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Jew's Harps

This category is dedicated to the jaw harp. History and background info, new models, playing tips etc.
  • Parmupill – The Estonian Jew's Harp

    Eesti Parmupill - Estonian Jew's HarpProducing sound with a jew's harp is easy. One only needs to know the basics - how to take the instrument in one's hand, place it on the mouth, hold it against the teeth and make the reed of the instrument sing. The mystical sound that man can produce with this tiny instrument has captivated many nations for centuries. The earliest jew's harps found in Estonia was a jew's harp dug out from Otepää town hill dating back to the beginning of the 13th century. However, since at that time Otepää town hill was the location of a German fortress, this finding cannot be considered as a proof of jew's harps spreading across Estonia. There are, however, several findings from the 15th and 16th century and it can be suggested that at that time jew's harp was a popular instrument among peasants.

    Today jew's harps can probably be found in many households. However, finding people, who can play this instrument, is much more complicated. As mentioned above, it is easy to produce sound with this instrument, but playing songs or melodies takes some practice, as with any other instrument. Seemingly a simple toy, but in practice an ancient instrument requiring subtle playing technique.

    Different types and names of jew's harps can be found all over the world: Parmupill in Estonia, Guimbarde in France, Maultrommel in Austria, Vargan in Russia, Munnharpe in Norway, Khomus in Tuva or Jew's harp in England etc. An interesting fact concerning the instrument's English name "jew's harp" is that, in fact, this name does not indicate any connection to the Jews. The name is a consequence of some publishers mixing up a few letters at one point. The initial intention was to name the instrument "jaw's harp" but somehow, when the text was published, "a" was replaced by "e" and since then even scientific publications have consistently been using this inaccurate name.

    There is firm evidence that in Estonia the jew's harp was at this one period used for playing dance music. Imagine the whole village dancing after a village musician comes to the swinging square, takes the musical instrument out of his pocket and begins playing a tune. This is not a joke. A village musician played dance tunes - Flat-Foot Waltzes, polkas etc.

    Theodor Saar from Kihnu once told that in the 1930s there was a wedding where the only musician was a person playing a jew's harp. As the silent sound of the instrument could not overcome the loud party noise, most of the dancers where looking at and following the rhythm of movement of the musicians foot. This is how they derived the correct rhythm and tempo.

    In general there is enough evidence of people dancing to the rhythm of jew's harp to support the story of a man from Jõhvi, who in 1944 said: "... already in the ancient times men used to build big swings... And when they'd had enough of working, they played and sang. Then along came zithers and concertinas, and people danced. Some people carried a jew's harp in their pocket and sometimes its tune was very happily used as dance music.”

    Jaan Türk called the jew's harps or harmonicas used in our land frog's harps. The way Jaan Türk handled his frog's harp was completely different from the technique used in coastal Estonia - he did not place the instrument between his lips but in his oral cavity where the vibrating sounds produced something similar to "slurping". His skillful play was very enjoyable.

    An interesting description of Peeter Vekmann, a passionate jew's harp player: “When Peeter started playing, already his first notes created such silence in the audience that one could have heard a pin drop. The musician was so skillful in using his instrument, and his oral cavity as a resonator, that the sounds he produced were very colorful and versatile. The audience was captivated by his play and did not want to allow him to leave the stage. He had to play again.”

    Peeter Piilpärk

     

     

     

     

     

    Peeter Piilpärk: a musician played jew's harp, according to their own words, "under the tongue" or "above the tongue". Playing "under the tongue" was the Kihnu way.

     

    Jaan Rand

     

     

     

     

     

    Jaan Rand: Jaan, being a passionate musician, always carries his jew's harp with him everywhere he goes.

     

    Ruuben Kesler

     

     

     

     

     

    Ruuben Kesler said: "Whenever I have time to spare from my farm work, I grab my jew's harp because it makes my mind feel happy and my body feel light!”

     

    Villem IlumäeIn his memoirs, August Pulst very colorfully describes his collaboration with Villem Ilumäe, a talented musician: “When I first discovered this musician based on the information received from Lääne-Nigula, I found out he was living in a "smoke hut" (a chimneyless hut with a vent in the roof to let out the smoke) and very soon after that I also saw the musician himself coming around the corner of his hut. When I asked him, if he was the jew's harp player I was looking for, he smiled, placed his hand in his jacket pocket and took out his jew's harp. And I said: ‘Well, look at the true musician - always carrying his instrument in his pocket just as some smokers carry their pipes!’ This statement lit up his eyes and he immediately replied ‘Well, yes, you know I have been playing that instrument for a little while! We call it a mouth harp.’" Then the musician told me that his mouth harp was 58 years old. He had only changed the reed since it breaks after a while.

