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The Passion and The (Joe) Powers

A tango quintet joins the Bach Festival stage
Joe Powers wields his harmonica
Joe Powers wields his harmonica

Any Oregon Bach Festival audience member could list the instruments she expects to see on the stage at Silva or Soreng or Beall — strings, of course, and the piano, some brass, woodwinds, percussion, maybe a triangle, if we’re stretching things, or a xylophone or glockenspiel. But this year, one more instrument joins the ranks: the harmonica, wielded with consummate skill by a local boy who has made it through his devotion to tango.

That’s right: tango harmonica. Joe Powers, who majored in music composition at the UO, returns to Eugene July 13 with his Tango Quintet in the middle of a barnstorming four-city Oregon Bach Festival tour (putting the “Oregon” part into the OBF, as executive director John Evans likes to point out). 

No one can blame Powers for falling in love with the tango — or the harmonica. He started playing the free-reed instrument at age 2 after someone gave it to him as a gift (and after his parents somehow did not take it away and “lose” it in a park), but it took him a little longer to fall for the dance that originated in brothels at the edge of towns in Argentina.

In Powers’ senior year, he decided he was going to learn Spanish, so after he graduated, he moved to Buenos Aires. “I stayed for a year and a half, dancing every day,” he says. One day, a friend in Buenos Aires introduced him to the music of Hugo Díaz, a (relatively) famous Argentinian tango harmonica player. Powers was captivated.

“I became very inspired, went back to Portland and formed a band,” Powers says. “One thing led to another, and I started traveling overseas.”  With or without his quintet, Powers has performed in countries all over the world — because, he says, “there’s a tango club in every big city.”

 

Tango, which started out rough around the edges as the dance of prostitutes and their johns at the brothels, got picked up as a craze by Parisians — and, Powers says, the Argentinian and Uruguayan elites, who originally hated the idea of the dance, soon found themselves wanting to emulate the Parisians. That’s how the dance, and the music, became more formalized and more dignified in the 1900s — at least as far as a dance that’s clearly about foreplay can be bound by rules and noble aspirations.

This means it’s not actually so odd for the Oregon Bach Festival to host tango, especially in a year called “The Power and the Passion.” Powers asked Argentine tango pianist Octavio Brunetti and Argentine guitarist Guillermo García (who happens to hold a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford as well as being a world-class musician) to join him and two other musicians for the Bach Fest. 

 

“I’ve always held the Bach Festival in high regard,” Powers says. He says that he looks forward to bringing the music, and the dance (most of the musicians are also dancers — and they won’t be alone up on that stage) to Portland on Wednesday, July 11; Bend on Thursday, July 12; Eugene on Friday, July 13 and Ashland on Saturday, July 14. 

Powers promises that it’s not only his harmonica that may give the audience a frisson of pleasure. “There will be,” he says, “fun surprises.”