It was late last fall when we finally caught a ray of light in our gloomy pandemic tango world in the Hudson Valley. Joe Powers, the world-famous harmonica player from Portland, Oregon, paid a visit to our scattered community three thousand miles away from his home and delighted us with a lively performance and an engaging lecture about the long history of his small musical instrument. I was surprised to see so many of our local tangueros in the audience, few of whom had come to the sporadic dance events that had been organized during the summer. Now, apparently, they felt that it was safe enough. It seemed that we had finally left the worst of the pandemic behind us and there was a sense of relief and happiness in the air.
We applauded Powers’ presentation excitedly, and people danced on and on during the milonga that followed, despite the uncomfortable mask-wearing and the strict social-distancing rules. It was an unexpected and happy reunion of our wide-spread tango community, most of whom had not seen each other in almost two years.
Joe Powers was the icing on the cake. His youthful charisma, captivating stage presence, and compelling harmonica playing were gratefully received and turned the evening into a little overture for the post-pandemic era. Or so many of us thought on that chilly November night.
The joy was mutual, as Joe afterwards told me. It was his first tango concert tour since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. In comparison to his busy pre-pandemic tour-calendar, which used to take him all over the world, this was a relatively small engagement followed by additional performances in Boston and neighboring Connecticut. Nevertheless, this short tour meant the world to both him and us dancers. For Joe it provided a major step forward after almost a year-and-a-half of being stuck at home. The sudden arrival of the pandemic had turned his full tour program upside-down.
“From one day to the next I found myself doing nothing,” he said, and I suddenly sensed first-hand the serious consequences which professional musicians like Joe Powers had been forced to suffer while most of us social dancers had been mourning our own loss in an almost selfish way.
However, doing ‘nothing’, as I quickly understood, was not meant literally. Joe’s bubbly and driven personality does not seem to allow him to stay still. And like most artists I have met he is always simultaneously working on multiple projects. He had made use of the enforced downtime by developing an online teaching course and he had spent a lot of time learning script coding — something he had wanted to do for a long time. Being able to catch up on tasks he had been forced to put off for years, he was able stay positive, despite being faced with a sudden loss of income. But somehow he had managed to make ends meet.
“I was glad to receive some unemployment benefits,” he explained, and then added that thankfully his partner, Andrea (not to be confused with the author!), had a steady income and had been very generous in supporting him.
In the world of Argentine tango Joe Powers has become a well-known figure. He is known as an unusual tango musician who plays the harmonica where others play the bandoneon. He is also unusual because, unlike many other harmonica musicians, he can both write and read music. When I remarked on this he modestly played himself down, saying he did not often write his own arrangements, but preferred to play from ‘lead sheets’ (simplified scores consisting merely of the melody and accompanying chord symbols) and arrangements by other famous harmonica players.
Even though it may seem odd to play this instrument in tango, the harmonica is actually a reed instrument just like the bandoneon — the instrument that gives tango its iconic sound. Both are sonically very closely related, and so it makes sense to play the harmonica — just as the great Hugo Díaz has demonstrated.
Hugo Díaz was for a very long time the best known tango harmonica player until Joe Powers came along three decades later. Without question the North American has risen to become the pre-eminent tango ‘harmonicista’ and one who plays two kinds of harmonica: the diatonic and the chromatic.
Joe did not start out that way. South-American sultry tango is a musical genre which was little heard in the northwestern state of Oregon where he has lived his whole life. Naturally, when he started playing at a very young age, he was drawn to blues, rock-and-roll, and later jazz. He played with different bands and was already composing by the time he began to study music in college. There were, however, no harmonica classes at college, he told me, so he decided to major in music composition. Around the same time his then girlfriend introduced him to ballroom dancing, and a professor at the college offered an Argentine tango course — which led to his going to Buenos Aires after graduation in 2000, where someone introduced him to the use of the harmonica in tango. He, of course, discovered Hugo Díaz and other tango harmonica players, but it was the legendary Díaz who became his hero.
Joe liked the fact that tango was improvised, and he learnt to play the foreign melodies, not knowing where this was going to take him. But to his surprise when he returned to Portland a year-and-a-half later, a tango scene begun by Clay Nelson and a few others had emerged, and Joe’s career took off.
Besides tango, Joe has also taken a top jazz prize in the quadrennial ‘World Harmonica Championship’ in Germany as well as winning in the classical division in a Belgian competition. Last summer he performed at the ‘Montana Baroque Music Festival’.
In his lecture at Bard College, Joe went into more detail about the unusual instrument explaining how the harmonica is a relatively new instrument, invented in 1821. Nowadays the world’s biggest harmonica maker is Hohner, from Trossingen in Germany. Like the bandoneon (and the accordion, the saxophone, and several other instruments) it is also a type of reed instrument.
It also turns out that the harmonica is closely connected to the bandoneon in terms of mechanics: air is blown across a reed. The sound is thus produced the same way so that both instruments sound very similar. So it makes a lot of sense to play tango on a harmonica. You also get the typical tango sound (starting with a ‘bang’) with a bandoneon and a harmonica, but not, interestingly, with a piano accordion.
“Similar to the bandoneon, where you get a different sound whether you are pushing or pulling,” he explained, “with the harmonica you get a different sound whether you blow or suck.” The bandoneon is difficult because you have two sets of buttons on each side and they are not arranged in a linear fashion, but harmonically, in groups. The harmonica has a different problem — knowing where the notes are.
“So how do you know where the note A is on the harmonica?” I asked. “That’s the scary part,” he replied. “When I’m reading an unfamiliar piece of music it can be hard to know if I’m hitting the correct note or not, especially if the music has many big jumps, because that requires a lot of horizontal movement on the harmonica, which can sometimes be imprecise. That’s why I practice a lot.”
And then, to baffle me even more, he took his chromatic-harmonica apart to show me the insides!
Asked about whether he is planning more gigs and tours he said it was still difficult because of travel and other restrictions. But he thought it was going to get easier after the winter.
A few months have now gone by since our conversation. Shortly after Joe Powers brought some light to our little tango world, we all were hit by a new variant called Omicron. Once again the lights went out in the ballrooms and dance studios and it turned into another long and dark winter.
Now, as the tango world slowly stutters and stumbles in a return to normalcy, tango musicians such as Joe Powers have been quietly but seriously working on their own slow comeback. And just as I write this, on the other side of the continent Joe Powers is all of a sudden back. The Bay Area is welcoming the famous harmonicista for a full week of performances and milongas.