Interview with Harmonica Slim (Beppe Semeraro) - one of the best Italian and real blues harmonica player

"Blues teach me how to give a look deep inside yourself and the other people, it gives me the meaning to stay in a real touch with people and their humanity."

Harmonica Slim: Breathing The Blues Life

Harmonica Slim (alias known as Beppe Semeraro) is one of the best Italian harmonica player, a real blues harptist. He was born 1959 in Milano, from southern origin and start playin’ harp early about thirteen. His father used to listen to some good music with jazz, blues and boogie, so it was easy for Beppe to prepare his ears and educate them. When he was 20, after many garage rehearsal with his school friends, and good musician since then, started makin’ gigs in his town. He was lucky because at that time there were not many blues bands. Blues was not well known and bluesmen were really a few. First, was fascinated by guitar, then by drums. Finally, found his personal way with the harp. In this small blues community from the late seventies it was easy for him to meet quite the best players at that time.

This allow to join in a good management staff that made touring the whole Italy up and down until 1982. Then met Max De Bernardi, this year semi-finalist at I.B.C. in Memphis and start to play with him a countless number of gigs in Italy and Switzerland, first with an electric Chicago Style band then, mostly with acoustic country blues, ragtime, piedmont duo. He made two CDs with him 2001 and 2004. In 1992 went to U.S.A. for a short trip: Chicago, Austin, New Orleans, to improve playin’ and had the occasion to play with some talented and well known artists. Beppe says: "I’m not a singer, but anyway I play my fifty to sixty gigs a year, that must improve now, since I lost my full time job months ago. In Italy is really difficult to make your day playin’ (and the blues only!), but that’s what I want to do and try now, after loosin’ my job months ago". During this 36 years he opened gigs and or played with a lot of great musicians: Sonny Terry, John Primer, Junior Wells, Pinetop Perkins, Oliver Morgan, Gary Primich, Lurrie Bell, RJ Mischo, Tabby Thomas, Billy Branch, Mark Hummel, Bob Brozman, Henry Gray, Les Getrex, Bob Margolin, Sandra Hall, Big Daddy Wilson, just to name a few. He took part on several seminars and workshops, regarding breath technics.     (Photo by Cristina Molteni)

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Blues teach me how to give a look deep inside yourself and the other people, it gives me the meaning to stay in a real touch with people and their humanity. Do you remember Brownie Mc Ghee? “Blues is truth”, ‘cause it talks about true life, everyday feelings, about the Man, about yourself. If a person says “I don’t like the blues”, be only afraid he’s not able to face it, to face himself, his inner condition.

How do you describe Harmonica Slim sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

In a few words a traditional sound and repertoire both acoustic and amplified, Piedmont or Chicago, with a strong attention on expression! A sound runnin’ between mostly two colors: amazing and deep.

"Harmonica is the most connected to life musical instrument, ‘cause it’s the only one that makes a sound whether you breath in or out!" (Photo by Cristina Molteni)

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

People can’t leave without water, food, light. Blues it’s a so radical need that everyone has it inside, his own way, whether they recognize it or not, look /listen at it or not. It’s up and down popularity and devoted following, depends only on how many people in a certain period, at the same time, are conscious of this. There is always someone, that’s the reason why the blues will never die. Blues is in the everyday life. A FACT! A PRESENCE, you don’t have to believe it or not. It’s like a new day that comes after the night.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Great artists that I met, never really gave me a real advice but with their behaviors on stage and out they show me something, each different and meaningful. I was lucky to meet such artists as: Sonny Terry, “teach” me how to breath – I realized it while I was playin’ with him watchin’and hearin’ at him! We were seated side by side. Junior Wells for the importance of the silence in music, on when to play and when not to. Bob Brozman for the absolute creativity and the sound, not only with the instrument, but with the whole body. Woody Mann for havin’ great measure and elegance. Impossible for me to say the best. A good musician need to work on all these qualities.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss The tone of the instruments, sometimes a particular beat, floating from one to another, the authentic touch and the accent of some real shuffle master. The absolute blues feeling, not a mixed one. Only few new things today, have a great respect of the authentic groove. The fear is about forgettin’, because everyone now talks only about the future, but to me the future is nothin’ that an extension of the past. So, if you really wish to create a good future, take care of your past, understand it, dig it and take care. Inside the memory of the past there are all the ingredients to make a good NOW than a better future.

