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Jaw Harp

  • About the healing powers of the jaw harp. The Yakutian jaw harp artist UUTAi

    In the province of Yakutia located in the far East of Russia the jaw harp is an instrument with national relevance. It is a symbol and an ambassador of that region. One of its refined artists goes by the name of Olena Podluzhnaya who uses the stage name UUTAi. With her set she was a guest at the Ancient Trance Festival 2017 in Taucha. Helen Hahmann from DAN MOI met her in person and, among other things, they had a chat about the effects of jaw harp music to the human body.

    “Yes, the jaw harp is the central music instrument for the people in Yakutia”, said Olena Podluzhnaya. “We call it the khomus. It is an ancient and shamanic instrument in our culture. Everyone, whether young or old, plays the khomus.” I am sitting with a brilliant jaw harp player at a folding table in the barn of the Taucha Castle. We’re drinking hot tea from white plastic cups. Here at the temporary backstage area of the Ancient Trance Festival a lot of international jaw harp players have prepared their instruments for the stage. The Yakutian mouth harp smiths Petr Osipov and Revoriy Chemchoev were at this place, too. This was during the conference of the International Jew´s Harp Society back in 2014. Right in her first sentences Olena Podluzhnaya does not leave a single doubt about what’s so special about the Yakutian jaw harp: “This music is healthy for the people. It has healing powers. The khomus initiates deep shaman processes. That’s why the khomus is regarded as holy in Yakutia.”

    “When I’m playing I can feel the healing effect on my body. But the instrument has also a positive effect on the body of the people that are listening to the khomus. The vibration is good for my head, my teeth, and my whole body. The vibes emanate through the whole body. People who listen to the khomus can feel those vibes as well. The sound can be physically noticed. The vibes of the khomus get people to cry, laugh, dance or sing.”

    About 40 years ago, Olena Podluzhnaya’s parents moved from the Ukraine to Yakutia. Her family is not very deeply rooted into the language and culture of Yakutia, tells Olga and laughs about the wide-spread wrong assumption that traditional culture would be something ancient in any case. Olena was born in Yakutia and this culture is her culture, she says. Olena is playing the khomus for 24 years now. She learned to play the khomus at school. Although she is a trained pianist, the khomus has become the center of her life: “I’m a truly happy person as I pursue the work I love; I play and teach the jaw harp.” For two years, UUTAi was also part of the trio Ayarkhaan with Albina Degtyareva. Albina was her jaw harp teacher at school.

    The stage name UUTAi is a combination of the Yakutian words “water”, “secret”, and the verb “create”. So the meaning of UUTAi is: “The secret that was created from water.” One cannot ignore the strong connection to and the sounds of nature in the songs of UUTAi: “It roots back to shaman tradition. The animal voices of cranes, horses, and wolves that I imitate on the jaw harp are sounds from shamanic rituals. During the ritual, a shaman is changing roles. He becomes a wolf or a crane, and thereby travels between worlds.”

    “In today’s Yakutia, men and women play the khomus. Back then, this was only done by women, though. When a woman expected her man back from hunting she would play the khomus. She would be sitting at the fireplace in front of the house and while waiting she would carry out a ritual, so the husband would return safely from the hunt. Today, the khomus is also used by shamans, that is to say the female shamans, the so called Udagan.” There are people that come to UUTAi that ask for her help. UUTAi herself does not claim to be an Udagan, but states the khomus can help people in difficult circumstances. “The khomus creates the magic moments, not I.” She considers herself as a medium who mediates between khomus and human. It is the khomus that can help the people with meditation, she says. And, the khomus cleanses and helps people to listen to their hearts again.

    “When I appear on stage I never know what I’ll be playing beforehand. That is because the khomus plays with me. It plays with my emotions and with the people who listen to the concert. The khomus absorbs all those energies and transforms it into music. I cannot claim the music I am playing is mine. It is the khomus that plays it.” Those are improvisations that UUTAi presents on stage. She merely utilises a certain repertoire of techniques to form the music such as the cry of the wolf. The music has no titles as such. There are rather themes that she likes to describe with the jaw harp, for instance a fight between warriors in ancient times.

    UUTAI performs international solo concerts and meditative concerts. She teaches master classes, among other she worked as a musician and conducted workshops in China, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Lebanon, Venezuela, Hungary, and Germany.  She has published jaw harp online lessons in Russian and English, too.

    “I possess jaw harps that I only play at concerts. Others, I only play for meditation. And others I use for putting humans into trance. My preferred jaw harps are from Afanasievich Mandarov. But I also have many other jaw harps from around the globe.” The concert khomus UUTAi plays to entertain the people and get them to dance, has a loud sound and has strong vibes. For meditation, she rather uses instruments with a slow vibe generating long vibrations. As these sounds have a soothing and relaxing effect.

