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“A crazy voyage” with the Hungarian jaw harp virtuoso Áron Szilágyi

Less than 100 km away, southward of Budapest you will find the city of Kecskemét. Kecskemét can pride itself with its institute for music education, which was named after the Hungarian composer, music ethnologist and son of the town, Zoltán Kodály. But Kecskemét is also the Hungarian city of music instruments and in particular it is the city of jaw harps. This is because Áron Szilágyi and his father Zoltán Szilágyi, two of the most important protagonists of the European jaw harp scene live there. Helen Hahmann met Áron Szilágyi in the summer of 2016 in Taucha, near Leipzig.

Aron Szilágyi at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014

For me, it’s really important to arouse people’s interest in the jaw harp”, says Áron Szilágyi. For 20 years, Áron travels the world as a musician, trainer, and initiator of projects. As director of the Leskowsky Music Instrument Museum in Kecskemét – the only one of its kind in Hungary – he gives people access to music on a very basic level: “Me and my colleagues go to schools and conduct workshops. This is a very important mission for me. Our work inspires kids and young people to learn such an intuitive instrument as the jaw harp. They can learn to play it without necessarily going to a music school. They can just give it a try and discover it themselves."

Áron Szilágyi is giving numerous concerts every year. Solo, before with the formation “Airtists” and now with his group “Zoord”. “Our concerts raise a lot of awareness for the jaw harp. The people can hear what we are doing with those little instruments and instantly become curious. Some are keen to give it a try right away and are starting to play.” One opportunity to present the jaw harp to the public is Áron’s very own “Global Vibes” jaw harp party, which always happens in Kecskemét at the end of the year. “It’s a crazy crowd that gathers to celebrate the end of the year, but also the jaw harp: Shamans, rock musicians, Techno DJs, Folk dancers. About 500 people are coming and naturally not all of them share my interest in the jaw harp. However, by such an experience they get aware of this remarkable instrument and our enthusiasm might become contagious."

Áron plays the jaw harp since he’s 3 years old. He was raised in an environment with plenty of instruments around him as his father Zoltán Szilágyi is one of the best-known and best jaw harp smiths of the world. He’s been building jaw harps for 40 years. When Zoltan Szilágyi heard this specific sound in the radio for the very first time, he became so intrigued, he wanted to make an instrument that sounded exactly the same. He’s never seen a jaw harp before in his life and he built the first instruments without having a template. He tried several options over a long time and made hundreds of instruments until he caught sight of a jaw harp. He stopped everything else and got occupied with jaw harps only, tells his son Áron. The Hungarian term for jaw harp is doromb.

Zoltán Szilágyi went on a quest for the perfect sound. At some point, someone bought one of his jaw harps and he started to offer them on markets all over Hungary. The folklore movement had many people travel from the cities to the country, so they could learn traditional dances and teach them in the cities. Within that context, a great interest in the jaw harp emerged and Zoltán Szilágyi sold many of his instruments. They differ from other jaw harps as they are hand made high-quality items. As the wall broke down his work got acknowledged beyond the boarders of Hungary. Today, Zoltan builds more than 80 different jaw harp types, which have all a different tone colour. Zoltán’s instruments are not based on a tradition of jaw harp smiths in Hungary. His approach rather aims on enabling an artistic way of dealing with the instrument and exhausting any imaginable acoustic colour.

Doromb Blackfire made by Zoltán Szilágyi (Hungary).

Zoltán’s son Áron knows every little detail of the jaw harp smith business, but leaves the part of craftsmanship to his father. He makes wooden jaw harp boxes and caskets, though. His focus lies on the music. Dedicating his life to the jaw harp like his father was anything else than taken for granted. “When I was 16, like all teenagers I was seeking for something to express myself. I saw how people from all over the world came to our house to visit my father. I observed our guests and thought they are free, don’t have to work, travel around the world, and are really cool – and they all have one thing in common: the jaw harp. I liked that and came to the conclusion of becoming a jaw harp pro. There was even no need for me to leave the house. I only had to go to the living room since the jaw harp players that came to visit us were the best in the world. I could learn from them – for instance Spiridon Shishigin, Anton Bruhin or Frederik Crane, all the legendary players of the whole world. With 18 years I played more and more and becoming 20, I had my own bands, went on tours, and gave concerts and workshops. And that’s how I’ve been living until today.

Those encounters with jaw harp players in the own living room became Áron’s role model and influenced his style. The instruments itself had a great impact on his way to play, he says. At the end of the day he’s been lucky to play with only excellent instruments. Still, “I really don’t intend to play the jaw harp in one style, only specific for me, as I’m doing very different things with the instruments. I feel attracted to an intuitive style, rich with overtone and rhythmic. I’ve learned several breathing techniques and use them in my play. People tell me that my style is giving them a specifically powerful and dynamic style. One of the reasons might lie in the fact that I’m able to play really loud.

Áron Szilágyi plays his father’s jaw harps. Not out of loyalty, as he says, but because those are the instruments that match his preferences the most: “I like best playing the Blackfire jaw harp, because it works well with all different kinds of playing techniques. They lie well in my hand and I know them inside out. They’re just perfect for me."

How Áron’s jaw harp play sounds is best to found out by listening to a recording of his band Zoord that released a CD in 2016. On that album they re-interpret traditional melodies from the Tschangos from Seofonbyrig. A remix album of those songs with world music producers and DJs remixing the songs will be released shortly. A solo album from Áron is in the works as well and he promises that it will be quite experimental – a crazy voyage.