INTERVIEW Harmonica Player Jeon Je-duk Seeks a Deeper, Warmer Sound

Without a teacher or musical scores, Jeon Je-duk taught himself to play the harmonica solely through listening. Since his debut in 2004, he has continued to build his own musical world, earning recognition for transforming the seemingly simple harmonica into a major solo instrument.

Jazz harmonica player Jeon Je-duk taught himself to play the instrument solely by ear, without the help of a teacher or sheet music.

Jeon Je-duk caught a fever 15 days after he was born and lost his sight. Since then he has experienced the world solely through sound. Similarly, he communicates with the world through a small, hand-sized harmonica. When he puts it to his lips, the stars brighten and the flowers bloom, and he flies through the sky unawares. He has turned that ecstasy into a song and put it on his album.

When I put the harmonica to my lips,
The stars rise in my heart,
And the flowers bloom over the lonely sound;
Following the strains of my harmonica,
Should I become a lonely cloud in the sky?
– From “My Harmonica” on Jeon’s first album

In November 2016, exactly 20 years after first picking up the instrument, Jeon Je-duk became the first Korean “Hohner Artist.” Hohner, headquartered in Germany, is the world's leading harmonica brand. The jazz harmonica player Toots Thielemans, the legendary classical harmonica player Tommy Reilly, folk singer Bob Dylan, and John Lennon of the Beatles are all Hohner artists. At a café in Seoul, I met with Jeon Je-duk, who now ranks among these world famous musicians.

Success and Failure
Surh Jung-min Congratulations for being selected as a Hohner Artist!
Jeon Je-duk Thank you. The recognition is a good thing. Yet, I feel a bit sad. It would have been better if it had come earlier, back when my albums drew more attention and had more listeners.

Recognition is a wonderful thing and surely rewarding, but Jeon did not seem overly thrilled at being selected a Hohner Artist. In fact, he seemed a little unhappy, as if wondering why the recognition came now and not 10 years ago when he was in the spotlight. I became aware of him through his first album, released in 2004. I recall listening in awe and asking myself, “Is this really the harmonica? Can the harmonica make such a funky sound?” Even more surprising was the fact that a visually impaired man had overcome his disability to create an album of such high quality.
Surh I remember that your first album in 2004 drew a lot of attention.
Jeon In those days, no other album featured the harmonica, and my blindness also aroused people’s curiosity. I had 13 interviews with daily newspapers and received a prize in the jazz crossover section at the Korean Popular Music Awards. I was so happy that I could almost fly. I even heard that a lot of harmonicas were sold. It was a good time.
Surh After the first album’s success, your second album two years later showed a great transformation. You introduced electronic sound, and included rappers and musicians performing Black music. It was trendy and experimental, but the public and the media were not so responsive. The sophomore jinx . . . .
Jeon Why must the harmonica be played only with the piano and bass? Wouldn’t it be interesting to introduce electronic sound? I acted on these ideas. But the change was probably too great. I was satisfied, but the audience was not so receptive. I think music is like that. Keeping to one style is more advantageous in appealing to the public, but as a musician I don’t want to fall into mannerism. I attempted a change, but unfortunately it didn’t turn out very well.

From Samulnori to the Harmonica
Jeon is an artist who constantly dreams of transforming himself and his music, even between albums, regardless of success or failure. In fact, his life and music have always been subject to constant changes. Before coming across the harmonica, he first encountered music through samulnori, traditional Korean percussion music for four instruments. At a special school for people with disabilities, one of the teachers played samulnori for him and suggested that he learn to play it, too.
Surh You received some recognition as a samulnori player, didn’t you?
Jeon Despite my blindness, I could play the double-headed drum, the janggu, while sitting. I trained myself hard and even won a prize in a competition. But playing in a sitting position was my limitation. In the first part of the performance, I can remain sitting, but in the second part, I’m supposed to get up and dance around and be lively, twirling the streamer on my hat. I couldn’t do it. That was why I eventually stopped playing.
Surh Were you interested in other music genres while playing samulnori?
Jeon When I first heard Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” as a teenager, I couldn’t sleep for several days. I can hardly describe how I felt. The music was just fantastic. It was music from a different world. I wondered if I could play such music if I stuck with samulnori.
Surh The Jeon Je-duk I know is an artist with a lot of enthusiasm. You like rhythmical, rollicking music. I think that inclination led you from the samulnori drum to the harmonica. Even with the harmonica, when you play you can hardly contain your exuberance and want to make people dance — I can feel it in your music. Since we’re on the subject, could you explain how you got interested in playing the harmonica?
Jeon In 1996, I happened to hear on the radio the Belgian jazz artist and harmonica player Toots Thielemans playing warm, sweet ballad music. It didn't have the sharp harmonica sound that I knew, and I wondered, “Does the harmonica really sound like that? If the music is as slow as that, couldn’t I learn to play it?” So I bought a harmonica. I wouldn’t have dreamed of attempting something fast, but when I started to play, I discovered that even slow music wasn't easy.
Surh But you didn’t give up.
Jeon I taught myself how to play it. My lips swelled up, and my tongue was rubbed raw. Except when I was performing samulnori, I practiced my harmonica all the time. At some point, I was unable to go any further in samulnori, and my passion moved entirely to the harmonica.

