News & Politics

A DC Musician’s Harmonica Haunts the “Killers of the Flower Moon” Soundtrack

Frédéric Yonnet helps capture "the spirit of greed" in the film with his quivering, bending notes.

Frédéric Yonnet in Cannes, France. Photograph courtesy of Carla Sims.

When Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated Killers of the Flower Moon opens on October 20, a local sound will accompany the Western crime drama about the Osage Indian murders and the birth of the FBI: Woven throughout the “bluesy” and “percussive” music score are the quivering, bending notes of DC-based harmonicist Frédéric Yonnet.

Yonnet is considered a world-renowned, urban jazz harmonicist, known for incorporating the instrument into unexpected genres such as R&B, funk, gospel and hip-hop. “I’ve also developed several techniques that allow me to morph the harmonica into sounds that are very close to a violin or guitar, a human voice and sometimes a piano,” says Yonnet, who who has lived on Capitol Hill for more than twenty years.

Originally from France, Yonnet moved to DC “for love” in 2001, he says. His wife, Carla Sims, works as a communications professional in the entertainment business. Through her, he became close friends with Dave Chappelle, who later introduced Yonnet to Stevie Wonder. Captivated by Yonnet’s style, Wonder brought him on tour. (As Chappelle put it during an NPR Tiny Desk concert: “He’s so good at playing harmonica that another man good at harmonica hired him.”) Since then, Yonnet has also played with Prince, John Legend, Ed Sheeran, and John Mayer.

Yonnet says he crossed paths with Scorsese’s go-to film composer, Robbie Robertson (who died in August), by happenstance at a house party years ago. Robertson, who had led the rock group the Band and was a former lead guitarist for Bob Dylan, was close friends with Scorsese, often serving as music director for his films. “At the time, I didn’t realize who I was talking to,” said Yonnet. He must have made an impression nonetheless. Months later when working on the score for The Irishman, Robertson and Scorsese reached out to Yonnet. “They wanted the harmonica to be the sound of an almost a grim reaper-like figure in The Irishman,” said Yonnet, who got the part. “It would basically be a musical highlight [portending] that a death was about to happen.” You can listen to his ominous yet sultry playing in The Irishman here.

When Robertson and Scorsese began working on Killers of the Flower Moon, they enlisted Yonnet once again. “I asked Scorsese, ‘What is it about my playing that makes you want to kill people?’” said Yonnet. 

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While the harmonica may have portended death in The Irishman, it plays a slightly different character in Killers of the Flower Moon. According to Yonnet, “It is the sound of greed.”

“I think Robertson and Scorsese realized that the sound of a plucking, upright bass with my harmonica lingering behind it and sometimes in front of it—sometimes sneaky, sometimes screaming—was ideal to highlight when the spirit of greed was coming back into play,” says Yonnet, who saw the film for the first time during its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last spring.

While New York or Los Angeles might seem more attractive to someone so steeped in the entertainment industry, Yonnet prefers to stay in DC. Musically, “there’s just something about the DC sound that, to my ears, is always a notch above the other markets,” says Yonnet, who’s built a close-knit community in Washington. During Covid, he brought his Capitol Hill neighborhood together for socially distanced concerts, in which he and his band would play from the windows of a gutted house he and his wife were renovating. “We did it every weekend for the entire year,” says Yonnet, who now plans to do one more concert for his neighbors before that house becomes a home.

Until then, Yonnet is focused on finishing up a new album he plans to release later this year. “If you follow my social media, you will definitely hear about it,” he says.

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor