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.

  • Queen of the flutes: the bass flute Fujara

    During the opening celebrations of the cultural centre of the Slovakian town of Detva, which was conducted by the president of the parliament (and the later president) of Slovakia, Ivan Gašparovič, he gave a memorable present at the reception of his guests. He accepted the invitation of the host to play a piece on the Fujara that calls the very region its home. Without a moment of hesitation, Gašparovič began to play a piece on the bass flute that has the height of a man. No other gesture could have conveyed to the town of Detva that Gašparovič is connected to Slovakian culture. 

    Photo by Tibor Szabo.

    Detva is located at the bottom of a valley near the West Carpathians in Central Slovakia. Since the 1960’s, the small town is well-known as a centre of vivid Slovakian folklore. Detva is also the cradle of the shepherd’s flute Fujara. In the memory of the Slovakians, the Fujara has accompanied the concept of national sovereignty and independency for more than 300 years. With the founding of Slovakia in 1992, the Fujara became not only a cultural, but also a national symbol. Ivan Gašparovič himself was often giving one of these extravagant instruments as a gift to his state visitors. The Fujara can be seen in this field of tension between national roots, cultural adaptability, and modern adaption.

    It is the distinctive size, the form and the sound that make the Fujara something special among the European flutes: its sound is deep, smooth and organic. At the same time, it also sounds agile, strange and futuristic, which is due to the dazzling high overtones up to 4 octaves. The melodies originate by skillfully combining hand movements with overblowing the basic tones. That’s how those special sounds come to life. They roar, flow, gently scream, call out, and time and again find rest in murmuring sound colours.

    Instrument of Outlaws and Shepards

    Among the Slovakian Fujara masters there are names like Pavol Smutný, Tibor Kobliček, Juraj Kubinec and Dušan Holík. They know how to play the traditional way. The Fujara music is based on a handed-down repertoire of shepherd’s and bandit’s songs. Yes, bandits and thugs were also companions of the Fujara. As the history of Central Slovakia goes, they were supposedly living on the meadows and in the woods, practically close neighbours of the region’s shepherds. When shepherding the herd, the shepherds were playing various flutes. Two of them are well-known: the little Koncovka and the big Fujara. The Koncovka is sometimes called the little sister of the Fujara. Its size is approx. 50 cm and it does not have any grip holes. The tones are merely generated by overblowing and opening as well as closing of the lower opening of the flute. The bigger flute, the Fujara, was considered as the instrument of the herd leader and highest-ranking shepherd. The smaller Koncovka was rather played by his assistants. That is also one of the reasons the Fujara is being called the “queen of the Slovakian music instruments”.

    The above-mentioned close vicinity of shepherds and social outsiders is reflected in the portfolio of the Slovakian songs: those songs do not merely tell about the life with nature and an emphasis on humane and sincere interconnections. Those are also improvised pieces that reconstruct the flow of the river or the murmuring of the trees. The disenfranchised people that lived outside of the villages incorporated the call for justice and freedom against occupation and suppression into their songs. The robbers and the bandits of the 17th century are also the ones that are considered as fighting for Slovakian independency. Their most well-known representative was the robber Juraj Jánošík who today is regarded as a national hero.

    Fujara Playing Technique

    The handed-down songs for the Fujara combine instrumental play and singing. That’s why the Fujara players have been good singers, too. A performance usually begins with the signature motif, a signal that is called rozfuk. The whole range of tones is played from the highest until the lowest tone of the instrument. Traditionally, on the Fujara a 12-tone, Mixolydian scale is being played. After the opening tune rozfuk follows the first strophe, which is freely played with rich improvisations. Right after the Fujara player stops playing, he starts singing the strophe, to present the text to the listener. The master Ladislav Libica gives an example of such traditional performance in the recording of the tune “Kade idem, vsade trniem”, „Wherever I go, I tremble“: 

    The size of the Fujara is impressive. Its tube is up to 200 cm long. It is rarely shorter than 140 cm. The player holds the instrument vertically in front of the body. Due to its length, the Fujara is played with a mouthpiece that is connected to the body of the instrument and thus makes it easier to play. The blowing technique is similar to the one of the South American Moseño flute. That is why the Fujara (same as the Moseño) is relatively easy to play. Equally to the recorder the tone is generated by a so-called windway. The player blows air through the pipe and a tone emerges instantly. The challenge of playing the Fujara well lies in applying the correct grip and breathing technique.

