The DAN MOI Jaw Harp Blog ♫

  • 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.

  • Relaxation and movement: Francois Cesari and his music stories for children

    I enjoy the fact that I can open up the infinite world of sounds to a new generation”, states Francois Cesari in an email to us. Since 2015 DAN MOI supports the French jaw harp player and percussionist who was part of the trance music band Goayandi for a long time. His new band project is called Watt The Foxxx. When Francois is passionately talking about a new generation, it’s children aged between 6 months and 6 years that he has in mind. For the last 2 years he’s been regularly sharing sound experiences with them. On this mission, too, the instruments from DAN MOI are involved.

    Francois Cesari with a group of children making a pair of cymbals sound.

    In my music educational work I connect music with imagination. Together with the kids, I make up stories. But we not only talk, the animals and plants make sounds, too, and thereby come to live. If it’s about a turtle, I play the Handpan drum. Then the turtle meets other animals, which are all symbolised by sounds, such as frogs and birds.” The mood and the ideas of the kids play a central role in his approach. Eventually, the kids should be motivated to grab a music instrument themselves, or at least develop a stronger awareness of music and sound.

    Naturally, sound and movement are not disconnected. Francois’ method aims on stimulating the motor skills of the children and animating them to move and dance. Finding tranquility via sounds is equally important. “The babies are virtually hypnotised by the instruments. When they listen to the mouth harp, kalimba, wind chimes, or bells they become quite and relaxed. With the 2 year old kids or older you can do more things. For instance, I use bells, bird voices, Shaker, and Vibraslap. Each sound is assigned to a character and a certain motoric movement in the story.

    A DAN MOI Mouth Harp played by Francois with his former band Goayandi.

    When Francois is visiting a nursery with his program, he is getting maximum attention. The mix of listening, moving, and speaking helps the children to focus. Francois uses the instruments of DAN MOI for many of the exercises. He says, it is really a beautiful thing to see how sensible the children react to the auxiliary percussion and percussion instruments. “Your instruments are inspiring the kids to experience a vast variety of emotional moments: Sometimes, I use the jaw harp like a robot. Then they laugh. The thunder drum is making them awake and they are a little scared as well. They are surprised by the bird voices and they love dancing with the drums and percussions the most.

    The french percussionist Francois Cesari playing a live concert.

    A stimulating and active early musical education is what Francois Cesari desires. He made a lot of good experiences with that approach and he even considers putting it down on paper, so that other people can use it, too. Francois’ lessons are not only well remembered by the children. The teachers and parents are inspired by the playful way of dealing with music, too. They carry on doing some of the exercises with the kids themselves.

  • “A crazy voyage” with the Hungarian jaw harp virtuoso Áron Szilágyi

    Less than 100 km away, southward of Budapest you will find the city of Kecskemét. Kecskemét can pride itself with its institute for music education, which was named after the Hungarian composer, music ethnologist and son of the town, Zoltán Kodály. But Kecskemét is also the Hungarian city of music instruments and in particular it is the city of jaw harps. This is because Áron Szilágyi and his father Zoltán Szilágyi, two of the most important protagonists of the European jaw harp scene live there. Helen Hahmann met Áron Szilágyi in the summer of 2016 in Taucha, near Leipzig.

    Aron Szilágyi at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014

    For me, it’s really important to arouse people’s interest in the jaw harp”, says Áron Szilágyi. For 20 years, Áron travels the world as a musician, trainer, and initiator of projects. As director of the Leskowsky Music Instrument Museum in Kecskemét – the only one of its kind in Hungary – he gives people access to music on a very basic level: “Me and my colleagues go to schools and conduct workshops. This is a very important mission for me. Our work inspires kids and young people to learn such an intuitive instrument as the jaw harp. They can learn to play it without necessarily going to a music school. They can just give it a try and discover it themselves."

