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The DAN MOI Jaw Harp Blog ♫

In our Blog we write about Jew´s Harps and other musical instruments, about ourselves and about events and artists connected with us or our instruments.

  • How the jaw harp became a commodity in Great Britain and Ireland: Michael Wright’s book about the jaw harp

    “The Scottish and Irish integrated the jaw harp into their music culture, the English did not,” writes Michael Wright in his book about jaw harps in Great Britain and Ireland, which was published in 2015. Even though the English didn’t play the jaw harp that very often, since the 18th century at the latest England was one of the largest jaw harp manufacturers and exporters. In his detailed book about the British and the Irish “jews-harp” the jaw harp expert Michael Wright contributes important information about the economic and cultural history of the widespread instrument. On what trade routes did the jaw harp get to England and who bought it? Why became Birmingham the center of jaw harp manufacturing? Who built the instruments? Why is the jaw harp in English called jews-harp? The book is recommended for jaw harp lovers and beginners, but also for experts. It provides the basics of the instrument, uncovers several correlations in the European history of the jaw harp and invites to look into the numerous references from archives about the culture of the instrument and its depiction in the fine arts, architecture and press.

    Michael Wright book The Jews-Harp in Britain and Ireland

    Although music is not the first priority in Michael Wright’s “The Jews-Harp in Britain and Ireland“ it is possible to get an idea of the music from the British and Irish jaw harp. Wright’s book contains recordings in a supplementary CD, which all root back to the Wright family – who are the strongest protagonists in fostering jaw harp culture over the last 50 years. The recordings are from 2008 to 2015. Some of them are from the legendary John Wright, Michael’s brother. Particularly the last piece on the CD (no. 17) is impressive: Banish Misfortune. It’s the first piece that John Wright taught his brothers in 1968. The three-tone played jig from Ireland unfolds a broad tapestry of sound and covers the whole range of instruments. It’s the example for polyphonic jaw harp playing per se.

    The book comes in 3 parts with respective 3 chapters. All basics regarding origin, name, and already published literature is summarized in the first part. The jews-harp as an economic commodity with traders, jaw harp smiths, and oversea buyers are outlined in the second part of the book. Part 3 is a collection of numerous jaw harp sources and references in arts and culture of several eras.

    Part 1: Basics

    How is a jaw harp sound formed, what playing techniques have an impact on the sound, how is the instrument defined in old encyclopedias and what literature does already exist? The first chapter named “Theorists” explains those basics. Right at the beginning Wright is posing a question, which will be discussed from different angles: does the jaw harp belong to “pluck idiophones” – as defined by musicologists Hornbostel and Sachs in their classification – or is the jaw harp an aerophone – as suggested by the jaw harp expert Frederic Crane – since the sounds are created by air swirls and the jaw harp material itself does not produce the sound.

    In the second chapter the next discourse starts. What is the origin of the jaw harp? Since experts and scientist haven’t agreed on a common theory yet, Michael Wright decided to collect what archaeological findings are able to prove. He discusses the function of the instruments in history. While the jaw harp in Siberia has had a spiritual meaning until today Wright proves that in the territory of today’s Great Britain and Ireland it was an affordable instruments for relatively poor people. Wright comprehensively analyses the archaeological finds and insights. He mainly refers to the research of the archaeologist Gjermund Kolltveit. They prove that in the 15th century the jaw harp was a commodity for the mass market. This conclusion is discussed in detail in the second part of the book.

    In the third chapter, a discourse with importance for the English-speaking area is being discussed. It features the origin and use of the term jews-harp. Wright researched more than 3,000 newspapers, journals, trading papers and dictionaries to find out, in what times how often the word was used. He portrays the history of the word jews-harp with the support of those references . He demonstrates that different terms circulated such as Gewgaw, Juice Harp or Jewes Harp. Wright agrees to the thesis that a lot of those words may have originated based on misunderstandings, e.g. words were written down as heard. Yet one can only speculate – Wright points out that there have been many attempts to prove how jews-harp became the common name of the instrument. Some arguments were confusing, others just ridiculous.

