Interview with Norwegian harmonica player Richard Gjems - specializing in acoustic blues, folk and jazz

"The blues as historical specific genre is born out of the Afro-American experience of creating musical hope, wonder and catharsis in a period of extreme racial suppression. That is the roots of the blues and should never be forgotten or under-communicated."

Richard Gjems: Let The Music Breath

Richard Gjems is a harmonica player specializing in acoustic blues, folk music and jazz. Richard has been a prolific musician on the Norwegian scene since the late 1990s. He has played on numerous records in different genres and contributed to many movie soundtracks. Richard has shared stage or recorded with artists such as Carlos del Junco, Mark Hummel, Mitch Kashmar, Rusty Zinn, Bill Sims, Taildragger, Big Bill Morganfield, Big Joe Louis, Kid Ramos, Kid Andersen, Gary Smith, Nick Curran, Gary Primich and famous Norwegian folk artist Steinar Albrigtsen.                  Photo by Helge Eek

As a harmonica player, Richard is known for his blend of prewar blues tonality and textures with contemporary diatonic techniques as well as for his mastery of the chromatic harmonica. He now uses all kinds of SEYDEL harmonicas and last time he recorded the awesome version of "John Henry" on a SEYDEL Blues Superlow in LLF. Also, Richard is a cultural historian, music archivist and currently head of the Music Section at the National Library in Norway and write his own column on blues literature in the Norwegian magazine Blues News. Richard says: “I'm a Norwegian harmonica player specializing in traditional blues. I've been a prolific musician on the Norwegian blues scene since the late 1990s, and played on numerous records in different genres and contributed to many movie soundtracks. I've also shared stage or recorded with artists such as Carlos del Junco, Mark Hummel, Mitch Kashmar, Rusty Zinn, Bill Sims, Taildragger, Big Bill Morganfield, Big Joe Louis, Kid Ramos, Kid Andersen, Gary Smith, Nick Curran and Gary Primich. As a harmonica player, I'm known for my blend of prewar blues tonality and textures with contemporary diatonic techniques. I have been a Seydel harmonica endorser since 2009.”

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music and culture?

The most important thing: To listen. To listen to all the subtle nuances that a voice, harmonica, piano or guitar can produce. To listen to and appreciate all the aural wonders the human poetic imagination can produce, even under historical suppressive and dehumanizing conditions.

What does the blues mean to you?

Push and pull, tension and release, yin and yang, whisper and scream. It pretty much sums up the whole human condition to me. The blues overtook me as a teenager, and has stayed with me every day since then.

How do you describe Richard Gjems sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

My harmonica sound is rooted in tradition and (I hope) tasteful minimalism. Tone, texture and timing is everything to me. At the same time I’m always trying to blend blues tonality and textures with more contemporary techniques. There is a big difference between pure mimicry and playing intelligently in a traditional vein. I often pick traditional pieces from different genres (blues, old time, jazz, spirituals or folk music), and try to give them a new spin while still sounding idiomatically convincing. You can hear this clearly on my two instrumental albums Songs From A Forest (2009) and Slaveriet (2013), that I did with the fabulous piano player Tor Einar Bekken.

Let every note count. Let the music breath. Let the music talk, not your ego.

"Push and pull, tension and release, yin and yang, whisper and scream. It pretty much sums up the whole human condition to me. The blues overtook me as a teenager, and has stayed with me every day since then." (Photo: Norwegian harmonica player Richard Gjems on stage)

What were the reasons that you started the harmonica researches?

It’s a great instrument for vocalizing and shaping the notes you play, tonally speaking. And it has been a central instrument in the different blues traditions since the late nineteenth century. The history of the instrument also reflects many aspects of the history of the genre. They were both very important cultural entities in the early twentieth century, firmly placed in the musical nexus between the vernacular and the popular.

What are the secrets of harmonica? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

To develop a good tone, it is fundamental not to blow too hard. Listen to all the masters – Deford Bailey, Noah Lewis, Little Walter, Big Walter and both Sonny Boys – none of them were especially “hard” players. Remember to breathe the music and relax! Advice: “Always play what suits the song best – not what suits you best”.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

Ouch, difficult question! Well, I have learned a lot from playing and touring with some of the foremost blues and roots musicians in Norway, like Kid Andersen, Johnny Augland, Ronnie Jacobsen and Steinar Albrigtsen. It has also been important having the chance to tour, share stage and record with heavyweights like Carlos del Junco, Mark Hummel, Mitch Kashmar, Rusty Zinn, Bill Sims, Taildragger, Big Bill Morganfield, Kid Ramos, Gary Smith, the late Nick Curran and Gary Primich.

Are there any memories from gigs, jam, open act and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Too many to mention, but I’ll give you one. I played at a big harmonica festival in Moscow in 2004. The Russian audience was great (as always) and the theater we played in was monumental. But what really impressed me, was the arrangers own “harmonica bouncer”. Every time someone in the audience started playing their harp uninvited (or “gussing” as harmonica players like to say) the bouncer swiftly confiscated all Mississippi saxophones nearby and put them in a big box! All the “gussers” got their harps back after the show…

"The most important thing: To listen. To listen to all the subtle nuances that a voice, harmonica, piano or guitar can produce. To listen to and appreciate all the aural wonders the human poetic imagination can produce, even under historical suppressive and dehumanizing conditions."

What are your hopes and fears for the future of the blues?

I fear that the blues as a contemporary genre ends up as contemporary country music. I hope that it continues to evolve firmly rooted in tradition as well as contemporary innovation. That goes especially for the lyrics. A good example of cutting edge contemporary blues that really works is Aki Kumar’s new record "Aki Goes To Bollywood". Check it out!

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

That more people would log off Facebook and go and see real live music (and pay the musicians properly).

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

The blues scene in Norway is really huge speaking in comparative terms. There are over 80 blues clubs and many big festivals (like Notodden Blues Festival) in this demographically speaking small country right now. The Norwegian blues scene is full of good musicians, and some really remarkable artists like multi-instrumentalist Knut Reiersrud. The Norwegian blues scene has been in a musically speaking vital and interesting period since the late 90’s.

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

Being nominated for Norwegian Grammy Awards in the blues category this year really touched me.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?                     Photo by Kjell Torgersen

I could write a dissertation answering this, but let’s keep it short: The blues as historical specific genre is born out of the Afro-American experience of creating musical hope, wonder and catharsis in a period of extreme racial suppression. That is the roots of the blues and should never be forgotten or under-communicated. At the same time I hope this experience can inspire people all over the world to find meaning and celebrate life in a dignified way, no matter what kind of hardships you are facing.

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

I would like to be a fly on the wall on one of the wall when Blind Willie Johnson recorded "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" for Columbia Records in 1927. 

Richard Gjems - Official website

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