Hering Harmonicas: Building a Better Harmonica in Brazil
by Bryan McCann
Daniel Ern Ilberto Manke tunes yet another Hering harmonica
Blumenau, Santa Catarina - Ilberto Manke leans into his work, filing microscopic brass shavings from a set of virgin harmonic reeds. Manke is a tuner at the Hering harmonica factory in this small city in southern Brazil. Pumping a pedal beneath his wooden work table, he summons a jet of air that rises from a hose through a set of standardized reeds, producing a sweet hum.
When he takes a new reedplate – one-half of the guts of a harmonica - fresh from the assembly line and places it on top of the standardized reeds, the clash is cacophonous. With a few rasps of his file, Mr. Manke brings a muddy A-flat up to concert A, shimmering at precisely 440hz. The rest of the reeds seem to follow obediently, rising to harmony under the tutelage of his file. In less than a minute, the whole room reverberates with the celestial swell of a well-tuned harmonica.
Manke seems to know a thing or two about tuning, although he is relatively new to the job. He has been with Hering only since 1960 - fellow tuner Osmar Setter has been at it since 1958. Together, the pair tunes most of the 30,000 harmonicas Hering produces every month.
Manke and Setter are typical of the workers at Hering, who employ artisanal skills honed by generations of their German forebears. The factory itself - a cavernous wood and plaster shed that looks more like a Bavarian ski lodge than an industrial plant - underlines the continuity. The production end of the harmonica business here has changed surprisingly little since Alredo Hering founded the business in 1923. More of the stamping and cutting of the instrument’s basic anatomy is now given over to heavy machinery, but the close work that turns a pile of parts into a resonating marvel is still done by practiced hands trained through rigorous apprenticeship.
The marketing end of the business, meanwhile, has changed dramatically.
Through the 20th century, harmonicas straddled the divide between toys and musical instruments. Hering itself manufactured musical toys through the mid-1990s. Diatonic harmonicas - the small kind, usually with 12 holes and 24 reeds - were inexpensive enough to be nearly disposable, limiting the benefits of careful manufacture. And the market for fine chromatic harmonicas - the large kind, with the spring-operated slide that triggers a second set of reeds - was so small and fragmented that its specific needs were met mostly through after-market customization.
But in the 21st century, a niche market that used to be fragmented is now linked by instantaneous communication. Vigorous online discussions about arcane topics like the physics of reedplate resonance and the optimal glue for replacement valves keep harmonicists in Germany, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere deeply informed about the minutiae of manufacturing.
In Blumenau, globalism drives localism. The more Hering strives to meet the demands of the finicky wired consumer, the more it draws on the cumulative expertise of artisans like Manke and Setter. The result is that the Hering factory, a kind of outpost of 19th century German manufacturing in subtropical Brazil, flourishes for another generation, training a new cohort of apprentices.
Hohner, the German company that is the dominant player today, controlling roughly two-thirds of the world market for serious harmonicas, began churning out the first factory-produced harmonicas in 1857, and became a household name at about the same time as Otto von Bismarck.
Parallel streams of German immigration to the US and to southern Brazil then yielded similar consequences - the local popularization of the harmonica, adapted to new musical styles like the blues and choro, the ragtime-like music practiced with fierce devotion by many Brazilians.
But Alfredo Hering’s decision to transplant old-world manufacturing techniques to Blumenau gave Brazil something the US never had - a thriving home-grown harmonica factory that maintained the old traditions in the new world.
A generation ago, it seemed like globalization would eliminate this odd survivor. Hohner bought Hering in 1968 but sold it in 1975. Hering struggled through the 1980s, its work force and market share shrinking. In 1993, current owner Alberto Bertolazzi left the São Paulo financial market and bought the company in a speculative venture. “My idea was to buy Hering, quickly sell off its shares to international investors interested in the brand name, and return to São Paulo,” he remembers.
But Bertolazzi’s acquisition happened to coincide with the rise of listserves catering to the obsessions of previously splintered subcultures. As he eliminated the toy line and prepared to sell off the company, he found himself bombarded with increasingly specific suggestions for adjustments that might increase air-tightness, resistance to humidity and tuning fidelity - the three challenges that most vex the industry.
A new niche was opening - the possibility of reaching harmonica mavens through pre-market artisanal detail rather than after-market customization. Instead of selling shares, Bertolazzi turned to the older generation of Hering workers and to professional Brazilian players like Ronald da Silva (a.k.a Ronald da Gaita), and they began tinkering. The retro-model 1923 Vintage - a 12-hole diatonic with a wooden body and brass screws that would be instantly familiar to a 19th-century German - grew out of such experiments. So does the Stan Harper 56, a 14-hole, 56-reed chromatic harmonica that is the new pride and joy among Hering’s artisans.
The instrument draws on local materials and the factory’s wellspring of artisanal lore. The body of the Stan Harper is made of sustainably-harvested Amazonian hardwood. Its new, low-profile mouthpiece eliminates wasted breath and improves response. And thick brass reedplates produce greater resonance.
None of these details have stopped serious harmonicists from indulging an elemental urge to become one with the instrument by adjusting its innards.
José Staneck of Rio de Janeiro, for example, switched from a 12-hole chromatic to the Stan Harper as soon as it became available. In his estimation, “This instrument is amazing. I barely did anything to it.” Meaning all he did was: take apart the harmonica and, using a curved jeweler’s awl, carefully bend each reed to the exact height suited to his playing style. Then he cut 14 holes in a piece of scotch tape, exactly matching the outline of the mouthpiece, and inserted it between the mouthpiece and the reedplates, in pursuit of perfect air-tightness. Then he nestled a slim cone of aluminum around the spring, to prevent it from bruising the wooden body during trills.
But these fanatical alterations are entirely in tune with the spirit of the factory in Blumenau. On Staneck’s current wish list is a Stan Harper with a slightly higher pitch, with A tuned to 442hz, as is common in many orchestral settings. He knows that, with professionals like Manke and Setter on the job, Hering is precisely attuned to his needs.
Visit Hering Harmonicas in Blumenau, Santa Catarina
The folks at Hering are extremely friendly and happy to receive visitors to the administrative house, where they have a small display about Hering history, including old models, etc. The people there can talk about the various aspects of production. They do not normally offer tours of the adjacent factory building itself, both for safety and proprietary reasons.