Jeon Je-duk performs with his band at the concert “Jeon Je-duk, My Harmonica,” held at the Incheon Culture & Arts Center on December 16, 2015.

Saying Farewell to Toots Thielemans
After Jeon’s samulnori group disbanded, he served as a harmonica session player on drama soundtracks and other artists’ albums. A couple of years passed, and he joined an album recording of Malo, a jazz vocalist. That’s when someone suggested he make an album of his own. He produced his first and second solo albums, but then came a long period of silence. Putting aside his personal musical ambitions for a while, he broke the silence only to offer an album of pop music remakes for wide audience appeal.
Surh How did you spend the long years until 2014, when you released your third album?
Jeon Writing music wasn’t easy, and I wondered if it was necessary to make albums featuring all new pieces only. I found performing fun, so I focused on that. In doing so, I developed a strong desire to express my feelings for nature with a deeper sound. I put this desire into my third album. I also tried hard to attain the sound of Toots Thielemans. That warm sound, that’s what I wanted, and still want, and will always want.
Surh He’s the one who made you what you are now. Did you ever meet him?
Jeon When he visited Korea in 2004 for a concert, I met him briefly backstage afterwards. As I was getting his signature, I told him that I also played the harmonica. He encouraged me, saying, “Are you? Give it your best. The harmonica is a good instrument.” It was a brief meeting, but great.
Surh After Thielemans passed away in August 2016, you held a tribute concert for him on December 30, didn’t you?
Jeon The title of the concert was “Bye, Toots.” I wanted to say farewell to an admired artist in my own way. Regardless of what others might think, I felt I had sent the artist I cherished to heaven through my performance. I was sustained for 20 years through the music of Toots Thielemans. Of course, he’ll remain an inspiration for the future.
Surh What’s so special about the harmonica?
Jeon The harmonica has warmth and softness, and it even has a “cute” image. That’s what Toots Thielemans taught me. When he played, I felt him whispering at my side. Blues harmonica players are so powerful that they even outshine the electric guitar. By contrast, Toots Thielemans played as if he was having a friendly chat with you. That’s the kind of music I aim for.
Surh What's your emotional state when performing?
Jeon While giving a concert, especially playing swing, I often recall times when I went to a live music club and played as I pleased without really knowing much. My skills weren't great, but I had the passion. When I play ballads, I usually think of nature. I play as if I’m outside in the warm sunlight or under softly falling snow.
Surh If you had been able to see, do you think your musical expression would have been different?
Jeon If that had been the case, I would have received more information. But I've never thought that it would make my music better. My music expresses what my body feels, what my senses feel, and conveys through sound what I think.
Surh Do you have a lifelong dream as a harmonica player?
Jeon I want to make music where the sound tells stories. Even a piece just five minutes long but with a clear introduction, development, climax, and conclusion. I want people to hear a short story or a scene from a musical drama. For me, there are sounds that tell stories. For example, a car accident occurs, people run around, and an ambulance appears. A story can be made out of that. I want to express such things philosophically through music. I want to give a concert full of that kind of music.

“I developed a strong desire to express my feelings for nature with a deeper sound … I also tried hard to attain the sound of Toots Thielemans. That warm sound, that’s what I wanted, and still want, and will always want.”

Sounds that Tell Stories
At the beginning of our interview, Jeon had seemed somewhat sad, as if longing for his time in the spotlight, but as he talked about his dream, he became animated and his face lit up with joy. For this man, who so elegantly expresses his emotions through his music, the harmonica seems to contain all his hopes and dreams. Once again, I recalled him singing that when he puts the harmonica to his lips, the stars rise and the flowers bloom in his heart. Perhaps, I thought, he is flying in the sky right now. Next time you look up to the sky and see a lonely cloud, I hope it will remind you of Jeon Jeduk and his beautiful music.

Surh Jung-min Popular Music Columnist; Representative, Cine Play
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