    UUTAi takes the last sip from her teacup, grabs her bag with the jaw harp and starts to get ready for the concert on the court of the Taucha Castle. She holds a costume made of leather, metal, fur coat and horsehair in her hands and says to me as I’m about to leave: “This is a Udagan Amazon costume. It expresses that I’m part of the nature. Everything is connected, you see, the costume, the music, the atmosphere and the khomus one uses ...”

  • The jaw harp hotspot in London: Jonny Cope

    Currently, there are only a few people, really, who play the jaw harp on a sophisticated level or organize events for the instrument, reckons jaw harp expert (acting as musician and smith) and didgeridoo master Jonny Cope from London. During a chat with Helen Hahmann from DAN MOI he talks about what has changed for the instrument on the island, what fascinates him the most whilst playing, and what beginners should be looking out for.

    Jonny Cope at the Ancient Trance Festival for Jew's Harp and World Music 2014
    Jonny Cope at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014

    In the last 15 years the jaw harp has gained enormous momentum. It is more present in the public as it’s being recognized as a music instrument and developed further. Globally festivals emerged, time and again young musicians appear in the scene, new jaw harp smiths have started to sell high quality instruments, and books are being dedicated to the very subject. In England, the Wright family are seen by many as the experts, when it comes to jaw harps. John Wright was an ambassador and expert for the instrument until his death a few years ago. His brother Michael Wright just recently published a book about jaw harps in Great Britain and Ireland. Jonny Cope has been an active player for the last decade and added another hotspot for jews harps to the island.

    Playing the jaw harp is kind of an addiction for many players. Either you put it away rather swiftly or you get strongly addicted”, even though it is a simple instrument, says Jonny, the vast variety of styles adds to an astonishing complexity of the jaw harp. “An instrument from China is completely different to one from India or Russia. They involve other techniques and sounds. I’ve never been able to head into one direction, and so I started to learn all of them. I travelled a lot and picked up a lot of knowledge from the local people. Sometimes you are sitting for days and are trying to imitate that sound. This approach makes you better in distinguishing how the tones are created – whether by tongue, by throat, by air streams, or by voice. I don’t necessarily intend to copy someone. The point is rather to share techniques and to integrate them into my own play.

    Though Jonny states he virtually loves all styles that can be played with the jaw harp currently he is particularly fond of the Norwegian art of jaw harp playing. The special thing in Norway is controlling the jaw harp to a degree, where melodies can be played. He opens one of his impressive jaw harp cases, where quite different instruments rest in fabric patch pockets, one of them is made by the legendary smith Bjorgulv Straume. He plays the Norwegian melody “Fangjen” on this jaw harp:

    Jonny Cope playing the norwegian tune "Fangjen". Recorded at Ancient Trance Festival in Taucha (2016).

    "I was 9 when a friend of mine came to school with a jaw harp. Back then, the both of us had no clue what this thing actually was. He wanted to get rid of it. He made me curious and he gave it to me in exchange for a chewing gum. My grandfather knew this was a jaw harp and he showed me how to hold it and how to produce a sound. But I didn’t end up playing for a long time as it was one of those big English jaw harps. The tongue of the jaw harp constantly hit my teeth, and eventually I stopped playing. It dates back to the 1950’s and I still have it.” Many years later, roughly around the year 2000, Jonny Cope listened to jaw harp music on CDs and remembered the little Twang instrument. He dug up the item from his past childhood barter and discovered the diversity of the jaw harp: about its popularity in so many countries and that has such an amazingly diverse sound. “I started out as a didgeridoo player. I’ve always been interested in unusual sounds and techniques. That’s why I learned overtone singing and then the Mongolian Khöömei. Back then, I didn’t have a teacher, so I learned from listening to CDs. On many of the recordings from Tuva and Mongolia there was also jaw harp music and that’s how I re-discovered the instrument."

    In another life he would past his time as a music ethnologist, confesses Jonny Cope. His ears would always be drawn to unusual sounds. Even when somebody in his presence would whistle or hum a melody he would carefully listen as a boy. “I’d say I’m a sound researcher. Same as ever, I’m listening to music that friends bring over. Some of them are ethnomusicologists. They bring by old, rare and sometimes even unlabelled recordings. I’m listening to this crazy stuff and then I’m trying to find out what exactly I’m listening to.” Today, Jonny Cope not only mastered the didgeridoo and the jaw harp, but is also proficient in playing diverse flutes.

