Busking jaw harper: Byon Kay

DAN MOI Clemens Voigt & Sven Otto GbR
Busking jaw harper: Byon Kay - Busking jaw harper: Byon Kay

Since many years the Japanese busker and multiinstrumentalist Byon Kay is touring China, Thailand, Japan, Australia and Europe. Regularly he stops by in Taucha (Germany) at the Ancient Trance Festival. He uses a loopstation, mouth harps, nose flutes, thelevi rattles, overtone flutes (harmonic flutes) and other effect instruments to amaze people and to make them dance. DAN MOI was talking to Byon Kay about his approach to play mouth harp. During the interview he plucked constantly his mouth harp, a Dan Moi from Vietnam. Finally he played one of his beats for us.

How do you approach music and of course especially jew´s harp playing?

When I was 15 years old I bought an electric guitar. I liked heavy metal. So in my 20s I was playing guitar in a band. When I was 30 years old I went to Thailand, to Koh Phangan Island. That island is famous for its full moon trance party. When I was going to that island, I was on the boat and I heard boing boing boing [Byon playing his mouth harp]. I heard the sound of a mouth harp. I found a guy who was playing this dan moi mouth harp and he was from Berlin. He was selling them and so I bought one Dan Moi from him. On Koh Phangan Island I went to a lot of trance parties. When I got back to my home and I played boing boing boing [Byon plays his mouth harp] and I thought this is also trance music, but more organic. And I liked it, so I played every day.

Then I went to Australia for a working holiday to study English. I was working in a sushi shop and get only seven dollars in one hour. But I saw a lot of street musician in Sydney, so I bought a microphone and amplifier and I tried to play music on the street and then I got a hundred dollars in one hour! Oh my god! So I quit my part-time job and became a busker.

So since then I play on the street, in pubs or bars or on festivals. Like this I have been to many many countries. I always start to play on the street and suddenly somebody comes to me and asks me, „Can you play in my pub“ or „Can you play in my festival“. So yeah, it's really good.

What does the jaw harp mean to you? Which parameters of the instrument do you appreciate?

The jew´s harp is a special instrument. If I flick the tongue, you hear only this vibration. But if I hold it in my mouth [plays] I get the sound. So I am a part of the instrument, me and the jews harp have become one. This vibration makes overtone in my mouth and that overtone can make a melody [plays]. So overtone is very very important, I think. It makes the sound character and I think it's good for our brain and mind, too.

What is your personal connections to the instrument?

Jaw harps in Italy are called the scaccia pensieri, which means „blow my mind“. So yeah, it's quite right sometimes. I forget myself when I´m playing the mouth harp. Just because I concentrate to the sound and the sound coming from inside of me. At the same time I can hear the outside sounds. So I feel a kind of oneness with the instrument. I forget myself sometimes, but I still keep playing and so that is the best time to play jaw harp for me. Maybe I’m connected with the universe, I don't know, but I feel so good.

Would you say that your music has any meaning? Are you telling stories with your music or do you have pictures in mind when you play?

When I play the most important thing for me is to express my mind or my emotion. I also want to make people happy. I have been playing on the street, so if I make people happy, I can get more coins. So I want to entertain. I’m not like a musician like listen to my music quiet, no, not like this. I want to enjoy together with the audience.

What are your experiences when the audience meets your instruments, especially the mouth harp. Do people know the instrument or is it something that still is rare?

Almost all people don't know this instrument. When I´m playing on the street, people stop but the harps are very small, so people don't know what I’m doing. Then I say, „come closer, don't be shy, look at this great instrument, this is no trick, this is no computer, this is no effect machine, I am an effector and a sound producer“. Of course I use a microphone but it's for the volume. After my performance people come to me and try my jaw harps. Some buy one. They ask me how to change the sound and how to play. The great thing is, there is no rule and it's very very easy for everyone to play. If you play piano or guitar you have to pay a lot and you need a lot of lessons to enjoy. But if you choose to play the mouth harp, you buy one and you can enjoy playing immediately.

That's so true. The mouth harp is a very open instrument, it really welcomes you even though you have not so much experience in music. From all of your instruments you're playing, is there one that you like to play the most and why.

Yeah, I like the jaw harp most, because the jaw harp is my life. This is a great instrument with a lot of mystery. I think in almost all countries of the world people have different version of jew´s harps. But some countries lost their tradition, like Japan. Only recently people rediscover the tradition. In Hokkaido area there live the Ainu people. They have their bamboo jaw harp Mukkuri. They are still making them. But it keeps being a mystery, why all over the world exist jew´s harps. It's a very unique instrument, not very common in the world now, though it exists all over the world.

You are totally right. There is a book that has collected more than 1 000 names for the jaw harp in the world. Wherever you go, in many countries you find them. There are so many different names for it and so many different versions of the instrument. It's the magic of this little tiny instrument. Could I ask you to play a piece for us.

So my jaw harp style, the style I like, is actually very very slowly. But for my audience I play to entertain people, so I play dance music in quick motion:

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