Exclusive Interview with Martin Chemes
How did you discover the bluesharp ?
~ My first encounter with a bluesharp was at 17, I went to a friend's house and he had an old Tremolo harmonica in his desk that belonged to his grandfather. It caught my eye the minute I laid eyes on it and when I played it, I was fascinated with the sound it made. I had the feeling of making music from that very first moment. I had been studying piano and guitar before that first encounter with the harmonica, without much success and without really connecting with any of those instruments. My friend gave me his old Tremolo and I spent the whole weekend playing nonstop. With the little musical knowledge, I had at the time, I noticed that it was a bit out of tune. So next Monday I went to a music shop and they suggested I should start with a diatonic in the key of C. I could only afford a pretty cheap model made in China and so I began to stumble a bit with this wonderful instrument not realizing I was fully in love with it.
If everything would be possible (waking the dead included), which bluesharp player would you invite for a jam session?
~ I've been lucky enough so far to be able to play with the greatest of this instrument, harp players such as Lee Oskar, Jerry Portnoy, Adam Gussow, Joe Filisko, among others. In that regard I've been truly blessed, but without a doubt I would've loved to have the possibility to play with Hugo Diaz, an Argentinean harmonica player that is still an icon of this instrument from my country, as much in tango as in folklore all around the globe. He was truly loved in Europe and the US for his chromatic harmonica. Sadly, Hugo passed away in 1977, but he left us a great legacy. Here in Argentina we celebrate the "Harmonica player's day" on August 10th, in honor of his birthday.
What is your favorite bluesharp brand / type and tell us why?
~ My favorite brand is Lee Oskar Harmonicas and my favorite model is the "Melody Maker" tuning. Aside from having the honor of being a featured artist for this brand for over 10 years, it's the brand I've been using since my early stages... Almost 20 years now.
I believe the brighter sound (tuned for 441 plus), the volume, response and the tuning precision for single-note lead playing (Equal Tuning by octaves) are some of the reasons that, in my opinion, make it the best one in the market. The fact that its creator, Lee Oskar, is one of the most prominent musicians of this instrument's history; it is something you can really tell when you look at the details in its design. Details that only some heavy-duty users would contemplate. As for the "Melody Maker" tuning, I believe it's the most intuitive harmonica, since the melody is a step ahead of the technique.
What are the most important tips you can give to someone who wants to learn to play the bluesharp?
~ PLAY! Play all the time and enjoy it, that's first and foremost. You should always carry it with you, take advantage of this instrument's size, it's unrivaled. On a second note, you should take lessons with a teacher for basic techniques on playing the harp. But you should always strive to make music out of it, something that makes you feel good. Don't let techniques grind you down and make you forget about music, melodies, chords and rhythm. Those things come first, even before a bending, overbending, vibrato, etc.
Tongue blocking or lip pursing, what do you prefer and tell us why.
~ As my dear US colleague James Craven says: "I'm a pucker boy", hahaha. I usually play lip pursing most of the time, it's where I feel most comfortable. It's where I'm nimble on the harp, especially on the high notes. But sometimes I do use my tongue for techniques like tongue blocking octaves, tongue warbling and slapping.
Give us the 3 most important albums every (beginning) blues harp player must buy.
~ 1) Lee Oskar - Lee Oskar | (1975)
2) Four - Blues Traveler (John Popper) | (1994)
3) So much in love - Lee Oskar | (1997)
How do you clean your harps?
~ I try to protect it most from my own saliva, I'm very careful that it doesn't gets to it. Saliva flow, swallowing on time as well as proper blowing are two fundamental steps to proper care for this instrument, so it won't deteriorate as much and require less maintenance.
Something equally important is to store it in its case afterwards, to protect it from dust. Outside of that the only clean-up I do is with alcohol-based gel and tissue paper over the comb and the cover plates once I'm finished playing, before storing them properly.
What is the question interviewers never seem to ask you and...you wish they would? (Please provide your answer as well.)
~ An interesting question could be: What would be your biggest aim to achieve through music and the harmonica? I have two answers to that question as a musician and a harmonica teacher. As a teacher, my biggest desire is that people get to know this awesome instrument and to use it as a resource for connecting with music actively and creatively.
As a musician, I would like to explore all the sounds and textures that this instrument offers by trying the different musical genres and fusions.
Describe the ultimate recording studio (not the technique but the facilities)
~ I was lucky to record in prestigious and important studios and was able to work with excellent sound engineers. When recording, it is better to feel at ease, recreate your own home's comfort. That's why, home studios have grown a lot lately. I recorded in several occasions while being at my own living room. I strongly recommend that harmonica players implement this: it is great to have your own recording studio at home!
Are you still nervous before going on stage and if so, do you use any "rituals" to calm you nerves?
~ Of course! If I ever don't get that anxiety prior to a show, I would probably need to change profession (laughs). In my case, I play some melody that is not related to the show repertoire in order to relax. I suggest doing this, it actually works!
What was the most memorable day in your musical career?
~ This is absolutely the toughest question. I had several memorable moments while participating in international festivals and workshops in different countries. I had the opportunity to take part as a teacher in the Midwest Harmonica Workshop in Chicago, USA, together with great colleagues such as Joe Filisko, Adam Gussow, Dennis Grueling, James Conway and Dov Hammer (Israel). Moreover, I played at the Chicago Blues Festival which was an awesome experience and had the chance to play the harp together with Lurrie Bell in Argentina and USA.
However, being able to play together with Lee Oskar, who is my biggest mentor since I was young, is without doubt the most memorable moment in my career. In my opinion, Lee Oskar is the harmonica player who changed history. My very first vinyl record that I listened to when I was 17 was Lee Oskar's first album. He visited Argentina in two occasions: 2016 and 2018, to play at the festival that I organize every year: The Rosario International Harmonica Festival. We played together and went on a tour across the country. I have also the opportunity to play with him in Seattle in 2017. We have established a friendly relationship across these years thanks to music and through it. These are those lovely moments that life gives you, the music, the harmonica...
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Answers given on October 19, 2019
Photos by Bongi Dominguez (top) and Agustina Paganini (bottom)