    The Fujaras have three grip holes at the front and they are located at the lower third of the instrument. The player often needs to stretch his or her arms to reach the grip holes. The middle finger of the left hand covers the most upper grip hole. The right hand is being led to the lower tone holes. The thump of the right hand covers the middle grip hole and the middle finger the lower tone hole. In general, the Fujara does not have a grip hole for the thump at the back of the pipe. A video shows the fingers of the highly recognized Fujara master Dušan Holík at work:

    Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the origins of the Fujara. There is certainty that the making of those instruments can be dated back to the 17th and 18th century. Possibly, other music instruments of the art music sector played a role in its evolution. The bassoon and the Baroque bass recorder may have provided inspiration for making the Fujara. 

    The Fujara in the 21st Century

    Any Fujara is unique and something special. The instrument is still being hand-made. That is why every single one of them follows an individual aesthetic and tonal concept. Over the years, responding to demand the construction method was continuously adapted to the needs of the musicians. Today’s instruments meet the current needs as they are easily transportable, perfectly tuned and therefore combinable with other instruments. The distance of the grip holes, too, is slightly more convenient if compared to older instruments.

    The length of DAN MOI Fujaras is 150 cm and they are made of elder-wood. They have a splendid production quality, are well-tuned, and carefully treated to last for a long time. The flutes are tuned to the 4 basic tones A2, B(H)2, C#3 and D3. The range can be extended by many tones of the overtone series. When blowing the breathing air into the instrument with a varying intensity more tones of the overtone range can be produced by applying the “overblowing” technique. The Fujaras of DAN MOI are made by a Slovakian instrument maker who has his studio in Czechia. The Fujaras have a delicate ornament in the upper part of the flute. The surface of the flute is treated with linseed oil. They also bear a valve by which condensation water emerging during playing can be discharged.

    Today, there are more Fujara players than ever, not only in Slovakia, but also in other countries of Europe and the American continent. Meanwhile they are rarely shepherds, but work e.g. as doctors, teachers, electricians or lawyers. New compositions for the melancholic bass flute emerge, and more and more people become interested in the instrument. For many years, musicians from jazz or world music have discovered the Fujara and have been bringing her into play in various settings. Musicians as Marco Trochelmann, Bernhard Mikuskovics or Max Brumberg have made the Fujara popular beyond national borders. Nowadays, the Fujara with its touchingly deep and smooth sound is used for therapeutic purposes or for meditation.

    In Slovakia itself awareness for the Fujara has been significantly raised with the won independence in 1993. After the founding of the Folklore Festival and with instrument research in the 1960’s a first increase was already perceivable, in 1975 a Fujara competition for players and instrument makers followed. The latter can be seen as the starting point for the revival of the instrument and its repertoire. The Fujara has become known throughout Slovakia, though its traditional centre is still located in the region of Podpol’anie, Central Slovakia.

  • The acoustics of the jaw harp: Robert Vandré and the fascination of jaw harp physics

    Where is the connection between playing the jaw harp and speaking? Robert Vandré says one learns a lot about the jaw harp when dealing with the physiological and psychological speaking processes. There are similar patterns at work that generate the sound while speaking or playing the jaw harp, e.g. the movement of the tongue or the various resonant spaces in the area of the head. Robert Vandré is a hobby musician and for over 20 years a jaw harp acoustics specialist. Vandré is author of a jaw harp school and an authority for meticulous jaw harp acousticians as he examined and measured the instrument very thoroughly. Currently, there are only a few studies about acoustic parameters of the jaw harp. His website that is online since 2002 is one of the few sources that comprehensively analyse the sound properties of the jaw harp based on substantiated figures. That is why it is a treasure for instrument researchers and acousticians, but at the same time for jaw harp players that are seeking a better understanding about the functionality of the instrument. Helen from DAN MOI met Robert in 2017 at the Ancient Trance Festival in Taucha, near Leipzig.


