deutsch
english

Jew's Harps

This category is dedicated to the jaw harp. History and background info, new models, playing tips etc.
  • 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.

    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.”

  • 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, Olena Uutai, 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.

    For those who want to read more about the history of the Russian mouth harps and who can read Russian, 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

  • From the Kou Xian in Southwest China to the pocket synthesizer at DAN MOI

    msm-5_2

    It is more than a 15 hour plane ride, 20 hours by car, and another 5 hours walking until you get from Central Europe to the mountain villages of Southwest China. 2000 meters high up in the mountains where the rice-growing terraces are smothered by dense cloud, one will find music which sounds organic and electronic at the same time. Playing the jaw harp, Kou Xian, is very common among the Yi-people in Yunnan and Sichuan.

     

     

    If you ask a paddy farmer, who is on his way along the mountain paths between the fields, to play a melody on a Kou Xian, you will find out that he is able to elicit lively melodies out of the small fans of the fragile instrument. The same experiment will have the same result on a market place in a city of Southwest China: People will be drawn by the sound of the jaw harps and will play them with ease. For many Yi-people the playing of a mouth harp is as essential as speaking.

    The Kou Xian is played by the Chinese minority of the Yi-People

    This episode of the documentary “Masters of the Yi Mouth Harp” by Chinese anthropologist Yi Wu and American ethnomusicologist and expert for East Asia, Jonathan Richter, tells us a lot about the character of the jaw harp and the significance of music among the Yi-people. The Yi are one of 55 minorities who live in China alongside the Han-people who are China’s majority. The almost 8 million Yi-people are one of the biggest ethnic groups in China. They speak their own language and represent a stunning culture through music and apparel. Most of the Yi live in remote villages which are difficult to access. Though they partly have electricity, they possess only very unstable telephone connections. The people there grow rice, tobacco, and corn. And they raise pigs, chicken, and buffalos. Many of these people, especially the older generations, never went to school.

    The music of the Yi-people sounds of the upland rice-growing terraces of Southwest China

    Music plays a central role in the everyday life of many Yi. When working on the fields, but also in their free time, people sing polyphonic songs and play the jaw harp, but they also play on rolled up tobacco leaves. There is not only the impressive vocal tradition, but there are also fascinating musical expressions within the instrumental music. Not only the mouth harp and some simple wind instruments made of natural materials are part of the instrumental inventory but also various lutes, mouth organs, and flutes. The melodies of the Yi could be understood as the acoustic counterpart of Southwest China’s mountain scenery with its upland rice terraces: Just like the terrace fields the melodies climb up to steep altitudes; the key register abruptly changes between high and low sounds, from a piercing call to a musing murmur. The music of the Yi-people is deeply connected to the landscape in which they live.

    Some of the song lyrics deal with the work on the rice fields, wander in thoughts down into the valleys, or remind of the march to the next village. For all those who want to get an impression of the instrumental and vocal traditions of the Yi villages in Southwest China, the BBC feature “World Routes in China” is recommended.

    Discovering the most beautiful jaw harp sound with the Kou Xian

    The jaw harp is probably the most personal instrument if the Yi-people, not least because of its fragile sound. It is played by men and women. With the instruments the people express their emotions such as their longing, homesickness, grief, or joy. Even words or language can be encrypted by the Kou Xian. It is possible that two people with their instruments get into dialogue with each other. The instruments made of metal are more popular than the Kou Xian made of bamboo.

    The instrument maker modulates a sonorous musical instrument from a thumb-sized, thin piece of metal sheet by using small hammers and knives. The tongue is cut out of the sheet, and its edges are ground down by a file. The tone pitch is adjusted by ablating layers of metal with a knife from the upper end of the jaw harp. The space between the moving, buzzing tongue and the corpus of the instrument is very narrow.

    The Yi attach several of these instruments to each other at their lower end. That way they can be pulled open and closed like a fan. Each of the single jaw harps is tuned in a different basic key. Thus it is easier to play melodies. The combination of several tongues leads to the typical sound spectrum of the Kou Xian, which is regarded as the most beautiful jaw harp sound by many mouth harp players.

    Kou Xian Jaw Harps at DAN MOI

    The Kou Xian as pocket synthesizer

    When leading this processed piece of metal to one’s mouth and pulling the flexible tongues/tines one can produce sounds by deforming the oral cavity, the tongue, and the palate. These sounds are sometimes described as cosmic, transcendental, or even electrifying. Someone who has heard a synthesizer before will inevitably think of the modulations of the frequencies or basic keys generated on analogue instruments with buttons and controllers. Therefore the analogy between the Kou Xian and a synthesizer is not very far-fetched and has often been verbalized by jaw harp experts. In this sense the jaw harp is an organic synthesizer, small and portable: simply a pocket synthesizer.

Items 1 to 3 of 27 total

Page:
  1. Previous Previous  |
  2. ...
  3. 9
  4. 1
  5. 2
  6. 3
  7. 4
  8. 5