• The online sound archive at the Musée de l´Homme in Paris is a treasure trove of Jew's harp music

    It is one of the most exciting internet archives of folk music currently in existence: The collection at the "Centre de Recherche en Ethnomusicologie (CREM) des Musée de l´Homme" in Paris. At the moment, you can find 1000 hours of archived material, music recordings from all over the world. The scientists at CREM have been working up until today to digitalise the old phonograph cylinders, tapes and DAT cassettes in order to allow the public access to them online. Around 3700 hours of material have already been released on recording media, roughly the same amount of live music recordings have still not been published. Some rare recordings worth listening to can be found by using the keyword "guimbarde", Jew's harp.



    An „Air de jig“ entitled „Padeen O’Rafferty“, recorded by John Wright in 1955 in Irland, is to be found among them. There is a recording of the tchang Jew's harp, drums and rebab from Radio Kabul in Afghanistan. The geologist Francois Ellenberger recorded Jew's harp music in 1959 in Lesotho. In 1955 the Philippine composer and music ethnologist José Maceda documented Bilaan Jew's harp music on the southern end of the island of Mindanao.

    Les Guimbardes du musée de l'homme - Geneviève Dournon-Taurelle & John Wright

    Made in the second half of the 1940s , the recording from the island of Puluwat, Micronesia, is a rare jewel worth listening to. The recordings made by the musicologist Geneviève Dournon between 1976 and 1982 in Rajasthan are also a voyage of discovery. These field recordings were first released in 1984 on the record "Rajasthan vièles et guimbardes" by Le Chant du Monde, but can now also be listened to in CREM's online archive. In 1978, together with John Wright, Geneviève Dournon released a classic scientific book about Jew's harps: "Les Guimbardes du musée de l´Homme", the Musée de l´Homme's Jew's harps' collection catalogue.


    Furthermore, there are sound recording examples from Bali and Timor (Indonesia) in the CREM data base.

    In the archive itself there are further recordings by John Wright or Tran Quang Hai, but they cannot yet be listened to online. This is partly because the rights to the recordings lie with the publishers, so they are only available in the archive or on CD. Incidentally, the CREM archive infrastructure is based on the Telemeta open source software. There is a lot to discover. Have loads of fun browsing!

  • Speaking Jew's harps – how one can encode languages with the Jew's harp.

    In the year 1964 the French ethnologist Jacques Lemoine spent a number of weeks in the Saiyabouri province in North-West Laos. He had a tape recorder with him and during his stay among the Hmong people he recorded music time and time again. The Hmong are a number of indigenous tribes, who live in the mountains of South China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. One afternoon the ethnologist turned on his microphone exactly at that moment when two people began to converse using their Jew's harps. This conversation has been documented in the online sound archive of the Parisian CREM (Centre for the Research of Ethnological Music) here:

    CREM - LEMOINE,JACQUES - DUO DE GUIMBARDE - 1. Januar 1964 - 31. Dezember 1964

    The Jew's harps played on Jacques Lemoine´s recording are not simultaneously played in a duet, but rather one after the other. The first Jew's harp player listens to the second and then answers him. They send messages and sentences to one another, they translate words on their instruments. In order to transfer the spoken word to the Jew's harp, they follow in their mind the word they might sing and automatically imitate the speech melody with the Jew's harp. The pitch of the Jew's harp is based on the eight tones of the so called Miao-languages spoken by the Hmong.

    Patrick Kersale - Music and Singing of the Hmong in Vietnam

    And with the khen mouth organ, too, the Hmong encode words and entire sentences. The musical ethnologist Patrick Kersalé writes in the accompanying sleeve notes text to the CD "Music and Singing of the Hmong in Vietnam", that it is a case of complicated encoding which only those privy to it can understand. The Khen musicians also usually dance to their music. These dances are important, for example, at events such as funeral ceremonies. By means of the music played on the khen at funerals, they show the deceased the way to the next life and at the same time ensure that he can no longer find the way back into the world of the living.

    Ncas - Dan Moi - Hmong Maultrommel

    The Hmong jew's harp ncas (the instrument known as Dan Moi) is used by boys and girls for courting purposes. Kersalé writes: „When all are asleep, the boy makes his way secretly at night to the girl's house. Discreetly, the boy goes to the wall of the house behind which the girl is sleeping. The walls of the Hmong houses are made of wood, with holes between the wood planks so that one can easily hear what is happening outside. The two start a conversation, whose words are partly simulated by use of the Jew's harp.

    From time to time, the music ethnologist Tran Quang Hai, who is of French and Vietnamese extraction, has shown that the transfer of the spoken word to the Jew's harp can also form a source of inspiration for musicians from beyond the Hmong communities. In the documentary film "Mundton" he shows how the words "Hello, how are you. I'm very pleased to play the Jew's harp for you“ can be clearly played on the Jew's harp. In this manner, moreover, it is possible to simulate the sound of a robot. In any case, you can have great fun trying it out.

  • 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.

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