    The mouth harp as natural scientific object

    I’ve been always very interested in the acoustic conditions of the mouth harp. I am a natural scientist, ecologist and am working as a soil scientist and a botanist. Music is my hobby. So I have a completely different approach to those instruments, if compared to other jaw harp players. Of course I am alsointerested in the feel and how jaw harp music is influencing the soul, butI alsolook closely at the different factors and want to know how the instruments work on a physical level. I am rather a technician who says: that is rhythm, that melody, that happens via the diaphragm, those are the fingers, that comes from breathing, that is articulation.

    Robert Vandré acoustically examined and measured the jaw harp and evaluated the data. He recorded the tones of a jaw harp and by support of a computer software he measured the frequency range of those tones. The range displays the overtones that resonate in a jaw harp tone (photo frequency). Since the year 2002 Robert Vandré is having a website called, where he documents and provides public access to this research. The graphs show what overtones are present in a sound to what degree, which helps to understand how a sound is physically built. The outcome of the research was astonishing, says Robert Vandré, “I was very surprised how regularly the pattern of the sound the tongue generates is”. Due to his measurements one can comprehend how the jaw harp works: each jaw harp has a basic tone and all other tones of the mouth harp are overtones of the basic tone that can be generated by specific movements of the mouth and throat area.

    "I discovered the jaw harp many years ago at a festival. There were jaw harps from Schwarz, Austria. So I bought one and played a little on it. At first I was thinking of Snoopy from the Peanuts. He is playing the jaw harp, for instance in the bus. So I tried around a bit and came to the point, where I could play melodies that others in my surroundings were able to guess. Then the instrument was lying around for years and I forgot about it until I went to the music fair in Frankfurt. That also was many years ago. There was a booth with Hungarian jaw harps from Szilágyi. I bought one and on the train ride back home it totally got me: It was really cool to play a good jaw harp and to try out things on it. And that really triggered my curiosity: how does a jaw harp work, what is the physical background? I started to try around, to think about it and read things, for example from linguistic scientists who describe how a tone is generated and formed in the vocal tract."

    How choose your jaw harp

    The acoustic curiosity is not limited to a theoretical level. Robert Vandré developed his own technique on how he improves mouth harps that do not sound as well. “I love to play the jaw harps of Josef Jofen who unfortunately does not make any more as he retired. I also like to play on Schlütter’s and Szilágyi’s jaw harps as they both are very good. If one does not sound so well I take pincers and shorten the end of the tongue that one strikes with the fingers. The tone pitch isn’t right anymore, but I don’t care. These are my best jaw harps today.

    To find a good instrument is for beginners already very important. But how does one find a good beginner’s instrument? “If there is the opportunity at a jaw harp booth it is a definitely a good idea to try out a couple of them.”, Robert suggests. “It is important to choose an instrument with a soft tongue, so that the tongue of the instrument does not vibrate with too much energy at the teeth. The jaw harp still should have a good sound.” For Robert the secret of a well-sounding and well-playable jaw harp lies in the length of the bended part of the tongue. As described above, it should be short, so the counteracting vibration is not too strong. Then the instrument can produce a beautiful sound.


    To play with body control

    Like most jaw harp players, Robert is an autodidact, but eventually he has passed on his knowledge to others. To give beginners a better start he compiled his knowledge in a course that is also published as a book. Every now and then, Robert Vandré also conducts workshops for jaw harp beginners and advanced players.

    What keeps me going with the jaw harp is that the sound reaches the inside and it really gives pleasure. It’s just so nice to play. I also enjoy playing the jaw harp in body control, i.e. controlling my breath as Aron Szilágyi demonstrates in a beautiful manner. Controlled rhythms, controlled pieces, chorales, folk songs, so really playing music on the jaw harp and not only sounds. That is what I am interested in. I’d like to make some proper music with it. As I discovered the jaw harp for myself it was virtually non-present in public space as far as I remember. Merely the sound of the coil spring as a sound effect showed up here and there.

