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Harm van Sleen

Harm van Sleen is a Dutch multi-instrumentalist (mostly bass and pedal steel, but also occasionally keyboards, guitar, mandolin, violin, trombone, dobro, and banjo), singer, songwriter, arranger, performer and teacher, who releases the occasional album. Equally at home in jazz, blues and rock styles on both acoustic and electric bass, his bass playing betrays the influence of James Jamerson, Willie Weeks, Chuck Rainey, Slam Stewart, Tom Fowler, and Bernard Edwards. As a steel guitarist, Harm likes to explore all the possibilities of the instrument, and is a big admirer of the early pioneers Joaquin Murphey, Herb Remington, Maurice Anderson, Curly Chalker, and Jerry Byrd, but is equally inspired by the more recent trailblazers Lionel Wendling, Mike Neer and Mike Perlowin. As for his own albums, the songs display a wide range of influences, including early swing, folk, bluegrass, blues, gospel, and pop, but what the songs have in common - even the melancholy ones - is the joy of making music that continues to be the guiding force in Harm's life.

Childhood

One cold morning in 1965 Harm was born in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, but the early years were spent in countries as diverse as Syria, India, Algeria, Zambia, and the USA, finally settling down in the Netherlands. Spending his childhood in so many different countries might account for his eclectic tastes in music as well as in musical instruments. Two years in Zambia were largely spent playing guitar and writing songs, and one year in the USA was an opportunity (encouraged by the music teachers in high school) to pick up the electric and acoustic bass, as well as baritone horn.

Education and influences

In 1984, Harm enrolled at the conservatory in Hilversum in, majoring in electric bass, and graduating in 1989. His teachers included Jan Hollestelle, Theo de Jong and Marcel Schimscheimer.

Performing

From 1989 onwards, activities as a working musician commenced, both as a steady member of various bands and as a freelance allrounder and session musician. A lifestyle of change and variety became a much-loved habit: doing concerts in barns, living rooms, theaters, concert halls, outdoor festivals, bars, radio and tv shows; at home and abroad (including performances in Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Romania, Croatia, Slovakia, Ireland, England and the USA); backing up famous artists as well as up-and-coming diamonds in the rough; getting the VIP treatment one day and suffer abuse the next - no two gigs are alike!

Harm's contribution to the blues community was recognized when the Dutch Blues Foundation presented him with an award as Best Dutch Blues Bassist of 2011.

Albums

Bassman's Holiday (2005) is a highly personal album that features contributions of many close musical friends and guest appearances of family members, lyrics of a very personal nature, and an eclectic collection of songs that betrays influences as diverse as Elvis Presley, Steely Dan, bluegrass and jazz. Perhaps too diverse for mass consumption, but reviews were positive, and one song, Brown Paper Bag, received an honorable mention in Billboard's Song Contest 2005.

In Harm's Way (2007) was released by the short-lived band The Sleen Gang. One concert was recorded and produced the bulk of the material on this cd. Still, despite terrific contributions by guitarist Erik Rutjes and keyboard wizard Frans Heemskerk, the release of this cd was not the huge commercial success Harm had hoped it would be.

The Secret To Success (2016), while boasting a title that sounds very smug and self-congratulatory, is an account of the more difficult stages in life, when marriage falls apart, parents die, good things disappear and illusions are smashed. The influence of old-time music is noticeable in the songs on this cd, incorporating swing, Hawaiian and cajun music. One of the highlights is a duet with blues diva Candye Kane in one of her final performances.

Teaching

Besides performing Harm also spends a few days each week as a teacher, working at various music schools - currently at Het Klooster. The challenge is always, how do you discover the origins of any problem the student might encounter - if a rhythm isn't performed correctly, is it for lack of a beat, or is it lack of dexterity, or a misunderstanding of how the notes are divided in relation to the beat, or is it something else? This almost feels like detective work. Then when the real problem is identified, some very basic exercises will usually do the trick and the student will suddenly take a quantum leap forward. This is rewarding work, and usually benefits both the student and the teacher. More of my thoughts on the delights and challenges of teaching can be found here.

A very different approach to teaching is needed when one is working with people with intellectual disabilities. Which is what Harm was facing when out of the blue he was approached to be musical director for United by Music. These musicians turned out to be very talented, and have done some wonderful performances all over the world. The band now boasts a repertoire of over 120 songs including jazz and swing standards, rock & roll, blues, boogie woogie, pop and gospel. It's been a very rewarding experience for all involved.

Composing and arranging

Harm writes and arranges music for various groups, including unusual ensembles that need arrangements specifically tailored to their needs. Gossip (recorded by Capelino, Lisa Otey and Fem@il) made it to the top 20 in the jazz/blues category of the 10th Unisong International Songwriting Contest. Brown Paper Bag (from Bassman's Holiday) received an honorary mention in Billboard's songwriting competition.

Interview for Simone's Songlines