Jew's Harps

This category is dedicated to the jaw harp. History and background info, new models, playing tips etc.
  • Jew's harp stories from Norway, Part II: What legends tell us about the Munnharpe

    "Fangjen" performed by the Baikal Jew's Harp Orchestra

    Although the history of the Jew's harp in Norway before 1900 can only be partially reconstructed, due to the fact that only a few written testimonies regarding its use are known to us, the link between some Jew's harp melodies and legends indicate that there is an oral tradition which has been handed down with the instruments from generation to generation. Two of these legends are to be told here. One story stems from the Valdres region. It describes the belief in the magic power of the Jew's Harp to do good for mankind. The second story from the Gudbrandsdalen region deals with a prisoner who was a skilled Jew's harp player and is said to have written the melody to the well-known song "Fangjen".

    There are many legends about the Jew's Harp in Valdres. The folklorist Knut Hermundstad has collected some of them and published them. One of the legends tells of Hölje, who had gone fishing in the woods and spent the night in a small hut. Hölje could play the Jew's harp well. On this particular night he sat in the hut and played his instrument. All of a sudden, he heard noises outside the hut. People were dancing to the sound of his music. How could that be? Hölje knew that no other human was in the area apart from himself but he wasn't afraid and went on playing. Outside the dancing continued. When he grew tired he stopped playing and decided to head to bed. At that moment one of the dancers opened the door and said: "Oh, Hölje, you have been playing such lovely music." Holje answered: "you danced very well." The dancer replied: "Please, Hölje play one more song for us." You will not regret it. So please continue playing, Hölje. He played the whole night through, right until dawn. Hölje slept briefly and then rose to begin his work and to get his nets ready to go fishing. But when he arrived at the fishing nets, he found a big haul already in there. An amount of fish so great that it was too heavy to take it home with his bare hands. He had to walk back home to find a horse that would be able to transport the catch. The large haul was the payment for his Jew's harp music.

    A Jew's harp's ability to reach unearthly worlds is a subject which is to be found in other cultures too. In Russian shamanism the Jew's Harp is highly important. The Jew's Harp serves as a tool for humans on earth to contact people in another world. Today, the Jew's Harp, thanks to its unique sound, is also considered a spiritual medium connecting the organic and the transcendental. The artist Wang Li is of the belief that the Jew's Harp can create a connection between man and universe due to its vibrations. His greatest goal is that he will be played by the Jew's Harp and not the other way round.

    The second legend is called "Fangjen", the prisoner, and is told in Norway. It is the story of a young woman who was admired by two men The woman decided for one of the two men. The name of the other man was Kristen Forbergje. Hölje was known as good player of the Jew's Harp. It annoyed Kristen so much that he had not been chosen by the woman that he murdered his rival and dumped his body in a lake. However, his corpse was discovered a little bit later. When the funeral took place Kristen hid in a cave from where he had a good view of the road on which the funeral cortege passed by. One version of the legend has it that in the course of the funeral procession blood was dripping from the coffin as Kristen played his Jew's harp . The murder was solved and Kristen was sent to prison. Today, it is thought that the melody entitled "Fangjen" can be traced back to Kristen. He is said to have been executed in 1736. "Fangjen" is nowadays one of the most popular tunes in Gudbrandsdalen; it is played on the fiddle, the langeleik (Norwegian dulcimer) and the Jew's harp.

  • Jew's harp stories from Norway, Part I: The importance of the Setesdal for the revival of the Jew's harp

    Norway's Jew's harp scene came alive again in the early to mid 90s in various parts of Norway. After the instrument had been out of favour for many years, a young generation suddenly discovered their interest in the Jew's harp. This revival started in the Setesdal region of Southern Norway. There, the Jew's harp came to people's attention again in the 1980s. Some players worked extensively on their playing technique and repertoire. The instrument gained prestige and respect. The recent revival reached many regions in the south of Norway such as the provinces Telemark, Valdres, Hallingdal and Gudbrandsdalen.

    In the 1960s, activists from the Norwegian folk institutions had already begun to take the initiative to prevent the art of playing and building the Jew's harp from dying out. The musicologist and former head of the Norwegian Folk Museum Reidar Sevåg encouraged the reproduction of old Jew's harps. Hundreds of instruments were created based on the prototype of historical Jew's harps. They should have a warm sound and produce sounds which lasted for a long while - at least that was how one imagined the sound of the old Norwegian Jew's harps. The short documentary film, "Munnharpa", made in the 1960s, shows step by step how these Jew's harps were made. In the 1980s it was still difficult to purchase Norwegian Jew's harps on which the old melodies could be played. So musicians turned back to the traditional manufacturing techniques and turned their attention to the instrument itself in order to be able to play the old melodies in the present day. Today there is once again a lively and many-faceted Jew's harp culture in Norway. The Norwegian Jew's harp expert Bernhard Folkestad has collected some of these models with wooden boxes.

