• Parmupill – The Estonian Jew's Harp

    Eesti Parmupill - Estonian Jew's HarpProducing sound with a jew's harp is easy. One only needs to know the basics - how to take the instrument in one's hand, place it on the mouth, hold it against the teeth and make the reed of the instrument sing. The mystical sound that man can produce with this tiny instrument has captivated many nations for centuries. The earliest jew's harps found in Estonia was a jew's harp dug out from Otepää town hill dating back to the beginning of the 13th century. However, since at that time Otepää town hill was the location of a German fortress, this finding cannot be considered as a proof of jew's harps spreading across Estonia. There are, however, several findings from the 15th and 16th century and it can be suggested that at that time jew's harp was a popular instrument among peasants.

    Today jew's harps can probably be found in many households. However, finding people, who can play this instrument, is much more complicated. As mentioned above, it is easy to produce sound with this instrument, but playing songs or melodies takes some practice, as with any other instrument. Seemingly a simple toy, but in practice an ancient instrument requiring subtle playing technique.

    Different types and names of jew's harps can be found all over the world: Parmupill in Estonia, Guimbarde in France, Maultrommel in Austria, Vargan in Russia, Munnharpe in Norway, Khomus in Tuva or Jew's harp in England etc. An interesting fact concerning the instrument's English name "jew's harp" is that, in fact, this name does not indicate any connection to the Jews. The name is a consequence of some publishers mixing up a few letters at one point. The initial intention was to name the instrument "jaw's harp" but somehow, when the text was published, "a" was replaced by "e" and since then even scientific publications have consistently been using this inaccurate name.

    There is firm evidence that in Estonia the jew's harp was at this one period used for playing dance music. Imagine the whole village dancing after a village musician comes to the swinging square, takes the musical instrument out of his pocket and begins playing a tune. This is not a joke. A village musician played dance tunes - Flat-Foot Waltzes, polkas etc.

    Theodor Saar from Kihnu once told that in the 1930s there was a wedding where the only musician was a person playing a jew's harp. As the silent sound of the instrument could not overcome the loud party noise, most of the dancers where looking at and following the rhythm of movement of the musicians foot. This is how they derived the correct rhythm and tempo.

    In general there is enough evidence of people dancing to the rhythm of jew's harp to support the story of a man from Jõhvi, who in 1944 said: "... already in the ancient times men used to build big swings... And when they'd had enough of working, they played and sang. Then along came zithers and concertinas, and people danced. Some people carried a jew's harp in their pocket and sometimes its tune was very happily used as dance music.”

    Jaan Türk called the jew's harps or harmonicas used in our land frog's harps. The way Jaan Türk handled his frog's harp was completely different from the technique used in coastal Estonia - he did not place the instrument between his lips but in his oral cavity where the vibrating sounds produced something similar to "slurping". His skillful play was very enjoyable.

    An interesting description of Peeter Vekmann, a passionate jew's harp player: “When Peeter started playing, already his first notes created such silence in the audience that one could have heard a pin drop. The musician was so skillful in using his instrument, and his oral cavity as a resonator, that the sounds he produced were very colorful and versatile. The audience was captivated by his play and did not want to allow him to leave the stage. He had to play again.”

    Peeter Piilpärk






    Peeter Piilpärk: a musician played jew's harp, according to their own words, "under the tongue" or "above the tongue". Playing "under the tongue" was the Kihnu way.


    Jaan Rand






    Jaan Rand: Jaan, being a passionate musician, always carries his jew's harp with him everywhere he goes.


    Ruuben Kesler






    Ruuben Kesler said: "Whenever I have time to spare from my farm work, I grab my jew's harp because it makes my mind feel happy and my body feel light!”


    Villem IlumäeIn his memoirs, August Pulst very colorfully describes his collaboration with Villem Ilumäe, a talented musician: “When I first discovered this musician based on the information received from Lääne-Nigula, I found out he was living in a "smoke hut" (a chimneyless hut with a vent in the roof to let out the smoke) and very soon after that I also saw the musician himself coming around the corner of his hut. When I asked him, if he was the jew's harp player I was looking for, he smiled, placed his hand in his jacket pocket and took out his jew's harp. And I said: ‘Well, look at the true musician - always carrying his instrument in his pocket just as some smokers carry their pipes!’ This statement lit up his eyes and he immediately replied ‘Well, yes, you know I have been playing that instrument for a little while! We call it a mouth harp.’" Then the musician told me that his mouth harp was 58 years old. He had only changed the reed since it breaks after a while.

    This post was written by Cätlin Mägi (formerly Jaago) for DAN MOI World Music Instruments. If you are interested in more details on the Estonian jew's harp culture and history we strongly recommend Cätlins excellent book "Eesti Parmupill - Estonian Jew's Harp", available in our webshop.

  • 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.

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