Harmonica contest promises originality, hot performances

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Contestants at this year's sixth annual SocorroFest harmonica contest have only five minutes to "wow the judges." The prizes range from the $300 first prize to a $50 fourth prize, but the prestige of winning the event is much more important than the cash.

Contestants at this year's sixth annual SocorroFest harmonica contest have only five minutes to "wow the judges." The prizes range from the $300 first prize to a $50 fourth prize, but the prestige of winning the event is much more important than the cash.

"Harmonica Mike" Handler of Country Blues Revue really covets the first prize, so much so that he has even written original music for the contest. Handler is co-writer of the 2012 Best Country Song at the New Mexico Music Awards.

"This is my third time competing," he said. "I've gotten third and fourth place. I've even written a song — SocorroFest Blues."

Handler plans to use four or five harmonicas when he performs the blues tune as well as an original jazz number.

The popularity of the contest has increased since its founding.

"In the last six years, it's been growing," said contest organizer Gene Cole. "It's one of the highlights of SocorroFest. It's such a popular event. It's always a good draw for crowds."

Contestants will be judged by a six-member panel consisting of people with a music background.

"We prefer someone who has a good sense of musicianship, preferably a musician," Cole said. He chooses judges who can evaluate the contestants' techniques and skills objectively.

Cole uses a database of past contestants and SocorroFest volunteers to get the word out to the best harmonica players in the region.

"Throughout the year, we attend other musical events," he said. "When we encounter a good harmonica player, we invite them to compete."