“You may not think I’m French, but I am,” said a latte-colored man with frizzy hair over a loud speaker hidden in a sculpture garden on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
At the performance last fall, there were no signs leading to the concert where French harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet performed. The only giveaway was the ground moving under your shoes. A mass of people hugged the contours of a water fountain. Candles adorned a bowl-shaped dish. A makeshift stage stood in front of the restaurant at the National Gallery of Art - Sculpture Garden. A woman tosses her shoes, dances by herself wailing “Tell Me Something Good.”
An all-male ensemble samples a number of soul hits—the likes of Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder and some original scores. After a while, the singing fades and Yonnet blows his harmonica and I’m thinking how could someone born in France have so much soul? A simplistic thought, for sure, but the conventional artistic wisdom holds that it was black American artists who went to France taking the soul, not the other way around. But globalization is not just an economic force; it’s cultural, too.
Growing up in the suburbs of Paris in an artistic family, born to a white Frenchman and a Guyanese black woman, Frédéric Yonnet was primed for a life of performance. His grandfather, Jacques Yonnet, was a noted author. Before his teenage years, he and his father had put together a two-man show and performed it around town. He would eventually move almost every four years, soaking in the musical speech of the influx of immigrants in France. During a segment of his performance, Yonnet talks about his visit to Senegal and plays a tune that was subtle, muffled, and beautiful still.
Before moving to the District, Yonnet, whose last album was entitled Front and Center, was a part of a bourgeoning underground jazz movement that swept across Europe. It was in the night spots in the heart of Paris where Yonnet found an audience for his harmonica and ebullient spirit. “I use to hang out with all of the immigrant musicians in Paris. There was solidarity in not looking French.”
Frédéric Yonnet has broken barriers with his harmonica, earning himself a spot on stage with Stevie Wonder, Prince, John Legend and Erykah Badu, connecting with diverse audiences. Yonnet’s sound is a cross between Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder with the tethered edginess of a Lenny Kravitz. At 36, he’s what music connoisseurs would consider eclectic, funky and hip.
In a clip of him in a concert hosted by Dave Chappelle, you can hear the blues aesthetic at work. There is something not from this time or planet in his performance. He reaches what many jazz musicians call the “sublime” in relatively short breaths. This is just a sample of what it’s like to experience his performance in person.
His virtuoso performance aside, his music left me dumbfounded, the way he could slip into a tune and make it his own. To see Frédéric boogie-woogie on his harmonica over a Chaka Khan song or a Stevie Wonder song shattered any notions I had about what it means to be black. I’m convinced this “soul” that infuses this black Frenchmen’s music is something you cannot learn or imitate. Something happened that moment I heard Yonnet play his harmonica.
Just as we have all heard Billie Holiday play “God Bless the Child” so have others across an ocean. And how beautiful it is to hear the tune played without words with the harmonica capturing every nuance of blues feeling that only Billie Holiday can pull off.
“I want to expand the perceptions of the instrument” Yonnet told me. “It’s a toy that I must convince everyone that it’s an instrument, and it’s possible to create music with and make a living.”
As Stevie Wonder once said, “music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand.” Watching Yonnet perform proves that maybe blackness is large enough to reach across an ocean.
Abdul Ali is a freelance writer living in Washington D.C.