Blowin' in the Wind

Will the misunderstood melodica ever get any respect?

Woe unto the lowly melodica. Why must it be consigned to the Fisher-Price page in the annals of great instruments? I can handle the nicknames: The pocket piano, toot-flute, blow accordion, wind piano, melodeon, melodyhorn, pianaca, and hooter all offend me not. But it still is shocking -- shocking! -- that, despite its contributions to some of the last quarter-century's greatest music, the melodica is forgotten, overlooked, or worse, simply laughed at.

The melodica is a polyphonic wind instrument invented by the Hohner company in the 1960s. It is almost always fashioned of plastic. It features a free reed system with a mouthpiece, air chamber, and keyboard and is played by blowing air through the mouthpiece. Playing one note at a time produces a sound very similar to that of a harmonica; two or more notes at a time brings forth an accordionlike blast. Best of all, it requires no electricity and is completely portable. Yet not many people seem to know much about the instrument, which was long considered a children's toy. Even more curious, the vast majority of those who do play the melodica seem to know very little about it.

For instance, when I began work on this story, I sent an e-mail to prominent musicians in South Florida and asked if they could lead me in the direction of an indigenous melodica player. In addition to several straightforward nos, I encountered several folks who had never heard of the instrument and another who suggested I contact a grammar school music teacher.

Calvin Johnson and his button-key, two-octave, Hohner soprano melodica
Calvin Johnson and his button-key, two-octave, Hohner soprano melodica

But eventually I saw a few people performing around town who played a Hohner H32 or L34, two of the most popular models. One was Oliver Chapoy, a multi-instrumentalist hired by the Rocking Horse Winner last fall to contribute additional guitar, vibraphone, and various odds and ends to the act. When I saw him with a melodica one evening at Churchill's Hideaway in Miami, I told him that I played the melodica, was fascinated with it, and inquired if he'd want to be interviewed in connection with a story about the instrument. Our chat lasted about five seconds. "I don't really know much about it," he said. "It's just that I can play anything with a keyboard."

Hmm. Lucky for me there's another melodica master in town. Jeff Rollason of the Curious Hair can be heard tooting away on the band's recent Say Hello to Happiness CD. But when I contact him, he's positive that he doesn't want to talk about the melodica, swearing that he can't think of anything interesting, illuminating, or enlightening to say about it.

As frustrating as my quixotic quest has become, I understand exactly what he means. What can you say about something you just put up to your mouth and blow through? No one goes to Juilliard to practice the melodica. Eddie Van Halen provides no glossy magazine endorsement. And even though Rollason is preparing to make the melodica a prominent part of his upcoming project called Telekinasshole, he's less than educated about the best-known melodica players around the globe. For instance he was unaware of Augustus Pablo, the late maestro of the melodica, patron saint of the plastic keyboard flute.

Augustus Pablo was only 15 years old when he began playing the melodica in the Havendale region of Kingston, Jamaica. After he ran into record-store owner and occasional record producer Herman Chin-Loy and plied him with his minor-key melodies, the two became fast friends. Both were Jamaicans of half-Chinese heritage, and Chin-Loy suggested to a friend who was moving from the island that he leave behind his nom de plume to his young apprentice. The departing musician did so, and young Horace Swaby assumed the name Augustus Pablo in 1971.

What followed was nothing less than a redefinition of the melodica, which Pablo seamlessly wove into the tapestry of dub music, just coming into its own at the time. His plaintive, expressive playing developed what Pablo and Chin-Loy called the Far East Sound, which became synonymous with giving thanks to Jah not with words but with the reedy tone and haunting strains of the melodica. That doesn't mean, however, that Chin-Loy possesses any insight into the melodica's mystery.

"I really don't know nothing about the melodica," insists Chin-Loy, who now operates a reggae vinyl store in Perrine. "I just saw that it was something nobody was using in reggae at that time, and I saw that it could be used. And that's the only thing that I know about the melodica."

During the 1970s Pablo was one of reggae's most prolific artists. Though other Jamaican musicians took up the instrument as well, including Peter Tosh and Glen Brown, Pablo made the melodica the centerpiece of all his songs, of which there are plenty. With hundreds of singles and a dozen albums released during the '70s, Pablo was as well-known in reggae circles as Bob Marley. More important, Pablo deified the instrument. From its beginnings as something impossible to take seriously, Pablo made it soar heavenward.

His early material is especially inspired, including his 1970 debut, Rebel Rock Reggae, and 1975's King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown. His work with King Tubby, one of dub's progenitors, is stunning -- thunderclap bass grooves, echoing guitar shards, ping-ponging snare drums -- all topped with the nimble, reedy birdcall of Pablo's melodica. Today the fruits of this pivotal collaboration can still be heard as the framework of the music of the Orb and Massive Attack, to name but two.

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