    A very detailed overview is outlined in the section named “The Jewish Connection”. It helps the reader to understand why the term jews-harp today is being critically perceived and partially being avoided. Since the instrument has no historical connection to Jewish culture and the term has been used in anti-Semitic or at least pejorative contexts as early as the 19th century, some jaw harp fans in the English-speaking community more and more have come to use “mouth harp” or “jaw harp”. If due to popularity one sticks to the term “jews-harp”, then, as Wright suggests, the word should be written without apostrophe and thereby create a proper name that does not allow the association to “harp of the jews”. That’s why in his book Wright continuously uses the term jews-harp without apostrophe and with hyphen.

    Part 2: Economic commodity

    The second part of the book is named “Commercial Exploitation”. Why did the jaw harp become already popular in the 13th century? Wright presents sources that prove a very early import of jaw harps in large quantities from the Netherlands to England. “There is no proof that back then the jaw harp had some ritual and social status. Furthermore. It didn’t have any particularly high financial value either. Nevertheless it was established that since the 13th century the instrument was shipped into the country in considerable numbers.” If one follows the trail of Michael Wright’s research, this commercial flow, which is proven by numerous documents, is connected to the economic upturn in the 12th and 13th century that is named by historians as the “Commercial Revolution”. The jaw harp became an import item in England. Its cheap price appears to be an indicator that people with a humble background were able to afford such instrument. The question where in Europe the jaw harps were produced remains unanswered as indication about the production site of larger quantities prior the 17th century is yet missing. So far it’s only known that many items were transported by ships from ports of the Northern and Baltic Sea into the country.

    The making of jaw harps in the big production centers of Boccorio in Italy and Molln in Austria can only be traced back to the early 17th century. In Great Britain, too, the production started about at the same time. England had its first own “trump-maker” since the 17th In the late 17th century the families in the West Midlands, in the wider Birmingham region, started producing jaw harps. Michael Wright describes in his book how Birmingham became one of the biggest jaw harp production centers in Europe. The tiny instrument as a mass commodity: in chapter 5 that features the jaw harp smiths in Great Britain and Ireland Wright demonstrates that as early as from the 19th century on jaw harps were made in different qualities, meaning there was a certain price range for the instruments. Still, one could buy jaw harps for only a few pennies, but more and more higher-priced items were sold as well. As Wright shows, some families passed down the heritage of the craftsmanship over many generations. Chapter 6 depicts how their jaw harps were shipped in vast amounts to North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Many instruments remained in Scotland and Ireland. There, the jews-harp was a popular instrument among a lot of people.

    Part 3: Jaw Harp References

    The third part of the book is the work of a collector. In chapter 7 and 8, Michael Wright provides references of historical and present representations of the jaw harp in art, architecture and media. These chapters are meant for the reader to browse, explore and be amazed. The readers will find caricatures, illustrations, paintings, and poems. An entertaining read that is fun and emphasizes the humoristic, playful side of the jaw harp. The last chapter is dedicated to British and Irish jaw harp players. The reminiscences of past jaw harp players that were convicted with the death penalty as thieves and murderers is curious. Particularly memorable is the story of Geillis Duncan who even played for the king with her jaw harp until she was executed in 1590 due to allegations of practising witchcraft.

    Reading all those stories, one wishes to be able to hear some historical jews-harp moments with one’s own ears. As far as it is known, the oldest jaw harp recording roots back to the year 1933. It was played in the song “I took my harp to a Party”. Furthermore, at the end Michael Wright refers to some jaw harp recordings. A collection of popular music songs that use the jews-harp is covered as well. The part about the new generation of jaw harp players, the role of the jaw harp in the internet and the outlook to the future are touched rather fragmentary.

    The book delivers many impulses. The strongest impression makes the depiction of the jaw harp in Great Britain and Ireland as a good and economic commodity. Wright demonstrates in a vivid manner and based on numerous proof how the instruments developed from an import good in the 13th century to an export good in the England of the 18th century. Unfortunately, it cannot precisely established what kind of people in the 13th century used the jews-harp on what occasions. Here, source material is missing. Again, we need to assume that at that time the jaw harp was given a low cultural status. Wright quotes the English author Samuel Pegge who wrote in 1778 that this instrument is nothing more than a “boy’s toy”, which would neither go along well with a voice nor with a music instrument. Content-wise, the book has a stronger focus on Great Britain and Ireland. The book does not deal with the music itself, i.e. the repertoire for English and Irish jaw harp. It was published in English by Ashgate. For a scientific paper, unfortunately “The jews-harp in Britain und Ireland” is with 80 Euro much more expansive than the average book.

