Interview: JJ Milteau

Posted on November 20, 2005


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Can music be chewed? Baradwaj Rangan finds out in a conversation with Jean-Jacques Milteau.

NOV 20, 2005 – WHEN YOUNGSTERS WITH TALENT IN THEIR HANDS and stars in their eyes begin to contemplate careers in instrumental music, they probably see themselves seated in front of a grand piano, enveloped in a force field of shattering chords. Some possibly imagine themselves standing, their body swaying as if possessed by the sine-curve rhythms of their violin bow. The rest, at the very least, picture themselves doubled over an electric guitar, as if their ear – and no one else’s – should be the first to experience the emanating power riffs. But surely no budding musician dreams of a when-I-grow-up scenario wherein he walks onstage, pulls out a harmonica from the back pocket of his jeans, and begins tootlin’ away!

Well, some clearly do – otherwise Jean-Jacques Milteau would have been just another sixties’ kid who was just another Bob Dylan fan. The blues harmonica virtuoso – who recently gave Chennai audiences a taste of the blues, of the harmonica, and of virtuosity, in no particular order – recalls, “When I was a teenager in Paris in the sixties, I discovered British bands like the Rolling Stones and American singers like Bob Dylan. Their music had a lot of the blues. It’s hard to understand now, in 2005, but 40 years ago, it was a very exotic thing. Nobody had heard about it.” You’d think it was this interest in Dylan that led to the interest in the harmonica, but it was as much about the blues as the green stuff. “It cost just a dollar or so. One day, on my way to school, I passed by a music shop. I pointed to a picture of Dylan with his rack and said that’s the harmonica I wanted.”

Milteau’s affection for his instrument makes him sound part indulgently proud father, part obsessively besotted lover. “The harmonica is very, very interesting because it’s not an academic instrument. You learn it your own way, and when you play it the bluesy way, you draw the air in – that means you chew the music, you taste the music. I guess it’s the ancestor of the iPod; it’s music you have in your pocket. I like to imagine that if Elvis Presley had chosen the harmonica over the guitar, rock ‘n’ roll would have changed completely, because when you play the harmonica, you cannot smile, you cannot look at the pretty girls in the front rows – you play only for yourself.”

And yet, Milteau has been playing for audiences worldwide – from South Africa to the Polar Circle, from Havana to Shanghai, from the Mississippi Delta to the Paris Opera. “Even if people are different from one country to another,” he observes, “they react almost the same way to my performances. But this doesn’t mean that music is a universal language. I don’t believe that. I believe we all have our own codes, and it takes time to get into the music from someplace else.” That’s true of his listeners; that’s true of him – so, though he likes to learn and play local songs, to bridge gaps with the audience, that’s only if he has the time.

And during this trip, his first to India, Milteau didn’t have the time – which is probably why those of us who attended his concert weren’t treated to a harmonica version of My Dil Goes Mmmm. In fact, he confesses his exposure to Indian music has been rather limited, and no presses are going to be stopped by his revelation that it was through the Fab Four. “Through the Beatles, I heard about Ravi Shankar, but by then it was too late. I was into the blues already.” (That, possibly, and the fact that the sitar doesn’t quite fit snugly into the back pocket of a pair of jeans.) “But if I had heard it before, this might have been the music for me. Indian music can take you to another world. You hear the notes, and you’re somewhere else – but it seems quite difficult to master.”

But there’s something else he’s mastered over time, and that’s… time. “The first part of my life, I played with singers, and on movie scores – so it was all about other people’s music. But it was great experience, and, gradually, my timing got better and better. Just like a painter uses light as a foundation, a musician uses time – and I use time better now. I can play fewer notes and express the same thing. This is important, because as you get older, you don’t want to show off, you just want to share.”

Jean-Jacques Milteau’s concert was courtesy of the Alliance Française of Madras, Prakriti Foundation, Taj Coromandel, Chennai, and the Embassy of France in India

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Posted in: Music: Western