"Tran Quang Hai, where does the word Dan Moi actually come from?"

DAN MOI Clemens Voigt & Sven Otto GbR
2014-10-09 00:00:00
"Tran Quang Hai, where does the word Dan Moi actually come from?"  -

Over the years, several thousand people have taken part in workshops and presentations with overtone specialist Tran Quang Hai. Tran Quang Hai has been committed to popularising the techniques of overtone singing, Jew's harp and spoon playing throughout the world for over 45 years. The 70-year-old ethnomusicologist from Paris is best known as a teacher and musician. Tran Quang Hai was born in South Vietnam and studied at the conservatory in Ho Chi Minh City before moving to Paris in 1961 to study musicology.

"I didn't get to know the jew's harp in Vietnam, but in France. That was in 1960 and I learnt to play the jew's harp from John Wright. It wasn't until six years later that I held my first Vietnamese dan moi in my hand. I was given it as a gift and didn't really know what to do with it at first. I got to know the instrument step by step." As a scientist at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris (CNRS), Tran Quang Hai came across the jew's harp collection at the Musée de l'Homme.

Even then, the collection comprised over 300 different jew's harps from all over the world. Among them was the Dan Moi from North Vietnam. Tran Quang Hai got to know the jew's harp better and better through recordings, learnt songs and imitated techniques until he finally began to compose his own pieces for the jew's harp. He has written over 20 works for jew's harp.

Tran Quang Hai then also sought out the jew's harp in his native Vietnam. The instrument was not particularly widespread in the 1960s; it was only played by the Hmong in northern Vietnam. The Hmong primarily play melodies on the rab ncas, the local name for the jew's harp. Rab ncas, says Tran Quang Hai, is a rather complicated word in the Hmong language. When he set out in search of the Vietnamese jew's harp, he immediately realised that he needed a term that was easy to pronounce outside Vietnam. He therefore gave the jew's harp the now popular name "Đàn môi". "Dan means instrument and moi means lips, i.e. the instrument that you press against your lips. So the term dan moi comes from me," says Tran Quang Hai, not without pride.

Tran Quang Hai added rhythmic patterns to his own jew's harp style. This was simply more attractive to listen to for Western audiences, for whom he performed most often. "When I play the jew's harp, I quickly slip into the role of a researcher. Traditional techniques are not enough for me. I listen to other jew's harp players and incorporate some elements into my own playing, e.g. from the génggong from Bali, the karinding from Java, the kubing from the Philippines or the morchang from India." Against this background, Tran Quang Hai sees himself above all as a creative developer of new approaches and techniques for playing the jew's harp. He typically uses his thumb to pluck the tongue of the jew's harp to play fast, rhythmic passages. This allows him to produce a very individual sound that is similar to a fingerprint and can be combined with a wide variety of musical styles. Tran Quang Hai plays so convincingly as a soloist that his "beats" even allow a hip hopper to dance to them.

It is a sign of friendship to be able to hand a Jew's harp to someone. Tran Quang Hai appreciates the small instrument because it can accompany him wherever he goes in his trouser pocket or rucksack. He takes it out of his pocket on all sorts of occasions and plays it for people who ask him. It is a challenge, but also a great joy, when Tran Quang Hai can make the instrument sound for other jew's harp players. "They are the ones who hear every nuance when playing and are eager to try out new movements or sound effects themselves. They probably listen more attentively than most people," enthuses Tran Quang Hai. There are regular opportunities to play in front of experts at the congress of the International Jew's Harp Society (IJHS). As a member of the IJHS, he enriches the regular meetings with workshops, his own performances and his contributions as an ethnomusicologist and specialist in overtone instruments.

Tran Quang Hai can be found on many sites on the internet, here are his own websites where he writes in English, French and Vietnamese and regularly publishes exciting videos:


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