The DAN MOI Jaw Harp Blog ♫

  • The jaw harp in Thuringia: a visit to the jaw harp maker Andreas Schlütter

    Many jaw harp players – among them Anton Bruhin, but also Clemens Vogt and Sven “Roxy” Otto from DAN MOI – have taken the steep wooden stairs to the music and work room of Andreas Schlütter. The walls are decorated with bagpipes, drums, and flutes. All instruments are still in use, reveals Andreas Schlütter (AS), as the band “Thüringische Spielleut” use the place as their rehearsal room. Helen Hahmann (HH) met the instrument builder and musician in Zella-Mehlis on a winter afternoon. She visited his workshop and asked him about the traces of mouth harp playing in Thuringia.

    AS: We have been dealing with Old Music for a long time. My father started that. We lived in the local museum of Zella-Mehlis, and found a lot of old things. Right at the beginning we found jaw harps, too, but didn’t know at the time that these were actually jaw harps.

    HH: So in the beginning you didn’t know what these little items were all about. How did you find out?

    AS: After the war, we were allowed to clear out the warehouse of a music wholesaler to see whether we could use anything for the local museum. We found some strange wire hooks and had no idea what that was all about. Peculiar stuff. In the middle there was a spring. I was very little back then. My father was one of the guys who built up the local museum. So we said, “let’s put the stuff into the display cabinet, but not label them. So we can’t do anything wrong.” One day a guy from Arnstadt came by, a music ethnographer, who said, “Hey, you also have jaw harps!” – “Yeah, of course we also got jaw harps”, my father said and so we finally knew what these were. Then we started to research where these things came from. Probably from around here at the area of Schmalkalden, but wherefrom exactly, no one really knows. But these were the first jaw harps, we’ve had.

    HH: Probably one couldn’t really play the old jaw harps that you had in that museum. In the GDR jaw harps have been completely forgotten and one couldn’t just buy some new instruments. Actually quite a difficult starting point. How did your father end up becoming a jaw harp smith nevertheless?

    AS: My father got himself a better picture. What exactly is a mouth harp? What can one do with it? Are there different types? In the catalogue there were large, medium, and small ones. So we found out that the jaw harp is a very old music instrument, which in earlier times was much more common. Only in the GDR you couldn’t buy some. Then, my father started to build some. Of course he imagined that in earlier times music happened in restaurants without using microphones. With multiple instruments being played and people having conversations the jaw harp would hardly have been heard at all. So we concluded it must have been a louder, more powerful instrument. Later, he got around the fact that well-known jaw harp players merely played better. It took several years until the first fairly good instruments were built.

    HH: Back then you didn’t have anyone who could show you how to build a jaw harp and you found it all by yourself in a trial-and-error mode.

    AS: Yeah, we actually had to start from scratch again. Going to the museum, researching, asking people. The folklorist Ernst Stahl was a tremendous help, back then. He was the one who pointed us to the fact that jaw harps were common in earlier times. Thereupon my father started his business with music instruments and started to build mouth harps. We have been building jaw harps in Zella-Mehlis since 1973.

    HH: In the GDR you were the only jaw harp makers.

    AS: Yes. In Berlin there was an office for pricing. They decided what price we could ask for and who we could sell to. We were permitted to sell to one music shop only, which was in Suhl, 20 minutes away from Zella-Mehlis. They realised that jaw harps were produced in West Germany, too. Those instruments were much better packaged and more colourful. So our jaw harps were not suitable for export and no foreign exchange could be gained. We also were not recognised as a handicraft business. That’s why we carried on with a low-key approach. Only the jaw harp players that came to us realised that the instruments worked quite well. After the wall broke down we got in a car and offered our jaw harps to several shops and we received only good feedback.

    Jaw Harps from Kleinschmalkalden, late 19th century.

    HH: Now we’re talking about the recent history of the mouth harp in Thuringia, right. In Michael Wright’s book it is being speculated that the jaw harps being exported to England in the 12th and 13th century might have come from this area, that is to say Thuringia.

    AS: On a global level we identified three large jaw harp production hubs: Molln in Austria, Northern Italy and the region of Schmalkalden in Thuringia. In the town of Kleinschmalkalden one could find jaw harp smiths and workshops. In the local museum Heimatstube there are still some remains of original mouth harps. Unfortunately, the buildings with all the workshops were torn down. The jaw harp smiths of Kleinschmalkalden were, in most cases, locksmiths who also made doors and fittings. A document from the 17th century certifies the death of a jaw harp smith from the town of Bad-Salzungen. That is the proof of the profession being an independent trade by that time already.

