Harmonica Khan | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Harmonica Khan


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Born George Meares in 1934, Harmonica Khan spent much of the 50s and 60s shuttling between his native North Carolina and the urban northeast, working day jobs and various gigs as a nightclub entertainer. He moved to Chicago in the late 60s, where as "Harmonica Kid" he sat in at venues such as the Trocadero on South Indiana and Pepper's on 43rd. But when he wasn't working he was getting in trouble. He served several short prison terms for fighting and drunkenness, and in 1976 he killed a man in a fight in the lobby of the LaSalle Plaza Hotel; he was sentenced to 25 to 75 years for murder. In Stateville, Meares-El (as he now calls himself, having joined the Moorish Science Temple) got involved in an inmates' music program, and in 1985 he appeared on Jammin' in the Joint, a limited-issue LP featuring the project's participants. Paroled last year, he's now trying to jump-start his music career. He cites Sonny Terry as his main influence, and the southeastern folk styles he favors make him a bit of a throwback--his tone is broad and reedy, he alternates between light 2/4 rhythms and a more modern deep-pocket shuffle, and on up-tempo numbers he interrupts his trainlike chugging effects with hoarse whoops. He also plays the bones, a percussion instrument originally made from animal ribs that nowadays consists of two or three strips of wood or hard plastic, which are clacked together like castanets. Khan's stage act is as anachronistic as his music: bug-eyed and gape-jawed, as if astonished by his own virtuosity, he tap-dances, spins, and plays while lying on his back, kicking his feet high in the air. He's the kind of "living history" we often read about but seldom see in person. Saturday, February 8, 10 PM, Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage; 773-342-0452.

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