    Apart from that there was the jingle of the German kid’s programme “Sesamstraße”, but there the jaw harp plays only 2 tones in the rhythm. The jaw harp as a melodic instrument did not seem to be present at all. As far as I see it, there is almost no living jaw harp tradition in Germany, apart perhaps towards the Alpine area, around Molln in Austria. There, playing the jaw harp was completely re-invented. Here in Germany, the world music scene has brought the jaw harp back to life, more precisely the people dealing with spirituality, who gain access to the jaw harp via the feeling.

    In 2007 he has seen really good jaw harp players for the first time at the Ancient Trance Festival that back then was hosted in Leipzig, says Robert Vandré. “To watch the good players live was my motivation to keep on dealing with jaw harps.

    Robert Vandré playing "Abendspaziergang":


  • Amazing jaw harp music: Rock, Pop, Jazz

    Is the jaw harp an instrument for dreamers? Is it an instrument for good-humoured people? Is it an instrument for curious sound hunters, experimental music lovers and noise enthusiasts? We were digging in the archives and want to share with you some #amazingjawharpmusic with pop, rock and jazz backgrounds.

    You´ll find some uncommon jaw harp music, leaving the common territories of traditional and world music. You’ll enter musical fields, where this instrument is hiding in the rhythm section of the band or pushing forward as brave solo instrument next to trumpet or bass. Sometimes the jaw harp is “merely” the usual twang instrument, that makes the rhythm swing; sometimes it´s the “salt and pepper” in the composition; some pieces show the experimental, highly individual approach to play the instrument; and others present the jaw harp as an autonomous instrument in jazz and avant-garde music.

    The songs you discover here are not necessarily played by Jew’s harp virtuosos in the classical sense. Most suggestions do not come from a traditional jaw harp background. The examples show, that the instrument is taken up from musicians respectively artists, to express personal sound ideas. They take us as listeners in very individual musical worlds, attempting to implement an extraordinary element into their music. We hope that this collection of pop, rock and jazz tunes using the jew´s harp will inspire and surprise you.

    #15 First comes John Zorn´s transcendentally flouting piece “Mystic Circles” from his 2008 album “The Dreamers”. The jaw harp is pulsing and flying in this music, constantly tracing the rhythm while creating an absent-minded acoustic atmosphere. The rhythmic motives are crossing the melodies like comets enlivening the sky. Moving and contemplative.


    #14 Tiger Lilly’s tune “Rendezvous with Death” from the 2016 album “A dream turns sour” is a black humoured parody of mortality. The jaw harp gives the rhythm this special notion of innocent, twinkle-toed fearlessness. Keeps the listener feeling save, and at the same time alerted to a danger, that´s hiding between the notes. The mouth harp played next to the high-pitched, sneaking voice of Martyn Jacques: an exquisite acoustic couple.


    #13 Scissor Sisters "I can´t decide" from their album Ta-Dah (2006) is another black-humoured piece of music. Again the jaw harp seems just right to give a pinch of sound colour into the mix. The jaw harp is played by actress Gina Gershon.


    #12 Famous German pop band 2raumwohnung released their first album “Kommt zusammen” in 2001 using a jaw harp in the opening track. Here the instrument is following the bass line. A campfire guitar, a jaw harp and the request “don´t stay alone, get together” lends the song a quite hippiesque nature.


    #11 British blues rockers from Medicine Head, landed their biggest success with their single “One and one is one” in 1973. It´s featuring Peter Hope-Evans steadily playing the jaw harp at the side of the drums and the bass line. In this song, you hear how a jaw harp can be used as a rhythmical instrument in rock music. Until today Hope-Evans is a virtuoso on harmonica and jaw harp. Check out a current recording from January 2018 with his Blues Club Band.


