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Jew's Harps

This category is dedicated to the jaw harp. History and background info, new models, playing tips etc.
  • Nightly Serenades - Jew's harp playing in Taiwan

    Lubu Jew's Harp from Taiwan Lubu Jew's Harp from Taiwan

    Taiwan - on the island off the coast of China about 2% of the population belong to a total of 16 recognised ethnic minorities. The Amis are the biggest group with around 200,000 people. Like the Piyuma and the Paiwan, there was an Amis engagement ceremony at which the Lubu, the bamboo jew's harp, played a major role.

    If a man had found a woman he wanted to court, a ceremony began which could last many evenings. Each evening the potential bridegroom played the Jew's harp in front of her house around the time when the sun went down. He did not call, he didn't knock on the door - the young man sat down in front of the woman's house and evening after evening played his Lubu. In certain circumstances these love songs could resound for hours.

    After a few weeks of this nightly serenading, the jew's harp player placed his instrument in front of the door of the potential bride. If he returned the following evening and the instrument was still lying in the same place he had left it the night before, this was the equivalent of a rejection of the marriage proposal. This gesture was the bride and the family's way of saying that they did not agree to the attachment. If the jew's harp, however, was no longer there, and the woman had taken his Jew's harp indoors into the house, then the bridegroom had been accepted. The description of this engagement ceremony comes from a report by the ethnologist Janet Montgomery McGovern in 1922, a time when Taiwan belonged to Japan and was called Formosa.

    The jew's harp from Taiwan is not only known as the Lubu but is also called a Datok. With regards to the way they are played and the material used to make them, the instruments are similar to the Mukkuri played by the Ainu in Japan. In the case of datok and lubu, the Jew's harp consists of a bamboo frame and a metal reed which is plucked. At the end of the metal tongue a piece is attached and the player plucks on this part to coax a sound from the instrument:

    As jew's harps, the lubu and datok are fascinating instruments. Outside of Taiwan, the lubu and the datok have rarely been seen up until now. It is delightful to listen to the sound of this jew's harp - the combination of a bamboo frame and a metal reed is unique to the indigenous population of Taiwan. In Taiwan one finds many variations of the lubu jew's harp. There are lubus with two or more vibrating reeds. By turning the wrist slightly, jew's harp players can access different basic notes and thus play numerous melodies.

    Among the indigenous peoples of Taiwan the Atayal and Tsou tribes, among others) many other musical instruments are played including the mouth bow and the nose flute. The Amis are the best instrument makers; they make and play more than 40 instruments, among them bamboo flutes, various pipe xylophones and bamboo slit drums.

  • "The Jew's harp is just a kind of hum supplier" – Extensions of the Jew's harp mechanics

    The mechanics of the Jew's harp is very simple: In a frame made of metal or bamboo a movable reed is mounted which, as a rule, is set in motion by a person's hand. The air turbulence which occurs between the frame and the moving tongue generates a humming sound. This humming can be strenthened by resonators. The most treasured and most varied resonator is the human body - if one holds the Jew's harp to the mouth, the quiet whirring gets louder and it can be varied with the help of the mouth cavity. How can this mechanism be extended? What alternatives and extensions are imaginable? What does such an extension sound like? At this point a number of well-known experiments are brought together.

    The Swiss sound artist and Jew's harp expert Anton Bruhin says, "the Jew's harp is just a hum supplier. That could also be a shaving device or an electric toothbrush. There is a sago palm tree in Papua New Guinea. The sago beetle lives in this palm tree. There they take a leaf from the palm tree and skewer the beetle to the rib of a leaf. The beetle hums and wants to escape but is caught fast. The humming beetle is held in front of the mouth. That is just to say that the generator can actually be replaced" As animal rights protectors, we have reservations about this musical instrument and hope it will be very rarely or never built at all. The basic idea of a 'hum supplier' is all that is interesting. Music made using the sago beetle referred to by Bruhin was published on the CD "Music and the Dispel of Thoughts" by the Dutch Jew's harp expert Phons Bakx.

    Beginning with this idea Anton Bruhin has been experimenting on a variety of new constructions for many years. In 1994 he gave an engineer the job of building an electromagnetic Jew's harp. A magnetic coil is placed on the spring of the Jew's harp and this sends impulses which cause the tongue to vibrate. This enables new sound effects to be achieved, e.g. the tone can be played continuously. As a result of this, when playing the Jew's harp, one hand is free and with his free hand, Bruhin holds other resonators in front of the oral cavitiy, e.g. pans with holes or tuned pipes.

    Albina Degtyareva plays Khomus Jew's Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014 Albina Degtyareva plays Khomus Jew's Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014

    The way the electromagnetic Jew's harp sounds can be heard for instance in the song entitled "Mr. Terrine" on Bruhin's album "Travels with a Trump". Virtuosi such as Leo Tadagawa from Tokyo and Albina Degtyareva from Yakutia have come together on the album. For any listener the solidarity of traditional jew's harp music, folk music and avant-garde sound experiments is still today a very exciting voyage through the sound cosmos of the Jew's harp. The film "Trümpi" by the Swiss film producer Iwan Schumacher, who accompanied Anton Bruhin on a trip to the Yakutian Jew's harp players, gives a detailed impression of how multi-faceted Anton Bruhin's understanding and interpretation of the character of the Jew's harp is. "Travels with a Trump" is the soundtrack of the film "Trümpi" about Anton Bruhin and the Jew's harp dating back to the year 2000.

