The Harmonica and the Native People of the Americas


by Manfred Wewers


The harmonica has established itself in the music of most cultures on a global level. In some, it happened very quickly, like an explosion, as it did in the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The harmonica sold well to the Americans and to the throngs of newly arrived Europeans. But, very little is written or known about the harmonica and its relationship to the Native Peoples who had already lived there for centuries and had their own established musical cultures.

When the Europeans first arrived in North America, they ran into people whose Asian ancestors had crossed the Bering Strait more than 25,000 years earlier and had developed their own cultures, including music. Bruno Nettl in his Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents writes that there are similarities between the “musics of the [Inuit] and of the Paleo-Siberian tribes living in easternmost Siberia” (162), supporting that Asian link. During the mid 1500s, did the Native American first hear Spanish or French music in Florida, or Spanish or English music in California?

Traditional Native American music does share one common trait with early European music; much of it was non-secular, ceremonial. The Native Americans and Inuit had their own songs and musical instruments. Throat singing is uniquely Inuit. As in the Old World, Christianity would again do its utmost to change or destroy those “heathen” musical traditions.

There has been some conjecture that the harmonica was used as a trade good with the Native Peoples in North and South America. Perhaps some collector will find that rare harmonica or information to document such a transaction. In North America, few documented harmonica connections with Native Peoples exist. One is a 1929 photograph in the National Archives of Canada, Department of Indian Affairs & Northern Development, showing “Sargeant Green entertaining Indians at Attawapiskat with a mouth organ solo,” according to the caption.

The first Inuit to appear on a radio in Canada was Alligo Altuk on September 19, 1938. He spoke and also played a harmonica solo (Toronto Star 1). By that time, the harmonica had already reached even the very remote corners of the earth. Richard E. Byrd claimed that he flew over the North Pole on May 9, 1926. While a guest at the Royal Aero Club in London, England, he described all the articles hidden aboard the plane that the crew took to the Pole. One of those items was a harmonica (Toronto Star 5.29: 17). Alphonse Carbone, the cook with the expedition, was the harmonica player (Toronto Star 6.14.1934: 41).

Lone Ranger harmonicaNo harmonica manufacturer has seriously tried to use a non-stereotypic image of the Native Americans of the Wild West era in its marketing strategies as it did the cowboy image. Only the Magnus Co. put out an Indian Chief harmonica in 1952, as well as a Lone Ranger model with the packaging showing an image of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s sidekick.

By 1955, the Canadian National Exhibition music competitions for the harmonica had added a “band” category, which cost $2.00 to enter. One of those bands was the Red Indian Note-Benders, a group of children from Christian Island, Ontario (The Globe and Mail 8.25.1955: 10). Quite often in the 1950s and 1960s, it was the Catholic sisters or nuns who taught music in remote communities. Out west in Saskatchewan, Mother Superior of the Ursuline Sisters of St. Angela’s Convent in Prelate, and Mother Superior of the Congregation of Our Lady of the Missions in Lebret, were both ardent supporters of harmonica instruction.

Gerald Laroche, born Metis in Manitoba, is one of the few Native Peoples active in the harmonica music industry. He musically travels between two worlds with his harmonica playing, evoking the ceremony of bonding with nature as well as moving into the secular world of the blues.

As the Native Peoples’ musical cultures expand to integrate other music forms, such as the blues, jazz and country, into their traditions, there will no doubt be more harmonica players and music. Mike Stevens, a Canadian harmonica player, has been going to the Canadian North since 2000, taking his harmonica music and thousands of other donated musical instruments, including harmonicas, to remote communities where the music brings some joy and hope to a very challenging environment.

In Central and South America, by 1906 the Hohner Co. had established offices in Mexico City, Santiago (Chile), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Bogota (Columbia) and Montevideo (Uruguay). The offices in Mexico City and Buenos Aires were the only two left by 1934. From these city centers the harmonica made its way into the interior and into the hands of the Native Peoples.

British explorer, Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, in 1914 in the Matto Grosso of Brazil searching for lost cities, described a camp scene in his book Exploration Fawcett. “We camped here, and at dusk held a concert in our hammocks, Costin with a harmonica, Manley with a comb, and myself with a flageolet. Perhaps it was foolish of us to advertise our presence in this way; but we were not molested, and no savage appeared” (201). Manley died in 1918. Fawcett disappeared in the jungle in 1925 and was not seen again. They should have stayed with the harmonica player as he survived.

In Panama, in 1924, American adventurer Richard Marsh, attempting to cross the Darien to seek a race of white Indians, brought along “shiny beads, mirrors, mouth organs, balloons, bells and bird whistles” in order to awe the locals. Martin Mitchinson, in his work The Darien Gap, makes the solid link that Marsh used the harmonica as a trade or gift item (62).

Wade Davis wrote The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes. It’s the journey of Richard Schultes (1915-2001), the great biologist, botanist and explorer who disappeared into the Columbian Amazon in 1941 for twelve years. When he emerged he brought back photographs as well as botanical specimens. One of his photos shows Salvador Chindoy, a traditional healer, a shaman, wearing “a black cushma tied at the waist, a necklace of jaguar teeth, pounds of glass beads, a magnificent corona with a halo of erect macaw feathers, and a long cape of parrot feathers that hangs down his back to the waist”. In his hand, along with the tools of his mystical trade, he holds a harmonica. Who knows what magic he performed with that harmonica? By 1935, the Pohl Co. (part of Hohner) had already produced its Amazona model that was inexpensive and ideal for trade or gift giving.

While traveling in northern Peru in 1993, Benedict Allen, explorer and author of Through Jaguar Eyes, visited a shaman, Juan Manuel Garcia at the Huaringas, a group of sacred, healing lakes. The purification ceremony ended with “a final celebratory dance led by el maestro [the shaman] on the mouth organ” (41). The harmonica is indeed magical.

And when journalist Andrew Westoll returned to the rainforests of Suriname in early 2000 to search for a tiny, rare blue frog called okopipi, he spent Christmas Eve with the Maroon people, descendents of former escaped slaves. During their singing, they “swing their arms from side to side while an unseen harmonica is played out of tune” (The Riverbones 226). The harmonica was rinsed off in a barrel of rainwater, an act that would certainly help keep it out of tune.

So, a word to harmonica manufacturers; there are still some population segments to which you can direct your more progressive, marketing endeavors. But, don’t wait too long, the world keeps changing.