    #10 Did you know Dizzy Gillespie was not only a genius trumpet player, but also an excellent jaw harper? Check out Dizzy Gillespie´s album “To a Finland Station”, which he recorded with fellow trumpet player Arturo Sandoval 1982 in Helsinki. You´ll find Dizzy playing the jew´s harp on the tracks "First Chance" and "Dizzy the Duck". Discover the jazz jaw harp as a rhythmical instrument, but also as a magnificent solo enchanter. In an interview Arturo Sandoval says, Dizzy had a lot of humour in his music. He played the jaw harp a lot. Sandoval remembers: “He gave me one of his instruments, and he taught me how to play it.” Further Gillespie playing a jaw harp was featured in one episode of “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s. There he emerges as the music teacher Mr. Hampton, who plays around with the famous twang-instrument for one of the Huxtable daughters. (For all of you who want to see it: the episode is called “Play it again, Vanessa”.)


    #9 Gina Gershon Solo: Here is another funky track with US-American actress Gina Gershon on the jaw harp. She plays it as a solo instrument in a duo full of joyful laughter with bassist Christian McBride on the song “Chitlins and Gefilte Fish”. Find it on McBride's 2011 album "Conversations with Christian".


    #8 Swiss Mundart from Bern region is celebrated by the ingenious group Stiller Has. In their song “Gruusig”, recorded in 1994 for their album “Landjäger”, the jaw harp is backing up the lyrics of the vocalist, sounding truly weird – just as the song title suggests. For all of you, who can´t tolerate to listen to a jaw harp, that sounds totally wrong and awkward, please don´t listen to this.


    #7 Daniel Higgs is an US-American musician and artist whose musical expressions are influenced by experimental sound expeditions, post-hardcore music and global music vibes. Higgs is (or was) the head of the band Lungfish who actively played together from 1987 till 2005. Their style was shaped by repetitive, almost meditative sounds. Since more than ten years Higgs follows new cooperative and solo projects. The Jew’s harp accompanies him on this trail. In 2003 Higgs published the album “Magic Alphabeth” solely dedicated to the quest of mouth harp vibrations. You hear an experimental approach that settles somewhere between folk and noise, excessively exploring a personal voice through the jaw harp.


    #6 Harvey Matusow´s Jew’s Harp Band is the most extravagant approach to contemporary jaw harp music. The album “War Between Fats and Thins” was recorded in 1969. Matusow is not primarily known as a musician. He is popular for his carrier as a member of the communist party and spying for the FBI in the McCarthy era. He has been linked to artists first in the US and later in his English exile. He was involved in the organisation of film- und avant-garde music festivals, was working for TV and radio and recorded this crazy LSD-influenced jaw harp album with his Jew´s Harp Band.


    #5 Harpist and singer-songwriter Joanna Newsome recorded 2006 her beautiful epic song “Emily” on the album “Ys”. You´ll have to wait almost till minute ten of the twelve minute long song to hear some very scarcely sprinkled jaw harp dots. This song is a painting and an incredibly lyrical encounter.


    #4 Most of you may know, that the great Leonard Cohen was fallen for some twang colour in his music. Hold your ear on “Tonight will be fine” from the album “Songs From a Room” (1969) and “Is This What You Wanted” on “New Skin For The Old” (1964). You´ll hear some reminiscent association with country style Jew´s harp playing on “Tonight will be fine”. While on “Is this what you wanted” the jaw harp, again very close to the bass line, acts like a comment for the strophe of the song.


    #3 Nothing needs to be said about the legendary song “Guns of Brixton” from The Clash´s 1979 album “London Calling”. Legendary.


    #2 A spiritual, but at the same time experimental approach can be found in the musical works of Tuvan artist Sainko Namtchylak. Listen to "Tuva Blues" on her album “Stepmother City” from 2001. The blending of Tuvan tradition and contemporary musical explorations fusion here in an almost transcendent way.


    #1 Meredith Monk is awarded our number one in DAN MOI´s hit list #amazingjawharpmusic. On her album “Songs from the Hill” from 1979 the US-American vocalist, composer and choreographer dedicated one solo piece to the “Jew's Harp”. It´s another very personal expression on the instrument, that roots in the contemporary traditions of experimental music.

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