Is the jaw harp an instrument for dreamers? Is it an instrument for good-humoured people? Is it an instrument for curious sound hunters, experimental music lovers and noise enthusiasts? We were digging in the archives and want to share with you music of Meredith Monk, Sainko Namtchylak, Leonard Cohen, Daniel Higgs, Stiller Has, Dizzy Gillespie and other notable harper.
You´ll find some uncommon jaw harp music, leaving the common territories of traditional and world music. You’ll enter musical fields, where this instrument is hiding in the rhythm section of the band or pushing forward as brave solo instrument next to trumpet or bass. Sometimes the jaw harp is “merely” the usual twang instrument, that makes the rhythm swing; sometimes it´s the “salt and pepper” in the composition; some pieces show the experimental, highly individual approach to play the instrument; and others present the jaw harp as an autonomous instrument in jazz and avant-garde music.
The songs you discover here are not necessarily played by Jew’s harp virtuosos in the classical sense. Most suggestions do not come from a traditional jaw harp background. The examples show, that the instrument is taken up from musicians respectively artists, to express personal sound ideas. They take us as listeners in very individual musical worlds, attempting to implement an extraordinary element into their music. We hope that this collection of pop, rock and jazz tunes using the jew´s harp will inspire and surprise you.
#15 First comes John Zorn´s transcendentally flouting piece “Mystic Circles” from his 2008 album “The Dreamers”. The jaw harp is pulsing and flying in this music, constantly tracing the rhythm while creating an absent-minded acoustic atmosphere. The rhythmic motives are crossing the melodies like comets enlivening the sky. Moving and contemplative.
#14 Tiger Lilly’s tune “Rendezvous with Death” from the 2016 album “A dream turns sour” is a black humoured parody of mortality. The jaw harp gives the rhythm this special notion of innocent, twinkle-toed fearlessness. Keeps the listener feeling save, and at the same time alerted to a danger, that´s hiding between the notes. The mouth harp played next to the high-pitched, sneaking voice of Martyn Jacques: an exquisite acoustic couple.
#13 Scissor Sisters "I can´t decide" from their album Ta-Dah (2006) is another black-humoured piece of music. Again the jaw harp seems just right to give a pinch of sound colour into the mix. The jaw harp is played by actress Gina Gershon.
#12 Famous German pop band 2raumwohnung released their first album “Kommt zusammen” in 2001 using a jaw harp in the opening track. Here the instrument is following the bass line. A campfire guitar, a jaw harp and the request “don´t stay alone, get together” lends the song a quite hippiesque nature.
#11 British blues rockers from Medicine Head, landed their biggest success with their single “One and one is one” in 1973. It´s featuring Peter Hope-Evans steadily playing the jaw harp at the side of the drums and the bass line. In this song, you hear how a jaw harp can be used as a rhythmical instrument in rock music. Until today Hope-Evans is a virtuoso on harmonica and jaw harp. Check out a current recording from January 2018 with his Blues Club Band.
#10 Did you know Dizzy Gillespie was not only a genius trumpet player, but also an excellent jaw harper? Check out Dizzy Gillespie´s album “To a Finland Station”, which he recorded with fellow trumpet player Arturo Sandoval 1982 in Helsinki. You´ll find Dizzy playing the jew´s harp on the tracks "First Chance" and "Dizzy the Duck". Discover the jazz jaw harp as a rhythmical instrument, but also as a magnificent solo enchanter. In an interview Arturo Sandoval says, Dizzy had a lot of humour in his music. He played the jaw harp a lot. Sandoval remembers: “He gave me one of his instruments, and he taught me how to play it.” Further Gillespie playing a jaw harp was featured in one episode of “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s. There he emerges as the music teacher Mr. Hampton, who plays around with the famous twang-instrument for one of the Huxtable daughters. (For all of you who want to see it: the episode is called “Play it again, Vanessa”.)
#9 Gina Gershon Solo: Here is another funky track with US-American actress Gina Gershon on the jaw harp. She plays it as a solo instrument in a duo full of joyful laughter with bassist Christian McBride on the song “Chitlins and Gefilte Fish”. Find it on McBride's 2011 album "Conversations with Christian".
#8 Swiss Mundart from Bern region is celebrated by the ingenious group Stiller Has. In their song “Gruusig”, recorded in 1994 for their album “Landjäger”, the jaw harp is backing up the lyrics of the vocalist, sounding truly weird – just as the song title suggests. For all of you, who can´t tolerate to listen to a jaw harp, that sounds totally wrong and awkward, please don´t listen to this.
#7 Daniel Higgs is an US-American musician and artist whose musical expressions are influenced by experimental sound expeditions, post-hardcore music and global music vibes. Higgs is (or was) the head of the band Lungfish who actively played together from 1987 till 2005. Their style was shaped by repetitive, almost meditative sounds. Since more than ten years Higgs follows new cooperative and solo projects. The Jew’s harp accompanies him on this trail. In 2003 Higgs published the album “Magic Alphabeth” solely dedicated to the quest of mouth harp vibrations. You hear an experimental approach that settles somewhere between folk and noise, excessively exploring a personal voice through the jaw harp.
#6 Harvey Matusow´s Jew’s Harp Band is the most extravagant approach to contemporary jaw harp music. The album “War Between Fats and Thins” was recorded in 1969. Matusow is not primarily known as a musician. He is popular for his carrier as a member of the communist party and spying for the FBI in the McCarthy era. He has been linked to artists first in the US and later in his English exile. He was involved in the organisation of film- und avant-garde music festivals, was working for TV and radio and recorded this crazy LSD-influenced jaw harp album with his Jew´s Harp Band.
#5 Harpist and singer-songwriter Joanna Newsome recorded 2006 her beautiful epic song “Emily” on the album “Ys”. You´ll have to wait almost till minute ten of the twelve minute long song to hear some very scarcely sprinkled jaw harp dots. This song is a painting and an incredibly lyrical encounter.
#4 Most of you may know, that the great Leonard Cohen was fallen for some twang colour in his music. Hold your ear on “Tonight will be fine” from the album “Songs From a Room” (1969) and “Is This What You Wanted” on “New Skin For The Old” (1964). You´ll hear some reminiscent association with country style Jew´s harp playing on “Tonight will be fine”. While on “Is this what you wanted” the jaw harp, again very close to the bass line, acts like a comment for the strophe of the song.
#3 Nothing needs to be said about the legendary song “Guns of Brixton” from The Clash´s 1979 album “London Calling”. Legendary.
#2 A spiritual, but at the same time experimental approach can be found in the musical works of Tuvan artist Sainko Namtchylak. Listen to "Tuva Blues" on her album “Stepmother City” from 2001. The blending of Tuvan tradition and contemporary musical explorations fusion here in an almost transcendent way.
#1 Meredith Monk is awarded our number one in DAN MOI´s hit list #amazingjawharpmusic. On her album “Songs from the Hill” from 1979 the US-American vocalist, composer and choreographer dedicated one solo piece to the “Jew's Harp”. It´s another very personal expression on the instrument, that roots in the contemporary traditions of experimental music.