    Munnharpe - Norwegian Jew's Harps Munnharpe - Norwegian Jew's Harps, Collection Bernhard Folkestad, Photo: Mattis Folkestad

    According to the archaeologist Gjermund Kolltveit, Jew's harps have been played in Norway since the Middle Ages. Most of them and also the written proof we have today about the use of Jew's harp goes back to the 18th century. However, the folk music researchers in Norway have to accept the fact that the sources and the information regarding the history of the Norwegian Jew's harp are sparse. Even in those regions where there is now a lively Jew's harp landscape, its history lies in darkness. Consequenty, little is known about the exact circumstances of the early culture of the Jew's harp.

    Fille-vern - gamle og nye mestere i norsk munnharpetradisjon

    One impressive recording regarding the facets of the playing of the Jew's harp in Norway is the successful CD "Fille-Vern. Gamle og nye mestre i norsk munnharpetradisjon". The first of the two CDs contains archive material from Norwegian Radio. The earliest recording originates from 1937, the most recent comes from the 1970s. There is a great deal of background information to be had concerning the dances and songs as well as a number of additional transcripts. This CD encourages people to play the old songs once more and to stimulate players to play the Jew's harp themselves. Today Svein Westad is the Jew's harp best known player and activist in Norway. In the notes to the CD he says: I, for myself, came across the Jew's harp in the 1980s. At first, I played around with an Austrian Jew's harp. But my enthusiasm for the instrument really began when I was listening to a radio programme on folk instruments presented by the Norwegian musicologist Reidar Sevag. I was astonished when I heard the Jew's Harp player Mikkjel Kavenes playing the tune 'Fille-Vern'".Mikkjel Kavenes (1872-1939) lived in Setesdal in southern Norway. He is said to have not only been been an outstanding Jew's harp player but also a good blacksmith. Recordings of some Jew's harp pieces which he made in 1938 can be heard on the CD.

    In Setesdal there is already a long, unbroken tradition of playing the Jew's harp. On "Fille-Vern" other Jew's harp players and Jew's harp smiths from the second half of the twentieth century are documented. Some of them, such as Andreas Rysstad and Knut Brokkeare, are represented through recordings on the CD. Many of the pieces were adapted from fiddle melodies. At the same time, many Jew's harp melodies can also be traced back to so-called "tralling". "Tralling" (also known as "trulling") is a form of singing syllables which make no sense. One can compare it to the the free warbling of a melody.

    Bjørgulv Straume - Jew's Harp Maker

    One of the best-known Setesdaler purveyors of the Jew's harp tradition is Bjørgulv Straume. Straume's workshop produces not only good Jew's harps, Straume is also a good musician, as one can hear on "Fille-Vern" and on the CD "Hrynhent", which Straume recorded with the pianist Øystein Kikut.

  • "Singing Jew's Harp": Yakutian Jew's Harp art available for free download

    Spiridon Shishigin spielt Khomus Maultrommel Spiridon Shishigin

    He is recognized as one of the best Jew's harp soloists in the world: Spiridon Shishigin. Together with the Jew's harp player Aksenty Beskrovny and the flautist Anton Borisov, he can be heard on the album "Singing Jew´s Harp" which appeared in 2011. With their album, which appearered under Creative Commons licence, the trio provide an overview of the art of playing the Jew's harp in Yakutia.




    Singing Jew's Harp - Spiridon Shishigin, Anton Borisov, Aksenty Beskrovny Singing Jew's Harp

    Though for some ears they take a little getting used to, the duets between the flute and the Jew's harp are a special treat, and they document a further exciting effort at a musical co-operation between a Jew's harp and another instrument. The various Jew's harp pieces are really worth listening to. Spiridon Shishigin and Aksenty Beskrovny are both soloists. As a duet they sound acoustically consistent and often absolutely brilliant. For anyone who would like to enter this universe of sound, a visit to the Jamendo album page is recommended.


    Aksenty Beskrovny

    Anyone who would like to be enthralled by the worlds of free music can go to the Aksenty Beskrovny Bandcamp page. "The Stories Without Words" which appeared in 2012 is a vivacious solo album played on a jew´s harp made by Alexander Dernovoy from Ukrainia. People keen on the abstract and experimental in sound will like Beskrovny´s cooperation with Karim Ali Chingizidov: The Lower World. Last but not least, we can recommend the low-fi recording by the duo Aksenty Beskrovny and Deirdre Morgan (Touchtone Duo). Also, an older recording from the year 2011, which presents an attempt at accoustic communication between two cultural worlds (British Columbia/Canada and Yakutia/Russia). Beautifully played and rich in its range of sounds.

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