  • The jaw harp hotspot in London: Jonny Cope

    Currently, there are only a few people, really, who play the jaw harp on a sophisticated level or organize events for the instrument, reckons jaw harp expert (acting as musician and smith) and didgeridoo master Jonny Cope from London. During a chat with Helen Hahmann from DAN MOI he talks about what has changed for the instrument on the island, what fascinates him the most whilst playing, and what beginners should be looking out for.

    Jonny Cope at the Ancient Trance Festival for Jew's Harp and World Music 2014 Jonny Cope at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014

    In the last 15 years the jaw harp has gained enormous momentum. It is more present in the public as it’s being recognized as a music instrument and developed further. Globally festivals emerged, time and again young musicians appear in the scene, new jaw harp smiths have started to sell high quality instruments, and books are being dedicated to the very subject. In England, the Wright family are seen by many as the experts, when it comes to jaw harps. John Wright was an ambassador and expert for the instrument until his death a few years ago. His brother Michael Wright just recently published a book about jaw harps in Great Britain and Ireland. Jonny Cope has been an active player for the last decade and added another hotspot for jews harps to the island.

    Playing the jaw harp is kind of an addiction for many players. Either you put it away rather swiftly or you get strongly addicted”, even though it is a simple instrument, says Jonny, the vast variety of styles adds to an astonishing complexity of the jaw harp. “An instrument from China is completely different to one from India or Russia. They involve other techniques and sounds. I’ve never been able to head into one direction, and so I started to learn all of them. I travelled a lot and picked up a lot of knowledge from the local people. Sometimes you are sitting for days and are trying to imitate that sound. This approach makes you better in distinguishing how the tones are created – whether by tongue, by throat, by air streams, or by voice. I don’t necessarily intend to copy someone. The point is rather to share techniques and to integrate them into my own play.

    Though Jonny states he virtually loves all styles that can be played with the jaw harp currently he is particularly fond of the Norwegian art of jaw harp playing. The special thing in Norway is controlling the jaw harp to a degree, where melodies can be played. He opens one of his impressive jaw harp cases, where quite different instruments rest in fabric patch pockets, one of them is made by the legendary smith Bjorgulv Straume.

    "I was 9 when a friend of mine came to school with a jaw harp. Back then, the both of us had no clue what this thing actually was. He wanted to get rid of it. He made me curious and he gave it to me in exchange for a chewing gum. My grandfather knew this was a jaw harp and he showed me how to hold it and how to produce a sound. But I didn’t end up playing for a long time as it was one of those big English jaw harps. The tongue of the jaw harp constantly hit my teeth, and eventually I stopped playing. It dates back to the 1950’s and I still have it.” Many years later, roughly around the year 2000, Jonny Cope listened to jaw harp music on CDs and remembered the little Twang instrument. He dug up the item from his past childhood barter and discovered the diversity of the jaw harp: about its popularity in so many countries and that has such an amazingly diverse sound. “I started out as a didgeridoo player. I’ve always been interested in unusual sounds and techniques. That’s why I learned overtone singing and then the Mongolian Khöömei. Back then, I didn’t have a teacher, so I learned from listening to CDs. On many of the recordings from Tuva and Mongolia there was also jaw harp music and that’s how I re-discovered the instrument."

    In another life he would past his time as a music ethnologist, confesses Jonny Cope. His ears would always be drawn to unusual sounds. Even when somebody in his presence would whistle or hum a melody he would carefully listen as a boy. “I’d say I’m a sound researcher. Same as ever, I’m listening to music that friends bring over. Some of them are ethnomusicologists. They bring by old, rare and sometimes even unlabelled recordings. I’m listening to this crazy stuff and then I’m trying to find out what exactly I’m listening to.” Today, Jonny Cope not only mastered the didgeridoo and the jaw harp, but is also proficient in playing diverse flutes.

