For over 20 years Ansel Barnum has sucked at the harmonica—and blown too. Over that time he's undertaken this common instrument with uncommon finesse. Breaking with convention, he that constrain it to show how underestimated the little mouth organ is.
A student of master and innovator Howard Levy, Ansel pushes the limits of the reeds using chromatic techniques that unlock access to all the notes in the diatonic harmonica. His vivid tone gives a mature voice to this child's toy which he's taken across diverse musical borders, from folk to funk, Celtic to classical, blues to baroque, and traditions in between. This versatility has made him a popular sideman to an array of bands who ask him both to the stage and on recordings for session work. But it wasn't always so.
For most of his life, Ansel was a closet harmonica player, timidly playing behind closed doors out of public earshot. Then in 2004 he took a job in Allentown PA where his life suddenly grew culturally and socially bleak. So born from a mixture of boredom and loneliness he mustered the courage to step on a local open mic stage, which just happened to be the renowned folk music venue Godfrey Daniels. His sets were usually unaccompanied solos as being a squawking newbie doesn't attract anyone to play with. But he returned week after week, each time marveling at the talent of others, and getting humbled by it. Then one day someone invited him onstage for a song, and didn't let him off when it ended.
Since moving to Philadelphia in 2012, Ansel has quickly made a name for himself in the music scene. In less than a year he was invited to perform at the venerable Philly Folk Festival where he showcased his duo and lead harmonica workshops. 2013 also saw his return to Musikfest for a third year in row to perform on its esteemed stage. And the Spring Gulch Folk Fest chose his duo as the year's emerging artist. In 2014 he was invited back with his band The Downtown Shimmy to kick-off the festival. Ansel had the rare distinction of winning renown folk venue Godfrey Daniels' annual Best of Open Mic contest twice, first in 2008 then again five years later. He has played numerous guerrilla showcases at Folk Alliance International's (FAI) annual conference and also the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance (NERFA). In 2014 he toured with his band The Downtown Shimmy through cities including Memphis and Memphis where they competed in the International Blues Challenge. This summer he'll travel with them again to Denver Colorado where the band is being flown out to play Mile High Blues dance festival. Ansel will also be appearing on local festival stages including Philly Folk Fest where he'll have the honor of hosting a centennial celebration of Sonny Boy Williamson (I) and also to teach a hands-on harmonica instruction workshop.
For a guy who never had any desire to play in public, the harmonica has lead him to spend a lot of time in the spotlight. Little could he have imagined it when he first picked up the instrument many years ago.