Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

For ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ Scorsese gave a D.C. harmonica master one task: Capture the sound of greed

Frédéric Yonnet accompanies the score to Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” on harmonica to capture the sound of greed.  (Michael S. Williamson/Washington Post)
By Olivia McCormack Washington Post

What does greed sound like?

If movies are to be believed, it probably feels like the lush fur of a mink coat. It might smell like a musky cologne and taste like that first sip of expensive champagne. It almost certainly looks like a center hall of a mansion – glossy, gilded, a little garish.

But what does it sound like? Martin Scorsese contemplated the question in thinking about the musical accompaniment to his historical drama “Killers of the Flower Moon” and came up with an answer that might surprise you: a harmonica.

The stop-at-nothing desire for more, more, more sounds like air moving in and out of an old-timey, rectangular, fit-in-your-pocket instrument.

Specifically, it sounds like Washington, D.C., harmonica master Frédéric Yonnet playing that little music box.

“Every time greed pokes his nose on the screen, you hear the upright bass plucking and my harmonica starting to play in front of it,” Yonnet said in a phone interview.

Yonnet, who was born in France and moved to Washington in 2001, didn’t intentionally navigate his career in the direction of a deadly sin. Mostly, he’s been bouncing from limelight to limelight. Yonnet’s harmonica wizardry caught the attention of Stevie Wonder, with whom he’s repeatedly shared a stage – most famously when the two whipped a crowd into a frenzy with a 2007 harmonica duel at Madison Square Garden. Yonnet has since gone on to perform with Prince, John Legend, Erykah Badu and Ed Sheeran.

Yonnet was introduced to Scorsese through composer Robbie Robertson, a regular collaborator of the legendary filmmaker. Robertson, who died in August after a storied career as a member of the Band, in addition to his many Scorsese projects, brought Yonnet on to “The Irishman” and offered the harmonicist a few instructions: Be sneaky, sexy and unexpected. Robertson gave him, Yonnet recalls, “the license to kill.”

“They just gave me a moment to just, ‘Do you, do what you hear, do what you feel based on everything we’ve recorded,’ ” Yonnet sais. “Those are the takes they actually kept.”

In the final cut of “The Irishman,” Yonnet’s harmonica serves as a warning that something terrible and violent is imminent.

“That is something Scorsese is extremely talented at doing,” the harmonicist said. “He’s basically attributing a persona to the instruments in order to underline the story.”

For Scorsese’s latest film, which opens Friday, Yonnet needed his instrument to signal a lust for money so blinding it could compel men to murder members of the Osage Native American tribe in a quest to control their land’s oil. Yonnet initially recorded in Los Angeles, then, once film editing had begun about 10 months later, he was asked to record some additional music from a studio in D.C.

The result stunned even Yonnet. “During the after-party at the Cannes Film Festival, I commented to Martin Scorsese my astonishment about a specific scene highlighting his remarkable ability to synchronize the emotional intensity of my sound with that of the main character, Mollie,” Yonnet recalled via email. “Scorsese beamed with pride, gently tapped his chest with his index finger and said, ‘I edited that myself!’ ”

In Yonnet’s adopted hometown, the musician is known for the opposite of greed. During the early days of the pandemic, he buoyed spirits around his Capitol Hill neighborhood by performing from the open windows of his rowhouse.

Now he is working on a retrospective project, one he said will serve as a “showcase of 30 years of sharpening my craft as a harmonica player and digging the deep emotions that this friendship with my instrument has been creating throughout the years.”

Friendship, it turns out, also sounds a lot like a harmonica.