    Jonny Cope at the Ancient Trance Festival for Jew's Harp and World Music 2014 Jonathan Cope at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014

    When talking about it Jonny Cope often uses the term “jaw harp”. There has always been some uncertainty about the more common term “jews harp”, which has been controversially discussed in the UK. Until today there is no existing explanation why the jaw harp is being called “jews harp” in England as there is no tangible connection to the Jewish population. However, there are several theories how the term might have been changed based on the Chinese whispers principle. “In France they sometimes say ʻjoue trompeʼ, which means “playing the trumpet”. So perhaps, people heard the word joue and understood jew. That’s only one possibility, though. In Scotland the term gewgaw was used over a long time. But even the knowledge about how to correctly pronounce the word has gone lost. Only a couple of years ago I made a trip to the South of the US. I showed someone my jaw harp and he said, “oh yeah, a juice harp”. The way he pronounced the word sounded like “orange juice”. Then I wondered, what that actually has to do with the jaw harp at all. That’s a good example how people try to make sense when they misunderstand terms they hear.

    In the 18th and 19th century Birmingham in England was, along with Molln in Austria, one of the most productive areas for jaw harps in Europe. The instruments from England were mainly shipped to North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. In the Birmingham area alone during its peak time there existed roughly 30 families that produced jaw harps. At the end of the 19th century still close to 20 jaw harp producers were still registered. However, manufacturing the jaw harp became less and less profitable, which led the last jaw harp smith Sid Philip in 1975 to sell his business to a US company. Since then Jonny Cope is the first who started making jaw harps again. “I’m learning to forge the jaw harp in Norway. They forge the Munnharpe – instruments that are slightly different to the English jaw harps. But I like the Munnharpe and am learning the basics there, anyway. I’m already able to produce it in England myself. One of my friends also started to learn the forging business now, too.” Jonny Cope does not only make jaw harps in his forge. As a lover of ancient history he also forges spearheads and swords.

    If you really want to learn playing the jaw harp, I think the most important thing is possessing a really good jaw harp.” Jonny knows what he’s talking about. Having conducted countless workshops he got numerous people acquainted with the instrument. On the online platform Udemy you can even find one of his jaw harp beginner’s courses. “There are simply too many instruments out there with bad sound quality. They are ok to play a simple rhythm. However, who’s able to clearly decipher the overtone sounds and is in to experimenting with sound spectrums should get himself an instrument that actually can do that. Currently, I’m playing with instruments from Estonia, which over there are called Parmupill.

    Fangjen (Norwegian Folk Tune)

    [audio mp3="//www.danmoi.com/wordpress/en/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/04/Jonny-Cope-eigene-komp-spring.mp3"][/audio]

    Spring (by Jonny Cope)

  • Revival in West Russia: The Russian jaw harp expert Aksenty Beskrovny

    30 year old Aksenty Beskrovny from Moscow is already one of the most important experts representing the jaw harp to the public not only as musicians but also as scientists. When he discovered the jaw harp for himself in the age of 18, he decided to wholeheartedly focus on this instrument. Since then he has been studying it with his whole attention and living on his activities as a jaw harp virtuoso. He plays solo concerts, cooperates with international musicians, and he gives lectures and runs workshops. Aksenty adds new features of sound to the Russian jaw harp technique. And thereby he also draws attention to the mouth harp in Western Russia.

    You can reserve a copy of Aksenty Beskrovnys book "Fundamentals of Vargan" till 7 May 2017 on the crowdfunding website planeta.ru and at the same time support this ambitious publishing project.

    Russian Jews Harp Vargan expert Aksenty Beskrovny. Foto by Olga-Prass.

    Russian Jews Harp Vargan expert Aksenty Beskrovny. Foto by Olga-Prass

    Letters to Aksenty

    In some areas of the Russian Federation jaw harp music is officially acknowledged and even fostered, such as in Yakutia (Sakha), in the Altai region, in the Republics of Tuva and Bashkortostan. Research, classes at music schools and concerts add to the lively interaction with the instrument. In the areas of Russia less touched by the mouth harp the scene organizes itself. Such as in Moscow – where for several years single enthusiasts have been trying to achieve more public acknowledgement for the jaw harp and to remind of its historical roots.

    To find out more about the Russian Vargan, I wrote directly to Aksenty Beskrovny and asked him to tell me about his life as a professional jaw harp player in Moscow. We conversed via a number of emails in which he described his approach to the jaw harp playing. I wanted to understand his personal appreciation of this instrument which seemed to be far from any specific regional tradition.