    This post was written by Cätlin Mägi (formerly Jaago) for DAN MOI World Music Instruments. If you are interested in more details on the Estonian jew's harp culture and history we strongly recommend Cätlins excellent book "Eesti Parmupill - Estonian Jew's Harp", available in our webshop.

  • Crowdfunding for the new Jaw Harp Workshop of Dima Babayev

    Babayev Jaw Harp

    Dima Babayev is a young jaw harp master blacksmith from Saint Petersburg (Russia) whose hand-forged instruments are among the world's best mouth harps. For more than 13 years Dima has been forging jaw harps now. In this year's Vargan Makers Competition he took first place with his instruments in the overall evaluation. He even could outpace the time-honored competition from Yakutia.

    We want to help Dima Babayev publicize his crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and find more supporters to improve his workshop and buy new machines.

    Dima is interested not only in the production of Vargan (Russian: jaw harps), but also in the development of the mouth harp culture. He is keen to improve existing manufacturing technologies and to establish new ones, to provide stage performers with the best sound instruments and to take part in projects of interest to cultural history, i.e. the replication of old Russian jaw harp finds from the 14th/15th century.

    Dima has decided to participate in the development of a "mouth harp culture" because he sees it as a tool that can connect age groups and nations: "In Russia the Vargan had its widest circulation in the 19th century. I think that this great instrument is almost forgotten nowadays and I try to do everything that people can be inspired by the sound of the jaw harp and get the opportunity to play it." In addition to the high sound quality, Dima tries to offer a wide range of models so that both beginners and experienced mouth harpers can enjoy their instruments. For collectors Dima manufactures particularly beautiful and elaborate models with unique designs.

    Babayev Jaw Harp Workshop Crowdfunding

    Now, Dima needs help to buy new, better tools that help simplifying the manufacturing process, working faster and more precisely and focussing on the most important issues: sound quality and design. He has a lot of ideas for new series and beautiful unique pieces, which are cheaper to make by using new, high quality tools.

    For this purpose Dima and his assistant Daria have initiated a crowdfunding campaign at Indiegogo for his new workshop, which ends on 14 January 2017. As a reward for your donation you can not only expect a lot of small perks, but also individual mouth harps, which are customized to your needs and even complete mouth harp sets.

    More information about the campaign can be found on the Indiegogo project page and in Facebook. You can listen to Dimas Vargans at Soundcloud. In Vimeo you can watch a well done feature about Dima Babayev making a jaw harp.

    Unfortunately, we do not have any jaw harps by Dima Babayev in our shop, but they are already in work :-)

  • The online sound archive at the Musée de l´Homme in Paris is a treasure trove of Jew's harp music

    It is one of the most exciting internet archives of folk music currently in existence: The collection at the "Centre de Recherche en Ethnomusicologie (CREM) des Musée de l´Homme" in Paris. At the moment, you can find 1000 hours of archived material, music recordings from all over the world. The scientists at CREM have been working up until today to digitalise the old phonograph cylinders, tapes and DAT cassettes in order to allow the public access to them online. Around 3700 hours of material have already been released on recording media, roughly the same amount of live music recordings have still not been published. Some rare recordings worth listening to can be found by using the keyword "guimbarde", Jew's harp.

    CREM

     

    An „Air de jig“ entitled „Padeen O’Rafferty“, recorded by John Wright in 1955 in Irland, is to be found among them. There is a recording of the tchang Jew's harp, drums and rebab from Radio Kabul in Afghanistan. The geologist Francois Ellenberger recorded Jew's harp music in 1959 in Lesotho. In 1955 the Philippine composer and music ethnologist José Maceda documented Bilaan Jew's harp music on the southern end of the island of Mindanao.

    Les Guimbardes du musée de l'homme - Geneviève Dournon-Taurelle & John Wright

    Made in the second half of the 1940s , the recording from the island of Puluwat, Micronesia, is a rare jewel worth listening to. The recordings made by the musicologist Geneviève Dournon between 1976 and 1982 in Rajasthan are also a voyage of discovery. These field recordings were first released in 1984 on the record "Rajasthan vièles et guimbardes" by Le Chant du Monde, but can now also be listened to in CREM's online archive. In 1978, together with John Wright, Geneviève Dournon released a classic scientific book about Jew's harps: "Les Guimbardes du musée de l´Homme", the Musée de l´Homme's Jew's harps' collection catalogue.

     

    Furthermore, there are sound recording examples from Bali and Timor (Indonesia) in the CREM data base.

    In the archive itself there are further recordings by John Wright or Tran Quang Hai, but they cannot yet be listened to online. This is partly because the rights to the recordings lie with the publishers, so they are only available in the archive or on CD. Incidentally, the CREM archive infrastructure is based on the Telemeta open source software. There is a lot to discover. Have loads of fun browsing!

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