Artist profiles: Hazmat Modine

Hazmat Modine

Hazmat Modine is a band of unconventional musical instruments and cultural combinations that reflect the origins of the American musical soul. Their debut CD was Bahamut (Barbes Records 2006).

The band is led by two harmonica-players rounded out with tuba drums guitars and trumpet and recruits guests appearing on lesser-known instruments such as the claviola (an unusual free-reed instrument), cimbalom (a large hammered dulcimer of Eastern European origin), the contra-bass, saxophone and the sheng (Chinese mouth organ).

The band plays an unexpected mix that may include Blues, Rocksteady or Gypsy music. “If you want to be faithful to the music forms that made American music great,” says Hazmat leader Wade Schuman. “You have to be faithful to what made it great not to the music forms themselves. American music is by its essence music that comes out of the so-called melting pot of different cultures banging up against each other. And that was the creative aspect.”

Schuman explains that the first real Blues hit ‘St. Louis Blues’ by W.C. Handy included a minor-key tango section. “That is one of the things that makes the song what it is,” says Schuman. He points to the significant influence of Latin and Caribbean music in the 1930s and the huge influx of immigrants into New York City. “There were few studios in Trinidad ‘ explains the harmonica-player vocalist and guitarist. ‘Most Calypso musicians were recording in New York so many of the early Calypso recordings were related in some way to America. The point is that we live in a nostalgic commodified world where we believe that Rock and Roll or Bluegrass or Dixieland are rigid music forms not influenced by outside factors. But that is not the history of how American music happened. It’s really quite dynamic and based on a phenomenal cultural shift in the early part of the 20th century.”

At the same time Schuman recognizes that regions of the United States each had their own local flavor. “Without television and with limited national radio things didn’t homogenize as fast,” said Schuman. “Things would gestate in a lot of creative ways in different locations. Here in New York there are these individual music scenes full of incredible musicians. And I do try to tap into all these different spheres.”

Hazmat’s band members come out of many backgrounds. Guitarist Pete Smith will often give a song a Cuban or Brazilian spin. Veteran tuba player Joseph Daley not only brings a wealth of knowledge from his work as an improvising artist but is also respected as one of the United States’most creative ‘lower brass specialists.’ Drummer Richard Huntley hops from Latin and Jazz to Klezmer while Pamela Fleming uses her vibrant trumpet to bridge everything from the Swing era to soulful Reggae. Guitarist Michael Gomez who plays every style from finger-picking to Swing-Jazz to Rock and Roll also plays the Banjitar and the lap steel guitar. While Schuman’s harmonica repertoire evolved out of Pre-War Blues and roots Randy Weinstein draws on Chicago Blues Jazz and World Music.

The small diatonic harmonica was popularized in Germany as a folk instrument, almost a toy. It was sold in massive quantities and was affordable to American Southerners, both African-American and European-American. “They pulled from it things it was never meant to do,” explains Schuman. “Bending a note is an accident of physics creating that glissando blue note. An instrument designed for one thing is used in a different way and a new music form is invented for it.” The harmonica pictured on the cover of the debut CD Bahamut is a real instrument from Schuman’s collection and offers a visual metaphor for the band.

Discography

Bahamut (Barbès Records/JARO, 2006)
Cicada (Barbès Records/JARO, 2011)
Hazmat Modine Live (JARO, 2014)
Extra-Deluxe-Supreme (JARO, 2015)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.

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