Over many years, several thousand people participated in the workshops and presentations of the overtone specialist Tran Quang Hai. Tran Quang Hai has been involved for over 45 years in promoting worldwide awareness of the techniques of overtone singing and jew's harp and spoon playing. The ethnomusicologist from Paris, now 70 years old, has become known primarily as a teacher and musician. Tran Quang Hai was born in South Vietnam. He studied at the Conservatory of Ho Chi Minh City before moving to Paris in 1961 to study music.
"I became acquainted with the jew's harp not in Vietnam but in France. That was in 1960. I learnt how to play the jew's harp from John Wright. Six years later, I held my first Vietnamese dan moi in my hand. I received it as a gift, and at first I really didn't know exactly what I was supposed to do with it. I learnt the instrument step by step." As a scientist at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, Tran Quang Hai came across the jew's harp collection at the Museum of Man (Musée de l'Homme). Even at that time, the collection consisted of over 300 different examples of jew's harps from around the world. One of these was the dan moi from North Vietnam. With the aid of sound recordings, Tran Quang Hai became increasingly familiar with the jew's harp, learnt songs and mimicked techniques, until he finally began to compose original pieces for the jew's harp. He has composed over 20 works for the jew's harp.
Tran Quang Hai then sought out jew's harps even in Vietnam, his birth country. The instrument was not particularly widespread in the 1960s, and in North Vietnam it was played only by the Hmong. The Hmong mainly play melodies on the rab ncas, as the jew's harp is called locally. Rab ncas, according to Tran Quang Hai, is a rather complicated word in the Hmong language. As he proceeded with the search for the Vietnamese jew's harp, it immediately became clear to him that he needed a term that could also be easily pronounced outside of Vietnam. So, without hesitation he gave the jew's harp the now popular name "Đàn môi". "Dan means instrument, and moi means lips, therefore, the instrument that you press against your lips. So the name 'dan moi' comes from me", Tran Quang Hai states, not without pride.
To his own jew's harp playing style, Tran Quang Hai added most notably a rhythmic pattern. To the western audiences for whom he now primarily played, the sound became more appealing. "When I play the jew's harp, I quickly slip into the role of a researcher. For me, the traditional techniques are not enough. I listen to other jew's harp players and incorporate some elements into my own playing, for example, from the Génggong of Bali, the Karinding from Java, the Kubing from the Philippines or the Morchang in India." With that being said, Tran Quang Hai considers himself first and foremost as a creative developer of new approaches and techniques for jew's harp playing. Typically, when playing faster, more rhythmic passages, he uses his thumb to pluck the tongue of the jew's harp. This allows him to produce a totally unique sound, almost like a fingerprint, that can be combined with a variety of different music styles. Tran Quang Hai is so forceful a soloist that his "beats" enable even a hip hopper to dance to them.
It is a sign of friendship when one can reach his/her counterpart through a jew's harp. Tran Quang Hai prizes the little instrument because it can go with him everywhere in his pants pocket or backpack. He brings it out of his pocket at every possible opportunity and plays for people who request it. It is a challenge but also a great joy when Tran Quang Hai can bring his sound to other jew's harp players. "They are the ones who hear every nuance that is played, and are eager to try the new techniques or sound effects for themselves. They are probably more perceptive listeners than most other people," says Tran Quang Hai enthusiastically. An opportunity to play in front of experts comes regularly at the International Jew's Harp Society (IJHS) conference. As a member of IJHS, he enriches the regular meetings through workshops, his own performances, and his substantial contributions as an ethnomusicologist and specialist in overtone instruments.
Tran Quang Hai is being quite popular on many websites in the internet. He is also running several pages in English, French and Vietnamese where he writes and publish exciting video clips once in a while: