The DAN MOI Jaw Harp Blog ♫

  • A conversation with Leo Tadagawa about the path to a personal Jew's harp style

    Leo Tadagawa plays Jaw Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival for Jew's Harp and World Music 2014Japanese native Leo Tadagawa is one of the best Jew's harp players worldwide and is an important ambassador, researcher and innovator for the instrument not just in Asia. Leo Tadagawa developed a new sledge-shaped Jew's harp: "Leo's Sledge", he regularly participates in CDs as a musician, collects old Jew's harps and publishes texts about the history of the instrument in Japan where the Jew's harp is called "koukin" (or in an older transcription "kohkin") or "biyabon". Helen Hahmann met him at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014 in Taucha and spoke to him about his very personal approach to the Jew's harp.

    What awakened your interest in the Jew's harp?

    "I have always been interested in musical instruments. I lived in Africa for a year in order to learn the Mbira. But I found that Africa was simply too far away for me. At some point during this time I became aware of the Jew's harp. The instrument is not exclusive to Europe, it can be found in many parts of the world, including Asia. Then in Japan I went searching and acquired every Jew's harp that I could find. I have now been playing for 25 years."

    Was there a special moment that triggered your desire to learn how to play the Jew's harp yourself?

    "At university I played the piano in a Jazz band. With the band we also traveled to the north of Japan and met Ainu people who play the Mukkuri, a bamboo Jew's harp. At the time I thought that it was one of those interesting musical instruments played only there. Some years later I traveled to Bali and discovered a very similar type of Jew's harp there. On the one hand, the Genggong from Bali are very similar to the instruments in Japan. But on the other hand, the material used is different and the   style of play and music are completely distinct. How is this possible?, I asked myself and I couldn't find much about it in books. It only said that the Jew's harp is a toy. But that is not true, Jew's harps have existed for centuries in niches of practically every culture."

    Leo Tadagawa plays Jaw Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival for Jew's Harp and World Music 2014What influences have shaped the way you play the Jew's harp?

    "On the mainland Japan we have lost our own distinctive way of playing the Jew's harp. Only the Ainu on Hokkaido have been able to preserve their traditions. Even if 200 years earlier playing the Jew's harp used to be very popular in Japan. I found it intriguing to consider how this old Japanese style of playing the Jew's harp might have sounded. Unfortunately there are no sound recordings from that period of time. Starting from that point I continued. I also listened to Jew's harp music from China, Taiwan and the Philippines. I therefore try to find out how it was played but I naturally only play it the way I want."


    Leo Tadagawa plays Jaw Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival for Jew's Harp and World Music 2014So what makes playing the Jew's harp special for you personally?

    "At the beginning playing was very difficult for me. This is because I was very focussed on melodies, harmonies and single sounds, which one plays in a particular rhythm. The Jew's harp is known to be not particularly well equipped for this type of music. But then I got to know the Yakutian style. In Yakutia neither the melody, nor a strict rhythm or harmony are of primary importance. All that matters is the timbre, how can I adjust the instrument´s timbre? I noticed that was exactly what I wanted. And this way I discovered my personal style."

    Is there a particular Jew's harp you like to play most?

    "I like to play most a Jew's harp from Yakutian, produced by smith Gogolev. I also find the instruments from southwest China very exciting. They look like small fans. Jew's harps are mainly played by minorities in China, e.g. by the Naxi. In China the term Kou Xian is used for Jew's harp. I play it for example this way:"

    Leo Tadagawa playing an improvisation on a Kou Xian.

  • How archives can help forgotten Jew's harp traditions come back to life: The ethnomusicologist Deirdre Morgan

    Deirdre Morgan plays Jew's Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014 Deirdre Morgan on stage at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014

    "I found my first Jew's harp in the street. I picked it up and first of all had to look up on the internet what small strange object I was holding in my hand. I found out that the Jew's harp exists in Bali, in Vietnam, in Austria and in Sicily - that really impressed me, such a small instrument that can be found all over the world,  an old instrument that entire festivals are dedicated to ... from then on I knew that I absolutely wanted to meet people who played the Jew's harp."

    The Canadian ethnomusicologist Deirdre Morgan became fascinated by the Jew's harp ten years ago and has been captivated by it ever since. When Deirdre got to know the Jew's harp, she also began to discover Gamelan music and started playing with a Gamelan group at Vancouver University. "I fell in love with Balinese music and with the Jew's harp at the same time. It was therefore only logical that I was interested in the Genggong, the Balinese Jew's harp". In 2008 Deirdre Morgan did her thesis on the Genggong at the University of Vancouver in British Columbia. The thesis can be found online as an Open Source document under the title "Organs and bodies: the Jew's harp and the anthropology of musical instruments".

    Deirdre Morgan and Aksenty Beskrovny: Touchtone Duo

    In the meantime Deirdre does not only investigate Jew's harps but also has become a Jew´s harp player on stage. As a soloist or with Aksenty Beskrovny as "Touchtone Duo". "The Jew's harp sounds very organic. This sound has depth, it comes from deep within the human body. At the same time the Jew's harp can sound like a robot, like a machine, an alien, something extra-terrestrial, something that is not of this world. The Jew's harp then incorporates both elements, the human and the superhuman." This tonal polarity of the Jew's harp can also be found in the social function of some Jew's harps: "The Jew's harp is connected to shamanism and spirituality. There are also traditions, in which the Jew's harp serves as tool to establish contact with people in this world or in another world. The working title of my dissertation is: 'Speaking in Tongues', meaning the incomprehensible speaking during prayer. 'Tongues' in English also refers to languages, it can therefore also mean speaking in different or strange languages. For me every style of Jew's harp playing is a new version, a new language. Last but not least, the English 'tongue' is also the name of the metal spring of the Jew's harp."