    HH: Why was there a concentration of such smiths particularly in that area of Thuringia?

    AS: The region was well-known for its metalworking sector. There was mining, too. The mined iron was well suited for forging, but not so much for casting. That is the very reason why one could find many small hardware makers who made knives, springs, and also jaw harps.

    HH: Are there any characteristic elements in the production of jaw harps that you can see for this region of Thuringia?

    AS: The bow-shape I am still making today has been characteristic for this region. Nevertheless, any smith uses a unique procedure to attach the spring. Even today it is exactly the same procedure for current jaw harp smiths. Overall, there aren’t that many people around making jaw harps. But anyone of them follows his own form and style. Back then it was the same.

    HH: Now, the jaw harp is a life-long companion for you. What is the magic of the jaw harp for you?

    AS: The most beautiful thing about the jaw harp is that it is only half an instrument. The spring swings and the mouth cavity is the resonance chamber. And, since every mouth cavity is differently built it follows that every jaw harp has a different sound. The same jaw harp sounds differently when played by various people. Therefore, jaw harp playing is a combination of the player and the instrument. Only if both go well along together and one has a good connection to the jaw harp it sounds well.

    Andreas Schlütter is specialised in combining multiple jaw harps, and therefore multiple sounds. Often three jaw harps, which are tuned in a triad, are screwed together with a metal bracket to form a set:

    HH: In recent years there has been a development of strong connecting in the international jaw harp scene. Now, we find regular festivals in Taucha, near Leipzig, but also in Norway, Estonia, USA, Russia, and India. What’s your take on the emerging interest of those instruments after you spent so much time making jaw harps in relative isolation in the GDR?

    AS: I and my father didn’t know for a long time that there are other jaw harp smiths out there in the world. Only after the connection movement of the jaw harp players and makers since the 2000’s we have come to understand the true extent of dissemination. By the way, this exchange was also encouraged by the commitment of Clemens Vogt and DAN MOI. This is why we have met many jaw harp smiths. We don’t feel there is a competition as every smith has his own style and material, and his way of making the instruments. That’s why there is such an enormous diversity.

    HH: Are you discussing the making process with other smiths in detail? What is important if one would like to make a really good jaw harp? What needs to be considered?

    AS: As a craftsman, I am primarily interested in seeing what other smiths do differently. The whole process is quite complex, perhaps the same as with bell-making. This is also a science in itself. The tone pitch of a jaw harp depends on the length of the spring. The longer, the deeper. It also depends on the width of the spring. The wider, the deeper. It depends on the thickness of the spring, the toughness of the spring, and the angle of the spring as it works like a weight. The mouth harp only sounds well, if all factors are well aligned. After all these years I still try out something new once in a while, for instance what happens if I make the spring thinner. How do the overtones change in such case.

    Andreas Schlütter and his father Friedrich Schlütter not only make jaw harps, but also bagpipes, shawms, and Tibas.

  • A Mouth Harp in a Bronson Movie

    Seeing a jaw harp in a movie is a rare moment: In the first scene of his film "You Cant Win 'Em All" (1970) Charles Bronson is passing some time by playing a jaw harp. Sound-wise, it’s not too fancy. That’s a bit of a shame as in the movie “Once Upon a Time in the West” Bronson makes an appearance as a harmonica playing gunslinger, and with the huge success of this Western there is hardly someone who doesn’t know the melody of the “Man with the Harmonica”. Would be nice, to see a jaw harp in an equal famous spot.

    Bronson’s brief appearance with a jaw harp is occasion enough for us to commemorate the silent Hollywood hero. On 3rd November Charles Bronson would have been 96 years old.

    No wind for sailing: in it´s first appearance Bronson plays his mouth harp quite bored, trying to kill time (00:30 min). Bronson takes up the jaw harp a second time, content with his latest business (03:34 min).

  • Dmitry Babayev talks about his secrets of making an excellent Jaw Harp

    It is the artistic approach that currently makes the jaw harps of Dmitry Babayev the most excellent and conspicuous instruments in the Russian-speaking world. Furthermore, the jaw harps leave his workshop in an immaculate state. In 2016, Dmitry won the jaw harp making competition. He sees his success in a serene manner connected with firm convictions. We spoke with him about the aesthetic side of making jaw harps and his personal access to those instruments.