    Áron Szilágyi is giving numerous concerts every year. Solo, before with the formation “Airtists” and now with his group “Zoord”. “Our concerts raise a lot of awareness for the jaw harp. The people can hear what we are doing with those little instruments and instantly become curious. Some are keen to give it a try right away and are starting to play.” One opportunity to present the jaw harp to the public is Áron’s very own “Global Vibes” jaw harp party, which always happens in Kecskemét at the end of the year. “It’s a crazy crowd that gathers to celebrate the end of the year, but also the jaw harp: Shamans, rock musicians, Techno DJs, Folk dancers. About 500 people are coming and naturally not all of them share my interest in the jaw harp. However, by such an experience they get aware of this remarkable instrument and our enthusiasm might become contagious."

    Áron plays the jaw harp since he’s 3 years old. He was raised in an environment with plenty of instruments around him as his father Zoltán Szilágyi is one of the best-known and best jaw harp smiths of the world. He’s been building jaw harps for 40 years. When Zoltan Szilágyi heard this specific sound in the radio for the very first time, he became so intrigued, he wanted to make an instrument that sounded exactly the same. He’s never seen a jaw harp before in his life and he built the first instruments without having a template. He tried several options over a long time and made hundreds of instruments until he caught sight of a jaw harp. He stopped everything else and got occupied with jaw harps only, tells his son Áron. The Hungarian term for jaw harp is doromb.

    Zoltán Szilágyi went on a quest for the perfect sound. At some point, someone bought one of his jaw harps and he started to offer them on markets all over Hungary. The folklore movement had many people travel from the cities to the country, so they could learn traditional dances and teach them in the cities. Within that context, a great interest in the jaw harp emerged and Zoltán Szilágyi sold many of his instruments. They differ from other jaw harps as they are hand made high-quality items. As the wall broke down his work got acknowledged beyond the boarders of Hungary. Today, Zoltan builds more than 80 different jaw harp types, which have all a different tone colour. Zoltán’s instruments are not based on a tradition of jaw harp smiths in Hungary. His approach rather aims on enabling an artistic way of dealing with the instrument and exhausting any imaginable acoustic colour.

    Doromb Blackfire made by Zoltán Szilágyi (Hungary).

    Zoltán’s son Áron knows every little detail of the jaw harp smith business, but leaves the part of craftsmanship to his father. He makes wooden jaw harp boxes and caskets, though. His focus lies on the music. Dedicating his life to the jaw harp like his father was anything else than taken for granted. “When I was 16, like all teenagers I was seeking for something to express myself. I saw how people from all over the world came to our house to visit my father. I observed our guests and thought they are free, don’t have to work, travel around the world, and are really cool – and they all have one thing in common: the jaw harp. I liked that and came to the conclusion of becoming a jaw harp pro. There was even no need for me to leave the house. I only had to go to the living room since the jaw harp players that came to visit us were the best in the world. I could learn from them – for instance Spiridon Shishigin, Anton Bruhin or Frederik Crane, all the legendary players of the whole world. With 18 years I played more and more and becoming 20, I had my own bands, went on tours, and gave concerts and workshops. And that’s how I’ve been living until today.

    Those encounters with jaw harp players in the own living room became Áron’s role model and influenced his style. The instruments itself had a great impact on his way to play, he says. At the end of the day he’s been lucky to play with only excellent instruments. Still, “I really don’t intend to play the jaw harp in one style, only specific for me, as I’m doing very different things with the instruments. I feel attracted to an intuitive style, rich with overtone and rhythmic. I’ve learned several breathing techniques and use them in my play. People tell me that my style is giving them a specifically powerful and dynamic style. One of the reasons might lie in the fact that I’m able to play really loud.

    Áron Szilágyi plays his father’s jaw harps. Not out of loyalty, as he says, but because those are the instruments that match his preferences the most: “I like best playing the Blackfire jaw harp, because it works well with all different kinds of playing techniques. They lie well in my hand and I know them inside out. They’re just perfect for me."

    How Áron’s jaw harp play sounds is best to found out by listening to a recording of his band Zoord that released a CD in 2016. On that album they re-interpret traditional melodies from the Tschangos from Seofonbyrig. A remix album of those songs with world music producers and DJs remixing the songs will be released shortly. A solo album from Áron is in the works as well and he promises that it will be quite experimental – a crazy voyage.

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