Blowin' in the Wind

Will the misunderstood melodica ever get any respect?

Pablo continued to create music during the '80s and '90s, never topping his early achievements while releasing album after album, all cut from the same increasingly-generic cloth. But the mystical Far East breeze blowing through each composition remains hair-raising. Probably the best introduction to his work is the 1995 Island Records retrospective, Classic Rockers. In addition to his signature tune, the spacious, delicate dub-retooling of Jacob Miller's hit "Baby I Love You So," the pinnacle of the collection (and maybe the most transcendent melodica moment ever) is Pablo's rarity "Jah in the Hills," a magical instrumental that forever links Pablo to the melodica as closely as Louis Armstrong is to the trumpet. More than 40 albums had been issued under his name by the time he died of a nerve disorder in 1999 at the age of 46.

"Augustus Pablo is one of my all-time favorites of any genre," gushes Calvin Johnson, the eccentric impresario behind the groups Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic Sound System and owner of the Pacific Northwest's dynamic independent label, K Records. "I have almost every record he's ever made. He's definitely one of my idols."

But Johnson, who began adding the melodica to his recordings about six years ago after a punk fashion, doesn't consider himself qualified to become the instrument's spokesman. "Oh, I don't feel like I know anything about it," he says softly. "I just make it up as I go along. I just really enjoy playing it."

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

Listen for Johnson's buoyant blasts on his albums Echoes from the Scene Control Room, with passages reminiscent of Pablo fronting the JB's, and Boot Party, a showcase for more dubby, funky fun. Johnson also employs some of the same production values heard on Pablo's seminal '70s work. "I take a lot of inspiration from the fact that a lot of his best records were recorded on the most primitive equipment," he says.

But Johnson claims never to have heard of Bernard Sumner, the vocalist-guitarist for the British new-wave stalwarts of New Order. That's odd, considering New Order's significant cultural reach, and the fact that one of the group's biggest radio hits ever, 1985's "Love Vigilantes," begins with a bleating fanfare from Sumner's melodica. Some of the band's most evocative songs, like the placid, gorgeous "Your Silent Face," depend heavily upon Sumner's melodica melodies for their emotional impact.

Blissfully unaware of Pablo, Sumner, or any other contemporary practitioner for that matter is Ukrainian classical musician Mikhail Alperin. Long championing the indigenous music of the former Soviet Union, including the throat singers of Tuva, angelic Russian choirs, and Moldavian jazz, Alperin is as much a collector and theorist as he is a musician: He has a collection of 15 melodicas from around the world. "I know everything about melodicas!" he crows in his thick accent. "I can show you!"

Alperin explains that his first melodica was "a Weltmeister -- an old shit melodica. It was almost impossible to find good melodica in Russia. When I started to travel in the West, I look for them. My first good melodica was made by Seiko. It was very small, yellow, made of plastic. With a beautiful tone. I have [it] at home still."

The list doesn't end there. The number of melodica players is growing. The Hooters named themselves after the instrument. Smashing Pumpkins used one on their song "Glynis." Scottish group the Wannadies play around with one, as does Toronto reggae/rock band Big Sugar. Psychedelic pop darlings the Apples in Stereo are using the melodica more and more, from the sound of it. You never know where one will turn up. Still, it's hard to locate a nexus of melodica players sharing stories, songs, experiences. "It's just a child's instrument, a kid's toy," explains Alperin. "That's why people don't pay attention."

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