    How did you get involved with making Jew’s harps? Has this something to do with your profession, or a family tradition? Do you have a musical background?

    Once I just started to play a harp, I loved to sit and look far ahead. And I decided to change that. I decided to make my own harp, one that is louder and more powerful. After I finished the first one I found it was good enough, so I made one more. And somehow the ball started to roll.
    Initially, I had no musical background, but later on I got musical education.

    How does a cautious instrument with a fragile sound like the Jew’s harp fit into today’s world? I saw some pictures you published on the internet connected to your harps. They convey a vintage atmosphere of old machines, nature, associations of loneliness and peace, immersed in a world that has nothing to do with the fast digital lanes of work and communication many people are running on every day.

    I represent the world with my instruments. I don’t think that the world with a lot of people running around is real. I think this world is just a moment, a particular reality. The jaw harp is an ancient instrument. I think that the history of the modern world is shorter than the history of the jaw harp. I feel that the jaw harp reflects reality much better. Despite that it is fragile, this instrument had a strong appearance in human history. It has had such an impact, that even now we cannot see its full influence on the world and the music.

    Are you following any metaphysical aspects in the conception of Jew’s harps? After all the Jew’s harp has often been described as an instrument, that is able to communicate between this world and another world (whatever we think of, when we say another world).

    I don’t see any mystic aspect in the conception of mouth harps; and it´s not my objective. Some people perceive as something strange or metaphysical what is just natural for me. In fact, jaw harps strike a connection between this and another world. But for me that other world is a world of culture (not in a traditional sense of culture). In that world the jaw harp was made. I’m skeptical about esotericism.

    What inspires you to shape the unique forms and designs of your Jew’s harps?

    Nature and the legacy of the ancient world, which by now are inseparable.

    How would you describe your aesthetic approach? I see so many beautiful pictures and settings with the Jew’s harps on your internet platform – it appears to me like a whole artistic concept.

    For me, to some extent harps are pictures. I make my instruments as though they are not just handcrafted products. I relate to harps as I’m an artist. Nowadays jaw harps for me are like a focus (in the optical meaning) of the vision of beauty; like I’m a mirror for the world around me.

    Can you tell us a little bit about your idea of the perfect Jew’s harp sound? I realized that your instru-ments have a very solid, sonorous, and buzzing sound. Very rich, actually. If you can tell us, what is the secret mixture of elements in the constructions of your Jew’s harps, so that the sound turns out to be really good?

    Regarding ideal sound: I absolutely avoid thinking about the ideal sound. At the moment I’d conclude I achieved gaining the ideal sound, I’d stop making harps.
    Secondly, understanding the essence of the instrument is the secret of a good sound. But there are two key aspects, if we are talking about material things. One is the skill to work with metal and the other is the skill to apply the right geometry.

    Could you tell me about your perception of the Jew’s harp in Russia? Which status does the instrument have in Russia? Can you observe a development of a community and if so, how would you describe it?

    I´m not interested in this question very much. I only can say that there are a lot of different folks and cultures in Russia that have known harps since ancient times. Attitudes and perceptions of a jaw harp in these cultures are absolutely different. Therefore the status of a jaw harp is different. It is hard to compare the Khomus from Yakutia and the Russian jaw harp. I only can say that the Russian jaw harp has been forgotten until recently. Now, thanks to many people (I cannot fail to mention Vladimir Markov) this instrument is having a comeback. Some images of archeological findings were published and some masters now make copies. Many try to re-establish the old Russian style of playing and understanding how it sounded. This is something unique to the Russian jaw harp as opposed to a modern jaw harp culture, where people just play the way they want. But I don’t know much about that.

    Where do you see the potential of the Jew’s harp (looking at the next years to come)? One could think that it is very brave and maybe risky to dedicate one’s work and life to making Jew’s harps only.

    This instrument gains popularity among people. Moreover, the Russian jaw harp still isn’t very well known. It was forgotten and not remembered for some time. This struck a gap in Russian musical culture and it’s the reason why I think it has potential. At least, more and more people are interested in jaw harps.
    I personally think that it is risky to work for people you absolutely don’t know. I’ve had this experience in my life and I didn’t like it. I can’t say I only make harps. I also make knifes, axes, and I want to study design. I´m interested in many things, which are not associated with the production of harps.

    This interview was made possible with the translation help of Daria Chernega.

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