A German diplomat with a huge passion for American born music

By Herbert Quelle

The role of music in my work-life balance

Music has always been and continues to be an essential component of my existence. Harmonica and guitar (self-taught) and piano (taught for one and a half years) were the instruments put at my disposal as a teen. But there was an insurmountable gap between passion and professionalism. And I was fortunate to have a master pianist as an uncle, who left me in no doubt about my deficiencies. Due to him I did not even try to pursue music as a career, but instead detoured via teaching into the Foreign Service.

For long periods the demands of my diplomatic life limited the time I could invest in practicing or improving my skills as a musical performer, but I always listened to music, and experienced creative phases as a composer, arranger and lyricist. After being “discovered” as a keyboarder by an expat Rock band in Warsaw, I went onstage again in 2001, for the first time after more than twenty years. And I loved it. Furthermore, I realized that my musical hobby did not only not conflict with my duties as a civil servant representing Germany abroad, but actually complement them.

Various functions and layers of music in interstate relations

Relations between countries are incomplete without a musical component. In the interest of comprehensiveness one cannot ignore mentioning antagonistic battle songs and military marching bands whose foremost raison d’être is creating a nationalist hype in times of war. Fortunately, national hymns being played for a visiting head of state as the highest expression of welcome and recognition, or at award ceremonies of international competitions are more frequent and common than the former.

But, below the official interstate protocol there is a global civil society network in which artists, among them musicians, play a major role for peaceful relations and sustainability. Music opens the door to people a diplomat could not otherwise easily reach. Forming a band or for once bonding on stage to the surprise - and mostly the delight - of an audience is in principle not very different in Berlin, London, Baku or Chicago for players familiar with the universally known 12 bar blues pattern or with conversing on the basis of a lead sheet.

An extremely productive relationship with Thomas

Coming to the end of my diplomatic career after 39 years in the German Foreign Service, and meeting such a fantastic pianist, composer and arranger as fellow countryman Thomas Günther in my final post Chicago, is an incredible coincidence. Since arriving here in 2014 I can count Howard Levy, Corky Siegel, Joe Filisko, Billy Branch, and many other top diatonic harmonica players of the world among my friends. Their example has challenged me to truly study the instrument I first held in my hands when I was ten. Thomas’ skills at the mixing board have their share in this audible result.

The experience during the improvisational recording sessions with Thomas has been outstanding. Most arrangements were developed during brief trial and error takes without formal rehearsals. Due to a broken piano in the “studio,” however, the production process had to be changed. From then on Thomas sent me prerecorded mp4 piano files leaving me total freedom as to the harp part. When I met him for the next recording session, I surprised him with what I had rehearsed. My dubbing over his piano part sometimes inspired him to modify or further elaborate his original arrangement.


Why the harmonica?

Apart from having become the instrument with which I feel more confident to perform in public than on piano or guitar, the harmonica and Christmas just seem to belong together. Some hundred million German harmonicas have been exported to the U. S. since the mid nineteenth century, with marketing campaigns of the German producers always focusing on the Christmas season. So, using the harmonica for Christmas songs was the most logical choice. Having published "Monika's Blues," a novella on the connection between the harmonica and the blues, my main style of interpretation was pretty much predetermined as well. On this album I am playing 1847 Noblefrom Seydel in Klingenthal, Saxony.

Bridging the Atlantic with music

I am immensely grateful to Thomas for putting so much trust in this devoted student of the harmonica. It's a great pleasure and honor to be part of a musical production that intends to promote the interest of Americans in Christmas songs little known on this side of the Atlantic, and to interest Germans in interpretations of their own traditional music inspired by the original American art forms of blues and jazz.