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Pequan Club Harps On The Harmonica

Long popularized in films as played by lovable boxcar-traveling hobos or lonely prison convicts killing time until morning chow, the harmonica has been an enduring part of American culture for countless decades; pretty much anyone everyone is familiar with this famous air-powered instrument.

The Long Island Harmonica Club (LIHC), situated out of the Bar Harbour branch of the Massapequa Public Library, seeks to preserve that proud and enjoyable tradition for generations to come.  

John Devine of Massapequa has been a member of LIHC for the past four years, and in that time he’s grown to love this special bunch of talented musicians a great deal; the group itself is steeped in a great deal of history, he said, but recently has been experiencing a lull in membership.

“It started about 40 years ago, and at that time, harmonica trios were very popular,” he said. “At one point we had about 50 members, but now we’re down to about 12 active members.”

The reason for the decreased membership over the years, he said, was the simple fact that older members were passing away and younger people didn’t seem to have an interest in taking up the harmonica. According to Charlie McDermott of Lindenhurst, Vice-President of LIHC, the group was dying a slow death until Devine joined four years ago and started strong efforts to revitalize it.

“He made our website, he’s trying to build up the group...we were really dying at one point,” he said. “I recently looked at a picture of the club that we took when I first joined 20 years ago, and of all the guys that were in the picture, there are only four of us left.”

When Devine joined the club, he did his best to turn things around; he set up a new meeting place in the form of the Massapequa Library and decided to create a last-ditch effort to recruit new people to the LIHC, he said.

“I was fortunate enough to get this library for us to meet in...we have meetings two times a month here. Positively speaking, we’ve met many people and recruited six new members since last year,” he said. “One of the things we did was instead of meeting during the day, which is what we used to do, we started meeting at night...younger people who work or go to school could now attend, whereas before they couldn’t. That made a difference.”

Dennis Duffy of Bellmore is one of the group’s newer members; he’s been playing harmonica for the better part of five years, and joined LIHC last year.

“I joined because I’m hoping to refine and extend my skills, which I can’t do on my own. These guys have years of experience, and if you can tap into that, that’s terrific,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of talent come in and out of here, and believe it or not, there a lot to this little instrument...there’s bends, there’s blows, you can accent your tone...you can do a lot with it, if you know how, and these guys are great teachers.”

According to McDermott, there are two types of harmonicas — diatonic and chromatic. A chromatic harmonica has a button that allows the performer to play flat and sharp notes; the diatonic, on the other hand, is a simpler instrument and possesses no such button, necessitating the player to come up with manual ways hit certain notes.

“With a chromatic harmonica, you can play anything that a clarinet or a saxophone can play,” McDermott said. “But with a diatonic harmonica, it’s easier to get a nice blues-style sound on it.”

Ed Kamhi of Huntington was attending his first-ever LIHC meeting this evening; he has been playing the harmonica since the fourth grade and had been looking online for somewhere to take chromatic lessons when he came across LIHC’s website and decided to try it out.

“I’m been a life-long music lover...I started out on the diatonic harmonica, which everyone does since it’s simpler, but I want to get better at the chromatic,” he said. “I’ve been practicing at home, but my wife hates listening to me play, so here I am.”

“Learning to play the harmonica is a trade that’s slowly getting lost,” he continued. “As far as this club is concerned, having the instrument taught to you by people with our experience is priceless...you can’t learn that from a book or YouTube. This workshop, in my opinion, will make your transition into music much easier.”

“The harmonica is easy to learn, but hard to master. It’s an incredibly rewarding instrument to learn how to play,” McDermott added. “And here at the Long Island Harmonica Club, you won’t find a nicer, more fun bunch of guys anywhere. We invite anyone who’s interested to come on down and try it out.”

Check out the Long Island Harmonica Club website at www.longislandharmonica.com.