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
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
Success and Failure
Surh Jung-min Congratulations for being selected as a Hohner
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.