    In the case of the mouth bow, the mechanism used to create the sound is very similar. A steel or rattan string is extended on a piece of wood and struck with a stick. The musician's mouth cavity acts as a resonator. Mouth bows are played most frequently in a variety of African countries such as Angola, Malawi, Nigeria and South Africa. In 2006 Dan Moi Records released a sample recording containing mouth bow music from Malawi, Angola, Tanzania, Gabon, Namibia and Senegal. The CD "The African Mouthbow" gathered together the most diverse styles and variations of mouth bow playing. The material may not just inspire the Jew's harp player but rather offers Jew's harp players stimulus for new melodies and rythms. The Akele people in Gabun play the "ngongo". "Ngongo" is the word for the mouth bow in the Akele language.

    The mouth bow is also at home in the Maori culture of New Zealand. It is an instrument that is also known among the Mapuche in Southern Chile and Argentina. The much-loved birimbau, which is played at the Capoeira, functions as a mouth bow, except for the fact that the note is amplified by a gourd and not by the musician's oral cavity.

  • Jew's harp stories from Norway, Part III: Four protagonists of the current Munnharpe music

    Who are the people bringing Jew's harp playing back to life today? In the spectacular collection "Fille-Vern" more than 30 active people are listed who take part as musicians, smiths or researchers and as connoisseurs, if not regarded as ambassadors of the Norwegian Jew's harp. At festivals, music competitions and in forums, male and female folk musicians meet to learn new melodies and to pass on Jew's harp playing techniques to others. Three other people should be introduced as representative of many other Norwegian Jew's harp players: Bjørgulv Straume (*1938), Tom Willy Rustad (*1966) und Hallgrim Berg (*1945).

    Bjørgulv Straume

    Bjørgulv Straume from the area known as the Setesdal first took to the stage with a Jew's harp in a folk music competition (kappelik) at the age of 50 (1988). He was a source of amazement there due to his unmistakeable playing technique with the index finger. At that time he took first place. Shortly afterwards, he recorded a cassette which he named after the melody he created, "Luftslaget". In addition he recorded a CD with traditional music ("Frå Ætt Til Ætt", 1995) and an instruction video on how to play the Jew's harp, won the Landskappleiken in 1990 und 1991 and crossed genre borders: Straume left his mark on the extremely successful CD "Fra Senegal Til Setesdal" (1997) by the Norwegian folk singer Kirsten Bråten Berg. In the music project the two female Norwegian musicians met the two Senegalese musicians Solo Cissokho and Koame Sereba. Straume made a name for himself as a "mestersmeder", a maker of Jew's harps.

    Arne Nordheim: "Partita for munnharpe and electronica", performed by Svein Westad, Anders Røine, Tom Willy Rustad, Veronika Søum

    The national folk music competition was won by Tom Willy Rustad in the years 2005 and 2006. Jew's harp protagonists such as Bjørgulv Straume und Knut Tveit inspired his style of playing the Jew's harp. As an active folk musician, Rustad plays even more instruments, among them the diatonic accordion and the reed flute (seljefolyte). Together with the Norwegian folk group Kvarts, he produced numerous albums. In the company of the Jew's harp players Svein Westad, Veronika Søum and Anders Røine Rustad was at the performance of Arne Nordheims composition "Partita for munnharpe and electronica" on the occasion of the 15th jubilee of the Norwegian Jew's harp society in Oslo in 2013.

    Veronika Søum

    The 30-year-old Jew's harp player Veronika Søum from Numedal near Kongsberg learned to play the Jew's harp from Svein Westad. Together with Bernhard Folkestad, she worked on the instruction manual for the Jew's harp "Enkelt munnharpespel". In addition, she holds workshops in the Norsk Munnharpe Forum. Veronika primarily plays music from her own region, prior to this some melodies were only to be heard on a fiddle before she adapted them for the Munnharpe. She currently lives in Trondheim and also renders musical pieces from the local region on the Jew's harp. She runs the facebook group "Munnharpa".

    Hallgrim Berg

    While making music with the Jew's harp in Yakutia, Japan and Vietnam was and is obviously influenced by women, the Jew's harp landscape in Norway is still mainly shaped by men. Around ten percent of the members of the Norwegian Jew's harp forum (Norsk Munnharpeforum) are women, according to the Jew's harp specialist Bernhard Folkestad. The Oslo ethnologist Viggo Vestel refers to this fact in his foreword to the CD"File-Vern" and hopes that in the future this situation may change. Only once do female Jew's harp players play in a musical piece on the double CD. Tove Amundsen, Solveig Strand and Gro Offerdal play with the group Leksvoll Munnharpelag, which was founded in the year 2001 by folk musician and politician Hallgrim Berg. Berg plays the Jew's harp and reed flute (seljefolyte). In the 1960s and 1970s, he won several competitions on both instruments (Landskappleik) and also acted as a judge. Hallgrim Berg holds workshops on how to play the Jew's harp , among other things at the "Den Norske Folkermusikkveka" festival in Hallingdal.

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