Donald Black - hatching the Hohner Highlander harmonica
When Donald Black’s parents watched him unwrap and blow into his first harmonica as a four year old opening his presents on Christmas Day 1950, they couldn’t possible have predicted that, one day, he’d play this instrument to audiences of up to 25,000.
The idea that this son of Benderloch, in Argyll, might find himself playing Scotland the Brave in the Kremlin would, likewise, have been as outlandish as the suggestion that he might change the recipe for the sauce that Heinz beans come in.
Box one – reaching a massive and massively appreciative audience – was ticked at a country music festival, of all things, in Lithuania back in 1999. And Black did actually play in the Kremlin – before a guard literally blew the whistle on his adventure and forced the harmonica back into his pocket – during a later trip to Moscow which saw Muscovite punks dancing enthusiastically in the snow to his 2/4 pipe marches.
Black’s major achievement, however, has just come to pass. It’s not quite the Heinz beans scenario but in harmonica terms it rates as its equivalent. He has persuaded Hohner, the German manufacturers, to make the first design alteration to their double-sided tremolo harmonica, the Echo Harp, in the hundred or so years since it came on the market.
The Hohner Highlander, which Black launches at his Celtic Connections concert at the Piping Centre, Glasgow on Monday, will allow harmonica players to play tunes from the bagpipe repertoire. Previously, although some pipe tunes could be played on the tremolo harmonica, the vast majority of them were unplayable due to a difference in the scales that the respective instruments use.
As Norman Chalmers, of Scottish folk group Jock Tamson’s Bairns, who encouraged Black to try retuning his harmonicas himself, explains: "With small, single reed harmonicas, like the ones blues players use, they’re tuned to the diatonic scale – doh, ray, me etc. So if you play a tune where all the notes are available on that scale, it’s fine. Blues players can bend the notes by sucking, which gives them more power, but with Scottish music, you’re stuck with the notes on the harmonica."
In the case of the tremolo harmonica, where there are two reeds for every note, the problem is exacerbated.
"Basically, these two reeds are slightly mistuned on purpose, so that they beat against each other and give a vibrato sound a bit like an accordion," says Chalmers.
In tinkering with a single reed harmonica, Chalmers managed to retune one to the bagpipe scale. He showed this to Black and Black, who specialises in the tremolo model and up until then had been sending his harmonicas off to be retuned professionally when they lost their tuning, was astonished. If only, they agreed, Hohner could be persuaded to market a tremolo harmonica tuned to the bagpipe scale…
"It’s only two notes of a difference," says Black. "But the Echo Harp is so well established and I just couldn’t see me, this unknown mouth organ player from Scotland, influencing the great Hohner company."
At this point, Black was a relatively recent arrival on the Scottish traditional music scene. That little pink harmonica which an aunt had sent him for Christmas all those years ago and its successors had become constant companions and through the years he’d kept playing both for his own enjoyment and in sessions at home with his mother, who loved to play mouth organ too.
"I’d never even thought about playing professionally," says Black. "The only time I ever played in public was when I was twelve and we were living near Tulliallan. I played at a Boys Brigade concert and the local minister gave me a book for my trouble. Then one night in 1993 I went along with some pals to play in a pub in Argyll Street in Glasgow, just for fun."
Phil Cunningham happened to walk into the same pub. He heard what he thought was an accordion only to discover it was Black playing harmonica.
"The fact that Phil thought I was playing an accordion was quite flattering because I’d always regarded myself as a button key accordionist playing on the harmonica," says Black. "All the musicians who influenced me – Jimmy Shand, Bobby MacLeod, Fergie MacDonald, Phil Cunningham himself – were or are accordion players. I did try an accordion for a while but I never made anything of it and I really felt at home with the mouth organ."
At the time of their meeting, Cunningham was working as musical director for BBC TV’s Gaelic music programme Talla a Bhaille. He invited Black to appear on it and suitably encouraged, this former forestry worker who had also worked as a cattlehand in the Australian outback, an insurance salesman and building site labourer began to consider a career in music, albeit part-time.
Ian Green, of Scotland’s most prolific record label Greentrax, agreed to release Black’s first album, Westwinds, and the resultant airplay and enthusiastic reviews led to bookings at ceilidhs, concerts and festivals. The guest musicians on the album included Malcolm Jones, of Runrig, who gave Black his phone number and told him if he ever needed a guitarist, just to give him a call.
"I thought he was just being nice but he meant it and we started to work together," says Black. "We developed a strong partnership and the Runrig connection obviously helped us to get bookings."
The duo toured the Highlands and Islands and also appeared at Tonder Folk Festival in Denmark, and when Jones’s Runrig commitments took priority Black began working with another guitarist, Donnie Mackenzie from Lewis.
It was with Mackenzie that Black appeared in Visaginas, fifty miles from Belarus, at a country music festival in the local football stadium.
"Before we went I’d learned some Lithuanian phrases phonetically so we could communicate and I was able to get our guide to explain to the audience that a lot of country music’s roots originated in the Celtic countries," he says. "So the people were right into what we were doing and, believe it or not, playing to twenty-five thousand people is a lot less nerve-wracking than playing to fifty or a hundred."
By this time Black’s name and ability were becoming recognised internationally. He had already featured in Die Mundharmonika, a history and global overview of the harmonica by Christoph Wagner, which was published in 1996, and he was very proud to be included in The Encyclopaedia of the Harmonica by Peter Krampert in 2000.
More recently, in possibly the greatest compliment a harmonica player can be paid, he was invited to appear at the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica’s annual convention in Kansas City, Missouri in August 2005. There he was among the elite, meeting and impressing players such as Charlie McCoy, whose resume includes sessions with Elvis Presley and probably most famously on this side of the Atlantic, performing the Old Grey Whistle Test theme tune.
It was at SPAH, too, that Black felt it was time to talk to Hohner about marketing what Norman Chalmers had suggested they call The Hohner Highlander.
"I’d approached another major manufacturer to see what their response would be but at SPAH I met Fernando Breslau, who is Hohner’s man in Brazil, and he was really interested."
Breslau was able to appreciate the immense potential world-wide of an instrument tailored to Scottish music. The two men began a dialogue and the result, as Black says, is a double-sided harmonica, in a box bearing a piper in his mother’s Mackenzie tartan, that can play any bagpipe tune ever written.
"In piping," he says, "the big tunes – the heavy tunes – or the 2/4 marches are the benchmark. They’re such an important part of the repertoire and I always wanted to be able to play them on the harmonica. Now I can."
Black himself is not a composer – he shyly admits to having written two tunes – and sees his role as discovering tunes that he can show to an audience in the same way that a jeweller might display a beautiful stone.
"For me the most exciting thing about playing this music is working out which tunes really suit the harmonica’s sound – because not all tunes lend themselves to the actual sound of the instrument - and then arranging them into sets that flow together," he says.
"But if I never play another note, I can look at the Hohner Highlander and think, here’s a product that’s going round the world and that my name is associated with. I’m particularly proud for my parents and forebears because I think they’d be thrilled to bits that someone in their family had personal input into modifying this instrument so that fellow Scots can enjoy getting a tune out of it."
From The Herald, January 2007.