difficult to keep them working with basic maintenance. Golden Melody were my favourite when I played single note amplified, less good for acoustic chord and octave playing though. I was a Hohner demonstrator in Italy at one time, and that provided enough free harmonicas for my needs… I play Huang from People’s Republic of China.. a couple of Bandmaster from DDR… Hering from Brazil… Lee Oskar from US.. Suzuki from Japan/Taiwan.. wooden comb, plastic comb.. Generally my working C harp is some toy/low price harmonica that I saw in some window whilst travelling. I buy it, I open it, do some basic fixes and it ends up to be the one I use regularly. Do not quote me on that with serious harmonica players though..
I have a couple of pre-WWII harmonicas I found on flea markets, a Hohner 16-hole chromatic harmonica still with the 6-pointed star on it.
I use the usual standard Richter tuning, although I have experimented with altered tunings sometimes. I am not really up to date when it comes to the last models and technologies in harmonicas, I actually never tried plastic reeds, only alloys. Anyway, cleaning the reedplates with isopropyl alcohol makes sense, but soaking the whole harmonica in beer or whiskey or even plain water does no good and belongs more to those “blues harpist” campfire stories.
Finally, like many people at Bonn Folk Club, it’s always a pleasure to hear you and John Harrison playing old classics together. Having discovered your songwriting/playing past and also that John put together a disc ‘Blues to make your ice water’, have the two of you thought about writing new material and even perhaps making a contemporary CD? There are plenty of pledge websites available for raising money for such projects and I’m sure plenty of people who would be interested in such a collaboration.
Well thank you indeed John. I certainly enjoyed playing only John Harrison’s material recently, for once and instead of that same old boring blues (hahah just kidding of course). We haven’t talked of doing anything new together, but why not?
Thanks for the chat Paolo. Do you and John have any shows planned for the Summer that I can give a mention to?
Oh yeah, we are Ur-jazzmen now. We are trying to convince a local festival promoter that what we are playing is protohistoric jazz.. Yes, that it was there way long before the People-With-The-Long-Music-Stands invaded the stages and dictated and Autumn Leaves became the Code…. We’ll see how it goes and will keep you posted, John.
*** Latest – You can catch Paolo and John at The Fiddlers in Endenich on 28 July ***
Meanwhile, here’s a taster from 2014 of the duo in action: