A little extra bit of Baltimore made its way onto "Dancing with the Stars" last night, thanks to Stevie Wonder.
When the Motown recording legend appeared onstage to play a beautiful, pared-down version of his 1969 hit "My Cherie Amour," he accompanied himself on a harpejii -- a fretted string instrument invented just five years ago by a Baltimore County man.
"I got a text message yesterday from [Wonder's] keyboard tech, saying it was going to be on there," said Tim Meeks, noting he had worked with Wonder over several days last year, teaching him how to play. "He's incredible. His work ethic is incredible. I don't think anybody really knows how hard he works behind the scenes. I was pushing him really hard, and he was keeping up really well."
Meeks devised the harpejii as an alternative to the piano. In a July 2011 Baltimore Sun article, he complained about the piano, "I always felt a little bit frustrated ... I wanted it to be more expressive. I wanted to make it sing. When you hit a note on the piano, you're done. There's nothing you can do."
That may be a little harsh on the piano, which in the proper hands (and fingers) can be plenty expressive. But there's a wafting, sensual melodicism to the harpejii that is clearly catching on among musicians. Coldplay has bought one, and Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman ("Slumdog Millionaire") played it on the 2011 Academy Awards show (the song was "If I Rise," from the movie "127 Hours").
On "DWTS" last night, Wonder played the harpejii while seated, with the instrument stretched out in front of him. Performers play it somewhat like they do a guitar, by tapping on a string to produce a note.
You can see Wonder's performance below -- that is, if you're not overly distracted by Tony Dovolani and Anna Trebunskaya dancing sultrily in the foreground.
Weeks said he's heard Wonder is working on several albums, including one with veteran producer David Foster that will spotlight new versions of the singer's classic songs.
"I was told the harpejii is going to be all over that album," Weeks said.