FreedM's First Harmonica - An Inner-City Immigrant Kid in Montreal
Read about FreedM's life growing up in inner city Montreal, how he discovered music, and how he got his first harmonica in a rather odd exchange.
Introduction by FreedM
It has been my great pleasure in recent years to collaborate musically with my brother, in love, Aaron. Along with his wife Mercedes they've opened wide the doors to their hearts and their home to me. Whether in need of a meal or a place to crash or just someone to blather away at I can always count on you guys.
Thanks go out to that fine rowdy crew that regularly attends our shows. As well to that great gang of musicians and friends here on the North coast of the D.R that help keep (me) this old boat, afloat.
Aaron is a strapping young Feller and you'll see him in action before our shows schlepping and assembling the ever-increasing array of speakers, cables, amps, mics, and other equipment that he's corralled from every corner of the D.R. He has similarly set up a home studio in Cabarete and his work there lies behind this Bottle and Blues recording. Also a big shout-out to the Goddess herself, the inimitable Daret Channer.
She be the owner of the Goddess Beach club a super friendly funky restobar in Cabarete where the live tracks on this EP were recorded. It's a thatched roof seaside bar lined with immense coco palms and dotted with far out sculptures and other quirky doodads. Music rum and fresh seafood abound. Daret runs the show, and for me, epitomizes the free tropical spirit of Cabarete.
Aaron's accounting of how we two met jives pretty much with my own memory. I find that he doth praise and mythologize my own person somewhat. I'll accept his impressions of me though because the lad does tell a good story and in that spirit and with Aaron s prompting I'll tell you a tale of my own past.
FreedM's First Harmonica
As a somewhat accomplished blues harmonica player I’m often asked how it was I came to take up the instrument. It often seems the people expect a story along the lines of,
"At my birth a fishing line with a tiny harmonica was dangled like bait above my mother's widened legs. My grasping hands emerged and I followed 'Roadhouse Blues' on my lips."
But no, in truth, it would be many more years before I took that bait.
I was born in a largely immigrant inner city neighborhood of Montreal. A city, that amongst other things, has most streets crisscrossed with back alleyways where, in those days, a virtual army of kids from every background imaginable spent their days running amok.
The public schools were either Catholic or Protestant (amazingly that's how it was at that time) many of the immigrant kids (Greeks, Indo-Asians, Irish, Jamaicans, Eastern Europeans, Africans, to name but a few) were not raised in the Catholic faith. And so we were herded into the English Protestant schools in the predominantly French Catholic province of Quebec, Canada.
A lot of us had pretty rich cultural heritages but that was virtually ignored in the Protestant school system. There were no music classes whatsoever, although after reciting the Lord's Prayer, mornings began with the singing of God save the Queen (!) followed by Christian hymns. So one morning a little Jew-boy (me) was warbling away to "Onward Christian Soldiers", (a personal fave) when I was plucked away by some teacher. She said I showed an aptitude for music and was to attend an after-school program. Once there, we were given a sheet of foolscap paper on which a piano keyboard was drawn.
To the accompaniment of a pitch pipe and a metronome, we were told to press our fingers upon our mute keyboards and imagine the wondrous sounds we were "playing". As an 11-year-old boy with hormonal stirrings, my imagination's yearnings lay elsewhere.
Through my school years that was pretty much the extent of my formal musical education. In truth if I'd been a bit more "woke" I might have taken notice of the great jazz records my parents were playing on the family hi-fi. But who gave a damn about what their parents were up to - sadly not I.
As an aside, I'd like to think that music is given more emphasis in schools these days, especially in the so-called developed world. However, one time just a few years back, I was practicing my saxophone at a park in New York City when some black teenagers from a nearby housing project came out to watch me.
Afro-American sax players were very much at the forefront of the jazz, blues, and R&B that's so completely transformed popular music in the 20th century. It was sad and disconcerting to realize that these kids in New York City had never seen a saxophone, nor knew what one was, never mind having had the opportunity to play one.
In any case, by the time I'd ended high school, that mythic cultural moment that has come to be known as the 60s, had begun to invade the consciousness of most every teenager in Montreal. Live music clubs featuring Rock, Blues, Jazz, whatever, you name it and it was thriving all over town.
Personally I had two dreams at that time. One was to run off to San Francisco and become a bonafide hippie freak. Something I did do in time though it proved to be a little tougher and darker than I'd imagined.
The second, of course, was to be a musician. I had dabbled on some of my friend's guitars and keyboards on occasion but I proved utterly incapable. My fingers and soul just didn't roll that way.
Fanny Slutsky & Trading Dresses for Harps
I was 17 in the summer of 1971 and I needed a job.
A very wonderful spirit took human form in the person of my rotund Aunt Mary. She owned a store that specialized in dresses for larger woman. She ran it with help from Fanny Slutsky, my also wonderful and rotund maternal grandmother. That small second story walk-up truly was the economic engine that helped lay the foundation for the gang of immigrants that was my family.
So that summer I rented a van, and several days of the week I'd load it up with (very) out-of-date oversized dresses I’d gotten from my aunt's. I'd set out a little ways from the city where several farmers’ markets dotted the rural landscape.
I would put up a table next to my van where a gaggle of stout (I am trying to be politically correct here) country gals would gather before my wares. If they liked one of my frilly frocks they could climb into the back of my van for a try on. On occasion, one of these women having eyed my teenage body, would ask me slyly if I could come into the van to help them on with their dresses.
In my shyness I did resist these overtures. However on one episode an especially corpulent farmer's wife (as they were in those days known) pretty much ordered me back in the van as she undressed. She had grabbed a lacy mauve sequined dress with flower studded satin straps that would be the envy of many a drag queen.
It was serious business. That lady just really needed help getting in and out of her clothes. So we soon stepped outside the van where she did a slow pirouette in front of me.
"De quoi j'ai d'l'air" (How do I look) she asked me. "très belle madam, magnifique" says I. Same as I told all the women. Actually as I remember it, she really did look quite radiant in this strange garb.
""C'est combien” she asks. "$15" is my opening riposte. This is a farmers market.... bargaining is to be expected. And then from what appeared to come from her rather substantial cleavage she produces a Marine Band key of C harmonica.
"I will trade you the dress for this" she says. Somewhat stunned I managed to counter her offer, "I want two harmonicas”. Amazingly she pulls out a second one. It was a Horner key of G Blues Harp. And thus I acquired my first harmonicas.
Bottles & Blues Band
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