(The following is the first 5 pages of the interview with Leo Ho from the book LOVE OF CHROMATIC HARMONICA…TECHNIQUES AND ADVICE FROM THE WORLD’S BEST! by David Kettlewell, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon…see link on this website’s homepage)
Leo Ho (Leo Ho Cheuk-yin, age 20) of Hong Kong is one of the most singular and uniquely-talented young chromatic harmonica players in the world today. He has excelled at playing repertoire which has vexed and puzzled musicians on all instruments in the last half century…and I speak here of the masterpieces written by Astor Piazzolla, the composer on bandoneon (that devilish box of wiggling bellows with buttons) who redefined Argentinean Tango…creating a new genre that revolutionized this cherished treasure. Playing Piazzolla’s pieces correctly, with the intense and on-the-nose timing Piazzolla evidenced has proven next to impossible for most musicians, regardless of talent and training. It has been said that of all the musicians in the world who have attempted to play Piazzolla’s music, Leo has come closest to reflecting this consummate composer’s original intentions.
His credits are so long we are unable to print them all here…but suggest you read of his many awards at http://www.playhohner.com/artists/leo-ho-cheuk-yin. (Bring along cookies and tea, it will take you some time to read his bio. His version of Piazzolla’s Invierno Porteno on Youtube is a must-see.
Leo is included in the prestigious listing of Hohner “Masters of the Harmonica.”
Interviewer: I wanted to start off by complimenting you: Astor Piazzolla, from my experience, is the hardest composer to play with anything resembling his original sound, and I think the reason for this is that Astor was a very confident musician who played either right on the head on the rhythm, or even a hair ahead to create this tension, and many a listener have been sorely disappointed in those musicians who have trod this road, and attempted Piazzolla on piano, bandoneon, or violin. Yours is the first rendition I’ve heard that actually captures the intent of his sound on his piece, Invierno Porteno. That was an incredible accomplishment on your part as a player, but also as an arranger.
Thank you very much.
Interviewer: Let’s talk a little bit about Astor Piazzolla. How did you accomplish what you did with that piece of music? Please explain it to us…how did you understand his music-to begin with? How did you go about creating your own arrangements, and what do you think the secrets are, or the techniques which are required to play Astor Piazzolla’s music (in this instance Invierno Porteno) properly?
In preparing for a competition, I always do a lot of research on the background of the composer/performer; in this case, Astor Piazzolla, and study all the notes and articulations in the score very carefully. I also view as many existing arrangements or videos on YouTube as I can find.
Yes, Piazzolla is playing Tango, but it is definitely not traditional Tango…it is something “new” to the Tango tradition. I am currently a member of the “303 Tango Fusion Band,” and they explained to me that Astor Piazzolla is somewhat controversial…as Tango dancers find his music problematic, because they cannot dance to it easily.
(Note: Piazzolla revolutionized Tango, and was ostracized in his home country of Argentina, until his reputation as a leading artist worldwide was solidified, at which time he became a national treasure. Yet he deviated tremendously from the clock perfect rhythm of tango which dancers had relied on historically, taking the idiom in a new direction—creating an entirely new genre which is far more complex, and satisfying, musically.)
Astor Piazzolla’s music combines the historical Tango element and makes something new; he was a very innovative person. I totally agree with that interpretation of his work.
I believe Tango is very improvisational at its core. It’s very emotional, somehow the theory behind Tango is very like jazz, of course I’ve played classical music for 10 years or so, and then I found Tango music.
Classical music is very restricted, very sophisticated, to me. Tango is more expressive, you can do something you’d never think of in classical music…you could never do that on Bach, you can never do that on Mozart.
When it’s Astor Piazzolla music, you can create that huge shift in dynamics, that crazy accent—you can do that very emotional insertion of notes between major phrases, and it’s very touching to me and allows me to go deep within myself. I know I have to express it in ways I’ve never done before…it is all the emotion coming up.
Even though I’m playing the most emotional classical music, like Gypsy Air, I think I don’t have the chance to express what I can in Tango. I feel that with Astor Piazzolla’s music, I have to express a lot.
Interviewer: What do you think Astor Piazzolla was able to do when he played his music that has made it so hard for musicians following him to duplicate? Now you’ve done it—so I’m going to ask you…what is there about it that’s so difficult for musicians to portray?
I think the most important part is the layers he has in his score. Actually, Piazzolla’s music has a common characteristic in all his pieces—there are a lot of repetitions of melody. A lot of people try to play the melody every time quite similarly, but I try to do it differently in each of the 5 repetitions of the melody. It doesn’t feel like a repeating melody, but it is a repeating melody. I try to do it differently every time. In the first paragraph (Leo refers often to musical phrases as “paragraphs”)I do with sorrow and sadness, and, next, with lovely, romantic feeling, and then I go into something very emotional; after winter is spring, and for that arrangement I created something new which was inserted into the music, something bringing together Hong Kong music with Western music.
I try to make it sounds like the morning with the birds…I tried to create a story line, and then it comes out with a lot of layering.
Interviewer: Please speak a bit more about your approach to playing Piazzolla.
For every paragraph, I have a different approach. The first paragraph is played on the lowest octave on the harmonica, and I use a lot of larynx-glottis vibrato combined with tongue-piston vibrato (we call that U-tongue vibrato) there are many forms of vibrato and each is different, each mouth shape creates a bit different vibrato. For me, it works with a U shape, like I’m saying U (yew) U U U U.
Also, middle C (or C4) is the lowest note on my 12-hole harmonica, and I want to play with a lot of texture; playing it really thick in texture, which is not the strength of a 12-hole chromatic harmonica.
Harmonica’s lower notes are weaker than the higher notes, but the vibrato on the lower notes can be better than on the higher notes, and how I try to compensate for that is to use diaphragmatic breathing correctly, and I try to use all of my body
—all of my breathing to compensate for the disadvantages of my instrument.