"The more I breathe, the more I feel alive. Breathing is life. It’s the first thing we do, once out in the world. We express everything through it." (Photo: Harmonica Slim jammin' with Sonny Terry)

Are there any memories from Sonny Terry, Junior Wells and Pinetop Perkins which you’d like to share with us?

Sonny gave me a direct encouragement, after one of his gig in a beautiful theater, a Bugle Call harp in E! I was introduced to him by a photographer and a friend, a Chicago born harp player who lives in Italy. So he ask me to play something from his repertoire…and he liked it! At that moment I was searching an A harp, So I asked him that key – I was nervous …with my bad English, I was only 21 and normally you only say thanks!!! But he was so kind and he gave me anyway the key that I asked for after funny misunderstandings for pronounce!! I still have it with me and it’s still sounding good! (1980/81)

Junior Wells, after a show I opened for him, he wanted me to play a tune together, before his start. He said he liked my way of playin’ and “now you play the harp and I sing only”…Brrr I was nervous again, because I was searchin’ someone to take a picture of us together, but no one was around, I mean so close to us and I forget to ask later in the audience!!! No internet or FB at that time 1995! After his concert I showed him a signature he did for me after a gig he had in Milan sixteen years before. I can’t forget his smile…and comment, with a pen to the first signature and dedication: “To my best friend, love you”. It’s at home!!!

Pinetop, I was introduced to him by a sound technician, who knew me from the past editions I had played there, during a Blues Festival in Switzerland. So I was invited to play – lucky me! - and soon  I was afraid that he would have said CIAO after the first song, but he liked my harp and asked me to stay for at least six or seven more songs. You can imagine how much it helps! The kind of things that I call “inner medal”, you don’t have to wear it every minute, but you know it really happened.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Less Jealousy, that means more collaboration between musicians, but first of all a strong self- selection ability, I mean to know exactly how much you are valid before acting.

"People can’t leave without water, food, light. Blues it’s a so radical need that everyone has it inside, his own way, whether they recognize it or not, look /listen at it or not." (Photo by Luca Barovier)

Make an account of the case of the blues in Italy. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Every time of the year you have something, of course more open air festivals in spring-summer, and clubs/pubs in autumn winter. I think quite the same as everywhere else. In quantity, not in quality. Maybe I’m too critic, but the problem is that we have many potential places to play, but not that much culture on how to do it, and most of the owners are not really blues fans, they just try to sell more beer… so you feel this difference once in the club !

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from United States and UK to Italy?

We have few people here in Northern Italy, connected with good U.S.A. artists and they managed, until now, to bring them in Italy for tours, - less from UK, I really don’t know - USA artists generally like a lot comin’ to Italy for many reasons, they are appreciated, -both black and white young or old - sometime overestimated -and we have plenty of fine blues musicians here that they ask for comin’ there with them. So sometimes we meet each other, have contacts, open gigs ... Unfortunately, a lot from the old school are dying now!

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Every night you see flyers or advertising with Blues Bands, then you come for a visit, ‘cause you’re curious to find a new talented young guitar, bass, drums and piano player, but once in the club they play something that has really nothing to do with THE BLUES!

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of Mississippi Sax?       Photo by Cristina Molteni

Secrets are many! Because it’s another VOICE, another expression, for your inner condition, but its music and it doesn’t need words. To me, harmonica is the most connected to life musical instrument, ‘cause it’s the only one that makes a sound whether you breath in or out! I wrote it on my first cd: the more I breathe, the more I feel alive. Breathing is life. It’s the first thing we do, once out in the world. We express everything through it. So everytime I play it “remember” me deep inside my cells I’m alive, it makes me happy, conscious and grateful. The harmonica is QUITE easy, simple to carry and produces a lot of healthy harmonic sound that help the balance in everyone. When I say quite easy I mean you learn 1 to 5 in just one year –in a scale of ten - 5 to 7 in in ten years, 7 to 10 is a never ending story!!! And if u like secrets in life you must play Mississippi saxophone!

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I really can say a special one….Any juke joint down in any place of the rural south in the U.S.A., in the late forties and every Blues club in Chicago, east-west side, in Maxwell street, in Memphis, or Atlanta in the late fifties to breath the atmosphere of the time and take the opportunity to play and learn directly from the greatest men in the blues.

Harmonica Slim - Official website

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