Speaking to me from a hotel room across the Pacific, Joe Powers has no misconceptions about the career he chose.
“Harmonica music isn’t big anywhere – that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. But there’s an amazing live music scene over here in Japan, and people still pay good money to hear good music,” says Powers, a 36-year-old professional musician from Portland. “People come out to the shows and buy CDs – things you don’t necessarily get in North America.”
As we chat, he periodically pulls out his harmonica to demonstrate his skills over the phone. He’s good. Really good. It’s still early morning in Japan, and I’m pretty sure hearing a flawless chromatic scale on the mouth organ from the hotel room next door, following by some blues and tango, is the coolest way to wake up.
Powers got his first harmonica as a Christmas present at two years old.
“I think my aunt thought it would be something fun to give to the kid, maybe annoy my parents, but I don’t think she expected me to pursue it for the rest of my life,” he says. “It really resonated with me. I love the fact that I could put it in my pocket and take it anywhere. … But also since it was my first instrument, I really connected to it. It became my musical voice early on.”
Powers studied music at the University of Oregon. It was there that he got exposed to tango music.
He moved to Argentina in 2000 to study ballroom dance. While he was there, he heard the music of Hugo Diaz, a tango harmonicist, and immediately Powers knew his calling.
“It hadn’t occurred to me to play tango on harmonica,” he says.
He now tours the world six months a year – and teaches harmonica the rest of the time – performing his music for international audiences; exposing them to what he calls “an underestimated instrument.”
“After every single performance I hear, ‘I didn’t know you could do that with a harmonica.’ So that’s my mission in life: exposing people to the possibilities of the instrument and the music,” he says. “People tend to have an idea that it’s either a children’s instrument or a folk instrument or a blues instrument, but it’s all these. And it can also be a lot more sophisticated. I think people will be quite surprised if they come hear me play.”
Powers comes to Victoria for the Tango & Latin Festival (Aug. 1-3). He performs three shows over the course of the festival, alongside fellow tango, Latin and jazz musicians. For tickets and info, visit passion4tango.com.