Pocket Synthesizer - The polyphonic jaw harp Kou Xian

Even our pocket synthesizer is a jaw harp. To be precise: it consists of several mouth harps which are held together at the lower end like a fan. For transportation they can be tightly folded up and put into a small wooden casing. Therefore the pocket synthesizer can also be called a fan jaw harp.

Thus our pocket synthesizer is not an electric or electronic device as one might suppose, but a purely acoustical instrument, the sound of which reminds of a synthesizer. The reason for this is mainly because of the overtone modulation which is happening in the mouth and pharynx. But firstly each of the reeds/tongues has its own basic key. The oral cavity serves as a resonating body to amplify the respective tone. Breathing can also be applied to gain special effects. But the real specialty of this instrument is the overtones which can be produced by certain positions of the oral cavity and the tongue, as one does while speaking for example.

But where does this instrument originally come from?

The pocket synthesizer is not a new invention. Jaw harps have probably existed for thousands of years. But this special model with several tongues originally comes from China, more precisely from the province of Yunnan. And to be even more precise: from the Yi-people – the seventh largest minority in the Middle Kingdom. Among the Yi this kind of jaw harp is called “hoho”. The most common Chinese term for the pocket synthesizer is “kou xian”. In the documentary on the left side Jonathan Richter is tracking the jaw harps of the Yi. In the selected clip you can see and first of all hear the probably most famous musician Ma Guo Guo and how she plucks a firework of sound.

Besides the traditional Chinese pocket synthesizers “kou xian” from Yunnan we also have more modern versions from Vietnam at the DAN MOI shop.

The Chinese originals are tuned in a traditional way, whereby no Western scale is complied, but the single keys just harmonize with each other. They are available as sets of two, three, and four.

The latest pocket synthesizers from Vietnam have various advantages: they are even easier to play and tuned in Western keys (A=440Hz). Here they are available as prefabricated sets with a lot of interesting and “useful” chords and scales, but also as single tongues which can be combined optionally from the keys C#3 to D#4 (in case they are all in stock). The pocket synthesizers were developed together with our jaw harp producers in Vietnam. In our workshop in Germany we are concerned with the fine-tuning, the combination of sets, and the quality check.

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