    In her dissertation Deirdre Morgan explores the question, why people play the Jew's harp and what the sound of the Jew's harp means to them. Her research is firmly anchored to the presence, she does not write the history of the Jew's harp, history is only considered to explain current developments in the Jew's harp community: "For instance I am interested in how such a strong Munnharp community can exist in Norway and has already been maintained for years. So I head off and have numerous conversations with Jew's harp players and smiths and naturally also with the key figures in the scene, those who organize festivals, workshops and concerts." One can ascertain that for many in the community the driving factor is to have a very special knowledge that only few people possess, they are convinced to be preserving a tradition. Deirdre Morgan returns again to Norway: "the traditional melodies there are in no danger of being forgotten. There are so many people who know the instrument and play it. In Austria and Sicily playing the Jew's harp is undergoing a revival because people are looking for something unique they can identify with. While doing so, people from many different perspectives draw closer to a tradition; there are those who tend to be conservative who cling on to an allegedly historically handed down understanding, and there are the experimental currents which are driven by the need to integrate the instrument in a modern context."

    As a board member of the International Jew´s Harp Society (IJHS), Deirdre Morgan reflects on the IJHS congress in 2011 in Yakutsk and considers it a milestone for the music of the Jew's harp. Since then, there has been a palpable upturn in the international Jew's harp scene, she recounts. Within a few weeks, new Facebook and Twitter groups sprang up which allowed people interested in current events in the community to keep up to date. Yakutsk was an extraordinary experience for many participants. The younger generation of Jew's harp players met up there for the first time. After that people began to network, to communicate via online portals and to exchange material and information. This way the community has become much more visible and present.

    The Jew's harp hides many stories that until now have not been discovered or told - whether about the arrival of the instruments in the "New World" on emigrant ships, the practice of music by indigenous communities in South America or contemporary trends in Indonesia. "What I wish" says Deirdre, "is that people visit museums and archives more frequently, in order to discover old sound recordings of cultures, to listen to them and then see if they can produce these sounds themselves and further develop them. These sources are often so rich that they can help to bring less vivid or even forgotten traditions back to life. In Norway and Estonia, this approach has already been very successful." All in all, it would be desirable that people one again show more interest in their local traditions.

  • "Simplicity sets my music free": The sublime Jew's harp meditations of the artist Wang Li

    Wang Li plays Lubu jew's harp at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014

    The New York Times wrote this about a concert given by the Chinese Jew's harp virtuoso Wang Li: "Wang Li educes futuristic sounds from the simplest of instruments. He plays all possible types of Jew's harps, positioned very close to the microphone, reverberating so that every movement, every resonance can be heard down to the very last detail. His pieces are fascinating, introverted with delicate movements of performed meditations. Sometimes the sharp clicks are reminiscent of electronic dance music, wrapped in ghostly harmonious melodies. Li´s music is deeply lonesome and charmingly soft."

    Performance at TED 2013

    Today Wang Li lives in Paris. He was born in the north-eastern Chinese city of Qingdao. During his time at school he learned how to play the bass guitar and had already come into contact for the first time with a Jew's harp. After he had graduated from school, he entered a French monastery. Spiritual elegance and the pursuit of an inner balance characterize his compositions right up to today. As a mouth organ and jew's harp player, he sees himself not as an artist primarily but rather as a type of tool: "I don't make the sounds, the universe calls them forth. When one creates a vibration then something changes in the structure and framework of our world. I can't see the universe but am located directly in it. Music and vibrations have an impact in the world." As a result, Wang Li is not over-concerned about the fuss surrounding him. He says "There is nothing special about me. I am always worried about the future, I am worried about the here-and-now, and I try and find a few warm consoling moments in the past."

    As his aim, Wang Li strives to achieve a higher level of consciousness. In music, also. One has arrived somewhere, he says, if one no longer just tries to play the instrument but rather is played by the instrument. "So far, unfortunately, the jew's harp has not become part of me. I hope that, one day, the jew's harp will play me. In my opinion, it is not a question of whether I play the jew's harp, but so far it is still a case of me trying to do something in order to produce good vibrations. But I am still so very limited in my abilities, and the jew's harp is a majorly important instrument because it can establish vibrations between you and the universe."

    Past, Present, Future

    Wang Li studied jazz at the Paris Conservatory. The opportunities which musical improvisation offered him cast a spell over him. The jew's harp has become his favorite instrument. He believes it to be a medium which allows people to establish a connection to things that are invisible. The Jew's harp accompanies Li in his search for resonance and freedom. He says it is simplicity that sets his music free. It opens a door for him to an inner world which takes him back to his childhood memories and which can become a place of silence and reflection. For that reason also, critics describe his music as sacred. A new album by Wang Li entitled "Past, Present, Future" was released in November 2014 on the Buda Musique label.

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