A Pocket Full of Harmonicas

by Catherine Trifiletti

International phenom Frédéric Yonnet brings his dynamic instrument to younger generations.

If music is transportation, then Frédéric Yonnet is in the business of transcendence. That is what the accomplished harmonica player teaches young people whom he has hosted at workshops and masterclasses around the country. Music, he says, should be approached as a journey, not an objective. The goal is for students to take the harmonica, which he gifts them after each session, and make it their own. Yonnet has strived to push his own limits since he first picked up the instrument as a boy growing up in France. His initial attraction to the drums eventually gave way to a curiosity about the small music maker and its ability to produce a versatile range of sounds – from piano notes to percussion beats and, even a human voice.

The more time Yonnet spent practicing harmonica, the stronger his relationship with it grew and the more unbounded he felt by its traditional sounds. Decades later, the world-renowned artist hopes to ignite the same passion and interest in younger generations. “I’m trying to break all the barriers, bridge all the gaps between CD collections and vinyl collections I’ve grown up listening to and create this kind of gumbo of influences,” Yonnet says of his music.

This eclectic approach has allowed him to reach a wide range of audiences across the globe through live shows and studio recordings that span from original songs to covers of pop artists like Childish Gambino and Ed Sheeran. Yonnet recognizes a powerful symbiosis that happens at his concerts when he can have conversations with the audience – “an exchange of energy and vibes,” as he explains it. At the core of the “discussion” is improvisation, spontaneity and an ability to stay plugged into listeners. “We don’t have any repetition,” he says. “Nothing is boring because everything is created in the moment. It lives and dies as it appears, which is the beauty of it.”

Yonnet performing at NPR’s Tiny Desk

Improv is also at the core of the famously elusive Juke Joints Yonnet hosts alongside his friend, comedian Dave Chappelle. The pop-up events take place in a massive space, sometimes a barn, with little advanced notice to the public. Once inside, guests are required to lock up their cell phones for the evening and encouraged to be presented. Yonnet calls it one giant party.

Yonnet’s collaborations with music legends, including touring stints with Prince and Stevie Wonder, are testament to his dynamic artistry. Playing next to the greats taught him how to stay on his toes and be a better musician overall. He tries to impart the same open-mindedness to the various musicians who perform alongside him. “I am more inclined to [play with] someone who’s willing to be uncomfortable and thrive from it,” he says. “Sometimes being uncomfortable in an environment gives you opportunity.” Magic happens in those unplanned moments.

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