Carlos del Junco and his Blues Mongrels is conducting a 14-stop tour of Western Canada this month.

Q&A with harmonica-maestro Carlos del Junco

Embarking on 14-day tour of B.C. and Western Canada

Carlos del Junco and his Blues Mongrels return to the Tidemark Theatre on Saturday, March 16 at 7:30 p.m. as part of a 14-stop tour of Western Canada.

Born in Havana, Cuba, del Junco immigrated with his family at the age of one. He bent his first note on a harmonica when he was 14, making his debut with his high school math teacher at a student talent night.

In his early 20’s del Junco was immersed in a visual arts career; he graduated with honours from a four year programme, majoring in sculpture at the Ontario College of Art.

Simultaneously sophisticated and raw, his playing blurs the boundaries between blues, jazz and “roots” music.

The emphasis is on blues, but del Junco (a fine singer as well) and his band (Eric St. Laurent on guitar, Henry Heillig on upright bass) are not afraid to merrily traipse off in other directions delivering a seamless fusion of New Orleans second line grooves, swing, ska, swampy roots rock, to singer/songwriter themes.

The Campbell River Mirror caught up with del Junco and put a few questions to del Junco…

How did you get started with the harmonica?

I was 14 when I heard a friend playing harmonica on a “rack” (what Bob Dylan and Neil Young use when accompanying themselves on the guitar). The sound of him bending a note did it for me and I immediately went out and bought my first harmonica.

Was it always for the purpose of playing the Blues or did you start somewhere else and gravitated to the Blues?

It started with the Blues and then stretched out to other genres. While buying every blues harmonica record I could find to try and learn from, I was also listening to rock and roll as a teenager, jazz fusion (mid to late 70’s), and bands like YES and other prog rockers. I’ve always had eclectic tastes and my CD releases reflect that while having a foothold in Blues.

How would you describe your personal style and how did you develop it?

As above, eclectic..! I like to marry the gut wrenching sound of an aggressive Blues style with a slightly jazzier “roots music” sound. The first Blues record I ever bought was Paul Butterfield’s very first self-titled release. After about 15 years I studied with an amazing harmonica player – Howard Levy (of Bela Fleck and The Flecktones) in the late 80’s and early 90’s – who opened me up to playing fully chromatically on a 10 hole “Blues harp.” Chromatic, meaning be able to play ALL the sharps and flats (or the same as all the black and white keys on the piano) with some advanced bending techniques.

What do you think audiences respond to when it comes to your playing?

The versatility of the sounds I can make – people tell me that I sound like everything form an electric guitar, to sax or trumpet, to violin or even bagpipes. Also, unless you are a traditional Blues fan, a lot of folks have no idea the variety of sounds and textures you can get out of a harmonica. When amplifying it the way I do for most of the live shows through a close-cupped handheld microphone the way the old Chicago Blues masters did, you get a very “electric” sound, essentially the same sonic signature you get from a slightly-distorted electric guitar. This is what can give it a thick and muscular sax like sound. People definitely respond to this!

What do you respond to when you’re performing?

The interaction of an attentive audience and finding those magic moments in a song – when I get goose bumps from my own playing, chances are very good the audience is feeling that!

How do you select material for a CD or concert tour, given the breadth of Blues material out there.

I choose music simply that speaks to me, whatever the style. Music that moves me emotionally or that has a unique rhythmic or melodic component. Whether it’s a loud rocker or a gentle ballad. On the new CD there’s everything form a Jimi Hendrix cover to a beautiful obscure instrumental by a little known but very prolific composer and instrumentalist, John Zorn. There’s definitely something for everyone.

Do you compose your own material?

I do for a few songs but I mostly interpret music I like which includes a lot of Canadian content: The brilliant Kevin Breit – who has played guitar for such artists as Nora Jones, K.D. Lang, Harry Manx, and who has played on all seven of my band CD releases – has five songwriting credits on my latest CD.

Is there a goal for your music or do you just live the moment and go where the winds take you?

The goal for me to us to just be the best that I can be, to constantly keep learning and to push the boundaries of this most unassuming instrument sometimes known as the Mississippi saxophone. The way each person enjoys music can be so subjective, but I think moving people in live performance at a visceral level is pretty universal so whether it’s a blues rocker or an intricately-arranged tune, I’m confident that we reach the vast majority of folks on all cylinders!

‘The Blues Mongrels” title is there for a reason, we mix up music genres up in a show – with a strong foothold in the blues – and it makes for a much more interesting and enjoyable evening as opposed to playing straight up blues shuffles all night.

Who are some musicians – harpists and otherwise – who inspire you?

Besides Paul Butterfield and Howard Levy mentioned above, Lee Oskar (played with the band WAR for many years), the sweetly-distorted amplified sound of Little Walter for the super traditional blues masters, and lesser-known harp master Paul Delay. However the last 15 to 20 years I get most of my musical inspiration from transcribing from piano, saxophone, and guitar solos. It’s really about the music and the melodies, and the groove first and foremost.

If you weren’t a blues harpist, what would you like to be?

Well, I was a sculptor in my 20’s and graduated from Ontario College of Arts four-year Fine Arts program in the early 80s (you can see a few sculptures here: https://www.carlosdeljunco.com/sculptures.html ) and even did a year of study in Italy learning traditional stone carving techniques with a grant I was awarded in my final year at OCA. That’s all stopped since becoming a full time musician…whats a more interesting – and challenging – way to make a decent living!? Hmmm, should I be a stone carver or a harmonica player…insert winking face here!

What kind of show can Campbell Riverites expect from you?

Some of this I already answered above. And with Eric St. Laurent on guitar and Henry Heillig on bass, I’ve often heard we sound like more than the sum of three guys playing on stage. We’ve been playing together for 12 years (Henry and I pushing 20 years) so there’s a wonderful organic synergy that’s evolved over the years between us. Eric is also a drummer so really understands how to drive the rhythm forward with his guitar playing. He’s a brilliant soloist and rhythm player and has ample time to strut his stuff on stage. Henry recorded and toured with the band Manteca for many years. Both have their own solo CD releases out and I’m very lucky to have them along for the ride. So, we’ll definitely “wow,” rock and sway everyone attending and maybe even give you a couple goose bumps along the way!

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