Playing his harmonica, retired police officer Herbert “Nattie” Pierre draws compliments and stares. Reason being: people are not accustomed to seeing and hearing such harmonious music from the palm-sized instrument. The harmonica, affectionately called the “French or Blues Harp,” is not so well known as steelpan and tassa instruments. People always take notice when he plays at concerts. A prime example was when he played the hymn How Great Thou Art at the funeral of his dear friend, the late photojournalist Rolph Warner, on October 29.
Interviewed recently at his Maraval, home, Pierre said, “I always draw stares. The harmonica is not as popular as it used to be long ago. When I am finished playing a lot of adults and even the children express curiosity. They want to know about the harmonica and how I play it. “They think it’s like a novelty. It is rare. “I play the harmonica and not the mouth organ. People are shocked that Nattie possesses such talents. They always say ‘Nattie, I never knew you could play harmonica so well.’”
Pierre retraced his harmonica-playing steps to his childhood at Tunapuna. “My mother (Beatrice Pierre) bought me a mouth organ. When all the other boys had guns, I had an Echo Super Vampa (a type of organ). I used to play it with pleasure although it was not that popular.
“After playing the mouth organ, it gave me the impetus to play the harmonica. I began playing and performing at concerts and skits. I had to impress the girls so I played both the harmonica and mouth organ.”
The harmonica is a free reed wind instrument used primarily in blues and American folk music, jazz, country, and rock and roll. It differs from the mouth organ which is a generic term for free reed aerophone, with one or more air chambers fitted with a free reed. Blind US superstar Stevie Wonder was his first mentor. “I admired how Stevie Wonder played the mouth organ. He plays it with songs like Isn’t she lovely and Big Brother. His blindness did not prevent him from making sweet music.”
As a young adult, he gravitated to the arts. Having linked with the late Roland Gordon and Malick Folk Performers, he played at Best Village and Holly Betaudier’s Scouting For Talent. “Roland gave me some tips like variations and moods. I started at Best Village. Then I moved on from strength to strength. I played at weddings, christenings, birthday parties, concerts, funerals. When I got baptised I played in church. I did well.”
Patting himself on the back, he added, “I played at Canada, United States and Barbados. My last performance was at Ronald Pantin’s funeral. It was held in Exodus panyard at Tunapuna. He was shot at his Bon Air, home.” Quizzed on his favourite musical genres, Pierre said, “I love gospel and ballads. My favourite gospel songs are Give Thanks To the Lord, May the Lord Bless You and Keep You and Unchained Melody. The chorus is God Bless The Day I Found You.”
Asked about how he perfected his harmonica playing, he said, “I am self taught. You must have a good musical ear. You have no arranger to tell you A, B, or C. You have to figure out the chords...notes. You have to practice. You have to play a tune when you hear it.”
He remembered the golden ’80s when a harmonica fetched between $20 to $50.
“Now it’s like $750. That’s a big jump. I have a harmonica collection. It has different ranges like A, C, D, E, G. The children had fiddled with it. When I blew into it at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Independence Square) it went oeeee. I had to rush out and buy one...at $750. I was shocked,” said Pierre.
Despite the exorbitant prices, Pierre’s hopelessly devoted to his harmonica. “I never learned to play the push key. When I hear songs on radio I try to pick up the sounds. Sometimes I lie down on my bed and make sweet music.” Pierre said he had been approached by Tony Gray to perform a duet at auspicious events. He had a burning desire to form a mouth organ band. Two other excellent players Rolph Marcelle and Helen Fullard from North Carolina expressed an interest in a mouth organ ensemble. But it never came to fruition.
The harmonica is played by blowing air into it or drawing air out by placing the lips over individual holes (reed chambers) or multiple holes. Though the mouth organ spans many traditions, it is played universally the same way by the musician placing their lips over a chamber or holes in the instrument, and blowing or sucking air to create a sound. Many of the chambers can be played together or each individually. “It would be nice if young people could learn to play mouth organs and harmonicas. It’s a dying art. They should be encouraged to pick up a harmonica and put down the gun.” “I play for charity. I never ask for money. If someone wants to reward me it’s up to them. But I love playing the harmonica.”
People interested in forming a mouth organ band can contact Pierre at 681-5442 (c) or 629-2687 (c)