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Vargan, Khomus, and Kubyz – the Russian jaw harp landscape is in motion

Russia is a country with a handful of jaw harp traditions: in Sakha/Yakutia, in the Altai, and in Tuva the Khomus (or Komus) is played; in Bashkortostan the Kubyz is known, and in Western Russia and in the big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg one can hear the name Vargan. The different terms already indicate diverse cultural links of the instrument. Since the 2000s more and more people remember these instruments again after the mouth harps had been forgotten for many decades. Now several hundreds of people in Russia are extensively engaged with this instrument, and it might be thousands who at least once held a Vargan, Khomus, or Kubyz in their hand. Furthermore there are many mouth harp artisans who produce excellent instruments. These are reasons enough to have a more intensive look at the Russian scene.

The Vargan in West Russia

Russian Vargan Jaw Harps at DAN MOIIn Russia the jaw harp has largely been associated with Siberia until recently. The Yakuts are known throughout Russia by their virtuosic jaw harp technique. But also in Central and Northwest Russia many mouth harps once were circulating. Until now, very little is known about the history of the jaw harp in the West of this huge country. In the Russian Empire mouth harps were produced and even exported. At excavation sites archaeologists found jaw harps which date back to the 9th century. Michael Wright created an impressive map on which there are several even earlier sites recorded. A map by Aksenty Beskrovny also points to specific sites of find in the West of Russia, in Ukraine, and in Belarus. But in the 19th century the Vargan passed out of mind, just like in many other parts of Europe. The scene of people who are rediscovering this instrument is steadily growing bigger. With Olga Prass, Irina Bogatyrev, Natalia Ducheva, Aksenty Beskrovny, or Vladimir Markov just a few of the amazing musicians are mentioned.

The Kubyz in Bashkortostan

Bashkirian Jaw Harp Pistol by Robert ZagretdinovBashkirian Jaw Harp Pistol by Robert Zagretdinov

In Bashkortostan, the jaw harp together with the flute Kuraj (or Quray) belong to the traditional musical instruments of the country. There are Kubyz classes at music schools, and there are regular contests which are entered by hundreds of Kubyz players. After the Kubyz had been close on passing out of mind in the Soviet Union and only been played by a very few musicians, the instrument has gained again a pretty good reputation within the Bashkir society by now. Today the Kubyz is predominantly played on stage, but in the past this jaw harp used to be an instrument used by Shamans during ceremonies. Mindigafur Zainetdinov is one of the nationwide most known specialists.

The Vargan in the Altai Mountains

Vargan Mouth Harps from the Russian AltaiIn the Altai Mountains the legend of the bear jaw harp is known. It tells the story of a hunter who, while hunting, observes a bear plucking the splint of a larch which was split by a lightning. The wood of the larch was dry, and the corpus of the tree had a good resonance. The hunter enjoyed the sound which was produced by the bear with the split wood. He did not just let the bear live, he even made a mouth harp for himself. Since then mouth harps are made in the Altai.

Playing the mouth harp has a long tradition among many Turkic peoples of Central Asia and therefore in the Altai Mountains as well. Just as in Sakha/Yakutia the jaw harp is an instrument for women. They are said to have played the mouth harp when milking for example, for the cow to produce more milk. One can recognize the spatial proximity of Sakha and the Altai (and also Tuva) when hearing and seeing the jaw harp being played. While the player moves only the forefinger to pluck the jaw harp in older Altai style, the whole hand circles dance-like when playing in the classic style. Similar to the technique in Sakha and Tuva, the musicians combine the sound of the mouth harp with vocal sounds.

The Khomus in Sakha/Yakutia

Khomus Mouth Harps from Yakutia at DAN MOIThe jaw harp music from Sakha/Yakutia is an important reference for musicians from all over the world today. The downright magical sounds of the Yakutian jaw harp music combine a precise playing technique with elaborate movements and the imitation of natural sounds such as the neigh of horses or the bickering rain drops. The specialty in Sakha is that the voice is purposely applied during the mouth harp playing. The Yakuts master this technique to perfection.

The jaw harp Khomus is the national instrument of Sakha, and not least because of that it is widely supported. A mouth harp museum in Yakutsk, numerous concerts and programs spread the mouth harp playing. One of the nationwide most known groups is Ayarkhaan. But there are many virtuosic, some of them very young, players in Sakha. They can be heard at regional contests.

The Khomus in Tuva

The region of Tuva is primarily known for its overtone singers. But the jaw harp is also played there. Overtone singing and jaw harp sounds are merged with each other. That way a unique style is created.

A Tuva legend tells how the mouth harp became a symbol for the love of two people: Once upon a time a smith and a girl fell in love with each other. But the girl was forced by her father to marry another man for his money. The smith suffered from this separation to the point that he made a Khomus and kept constantly playing it. He even stopped eating and drinking. He only played the jaw harp to forget his sadness. However, in his grief he threw himself down a cliff one day. When the girl heard this she followed him to death. The only remaining thing of the two was the jaw harp which was made by the smith with his broken heart.

The Russian jaw harp scene is in motion. And this may be accentuated by the current intention to host the congress of the International Jew’s Harp Society 2017 in Moscow. For the one who wants to read more about the history of the Russian jaw harp and who can read in the Russian language, we suggest to have a look at an article by the Muscovite jaw harp expert and musician Aksenty Beskrovny.

There is a selection of CDs for listening offered by the DAN MOI shop: Vargan-CD and Khomus-CD´s