    "Книга призвуков" – The book of overtones

    At first I listened to a few of Aksenty’s latest pieces on his website aksenty.ru. The single recordings belong to the constantly updated web album "Книга призвуков" which could be liberally translated as “book of overtones”. The tracks are called “improvisations”. For each track Aksenty plays a jaw harp with a different keynote. These mouth harps are made by the smith Sergei Pyzhov. Aksenty writes that he has tried out a few thousand different jaw harps from all over the world in the past years. “There have been a few really good models among them. But since 2012 I have only been playing instruments made by Sergei Pyzhov. Some of his models seem to be made just for me. With them I enjoy music the most.”

    Russian vargan from Sergey Pyzhov

    Russian vargan from Sergey Pyzhov

    One can hear it on the recordings: the melodies and florid passages swing with precise contours, they float dynamically and rich in resonance. The “book of overtones” is a study of jaw harp music centering on melody. In parts it reminds of the Norwegian jaw harp tradition, but with less strokes. Aksenty uses the swinging of the mouth harp tongue to produce several notes with only one stroke, and to integrate shades (overtones) and slides into the music.

    Aksenty Beskrovny’s style of jaw harp playing is characterized clearly individually. But this musician is not only led by his own intuition, he also benefits from the exchange with other musicians. In one of our emails he wrote: “When I started playing there was hardly anybody in my area, in and around Moscow, who could have taught me. So I taught myself how to play the mouth harp. I improvised a lot and did not follow any certain tradition. I totally fell in love with this kind of music making, and until today I have mostly been playing my own improvisations. But a lot of experiences I also collected at jam sessions with other musicians. In the past years I have played music with hundreds of jaw harp players from all over the world. This has been an enormously important treasure of experience for me. Many of those people were part of a certain jaw harp tradition or played their very own jaw harp style. Through them I could always broaden my own concept of mouth harp playing.”

    A life as professional jaw harp player

    For about eleven years already Aksenty has devoted himself extensively to the jaw harp. When others attended university he chose an autodidactic study of the Vargan. He writes: “If you want to work as a professional jaw harp player you got to do everything by yourself: you have to finance your work by yourself, to organize your own projects, lectures and presentations, and you got to care about improving your playing technique.” Without doubt it is a huge challenge in a city like Moscow where the jaw harp is not really popular yet. But Aksenty does not regret his decision. “I understand these same daily challenges as very enriching.”

    The reason for being fond of this of all instruments is, according to the improvisation artist himself, that the mouth harps differ profoundly from all other instruments. “The music is created in yourself, in your own body. While playing you literally transform yourself into an instrument. The sound changes with every move of your muscles. It is a wonderful process: you compose music, and at the same time you create a unique musical instrument with your body. The more you play the Vargan, the more your body interacts with the music. I like to be part of this very process and to feel like an explorer of my own skills.”

    The jaw harp is immortal

    His first tone on a jaw harp the Muscovite did not play on a Russian Vargan but on a mouth harp from Austria by Karl Schwarz. “I tried to play it and I even managed to coax a few sounds out of it. I liked it, and since then I haven’t stopped playing the jaw harp.” Since that day Aksenty Beskrovny has not just played the instrument but also studied it. “The jaw harp has an amazing history. In many countries it is connected to an own tradition, mostly it has even got a country-specific identity. Therefore the mouth harp traditions of two countries often differ totally from each other. These instruments have existed throughout all eras and all over the world. According to my opinion this is possible because the jaw harp does not only exist within a tradition but to some extent also outside of traditions. Local societies change, sometimes even become extinct, but this small simple mouth harp just can’t get lost. This is the reason why I am so interested in the history of these instruments. Sometimes I spend days in a library to discover a new detail.”

    Research on Russian Vargan by Aksenty Beskrovny

    Aksenty Beskrovny is doing research on Russian Vargan

    Even if he feels like a lone wolf at times, over the years a small Russian jaw harp scene has evolved. And this nurses Aksenty’s hope that the jaw harp in West Russia might experience a revival anytime soon – not least because of the continuing work of mouth harp enthusiasts like him. After all, such an upturn is said to have been successful a few times already, such as in Sakha where the jaw harp playing hardly played any role a few decades ago and where today it is supported and spread through many public activities. “Yakutia is a good example and a hope for all those who wish for a professional development of jaw harp traditions in other areas, too.”

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