    Jonny Cope at the Ancient Trance Festival for Jew's Harp and World Music 2014
    Jonathan Cope at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014

    When talking about it Jonny Cope often uses the term “jaw harp”. There has always been some uncertainty about the more common term “jews harp”, which has been controversially discussed in the UK. Until today there is no existing explanation why the jaw harp is being called “jews harp” in England as there is no tangible connection to the Jewish population. However, there are several theories how the term might have been changed based on the Chinese whispers principle. “In France they sometimes say ʻjoue trompeʼ, which means “playing the trumpet”. So perhaps, people heard the word joue and understood jew. That’s only one possibility, though. In Scotland the term gewgaw was used over a long time. But even the knowledge about how to correctly pronounce the word has gone lost. Only a couple of years ago I made a trip to the South of the US. I showed someone my jaw harp and he said, “oh yeah, a juice harp”. The way he pronounced the word sounded like “orange juice”. Then I wondered, what that actually has to do with the jaw harp at all. That’s a good example how people try to make sense when they misunderstand terms they hear.

    In the 18th and 19th century Birmingham in England was, along with Molln in Austria, one of the most productive areas for jaw harps in Europe. The instruments from England were mainly shipped to North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. In the Birmingham area alone during its peak time there existed roughly 30 families that produced jaw harps. At the end of the 19th century still close to 20 jaw harp producers were still registered. However, manufacturing the jaw harp became less and less profitable, which led the last jaw harp smith Sid Philip in 1975 to sell his business to a US company. Since then Jonny Cope is the first who started making jaw harps again. “I’m learning to forge the jaw harp in Norway. They forge the Munnharpe – instruments that are slightly different to the English jaw harps. But I like the Munnharpe and am learning the basics there, anyway. I’m already able to produce it in England myself. One of my friends also started to learn the forging business now, too.” Jonny Cope does not only make jaw harps in his forge. As a lover of ancient history he also forges spearheads and swords.

    If you really want to learn playing the jaw harp, I think the most important thing is possessing a really good jaw harp.” Jonny knows what he’s talking about. Having conducted countless workshops he got numerous people acquainted with the instrument. On the online platform Udemy you can even find one of his jaw harp beginner’s courses. “There are simply too many instruments out there with bad sound quality. They are ok to play a simple rhythm. However, who’s able to clearly decipher the overtone sounds and is in to experimenting with sound spectrums should get himself an instrument that actually can do that. Currently, I’m playing with instruments from Estonia, which over there are called Parmupill.” Johnny plays one of his compositions called “Spring” on a Parmupill:

    Jonny Cope playing his own composition "Spring". Recorded at Ancient Trance Festival in Taucha (2016).

  • Vargan, Khomus, and Kubyz – the Russian jaw harp landscape is in motion

    Russia is a country with a handful of jaw harp traditions: in Sakha/Yakutia, in the Altai, and in Tuva the Khomus (or Komus) is played; in Bashkortostan the Kubyz is known, and in Western Russia and in the big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg one can hear the name Vargan. The different terms already indicate diverse cultural links of the instrument. Since the 2000s more and more people remember these instruments again after the mouth harps had been forgotten for many decades. Now several hundreds of people in Russia are extensively engaged with this instrument, and it might be thousands who at least once held a Vargan, Khomus, or Kubyz in their hand. Furthermore there are many mouth harp artisans who produce excellent instruments. These are reasons enough to have a more intensive look at the Russian scene.

    The Vargan in West Russia

    Russian Vargan Jaw Harps at DAN MOIIn Russia the jaw harp has largely been associated with Siberia until recently. The Yakuts are known throughout Russia by their virtuosic jaw harp technique. But also in Central and Northwest Russia many mouth harps once were circulating. Until now, very little is known about the history of the jaw harp in the West of this huge country. In the Russian Empire mouth harps were produced and even exported. At excavation sites archaeologists found jaw harps which date back to the 9th century. Michael Wright created an impressive map on which there are several even earlier sites recorded. A map by Aksenty Beskrovny also points to specific sites of find in the West of Russia, in Ukraine, and in Belarus. But in the 19th century the Vargan passed out of mind, just like in many other parts of Europe. The scene of people who are rediscovering this instrument is steadily growing bigger. With Olga Prass, Irina Bogatyrev, Natalia Ducheva, Aksenty Beskrovny, or Vladimir Markov just a few of the amazing musicians are mentioned.

     

    The Kubyz in Bashkortostan

    Bashkirian Jaw Harp Pistol by Robert ZagretdinovBashkirian Jaw Harp Pistol by Robert Zagretdinov

    In Bashkortostan, the jaw harp together with the flute Kuraj (or Quray) belong to the traditional musical instruments of the country. There are Kubyz classes at music schools, and there are regular contests which are entered by hundreds of Kubyz players. After the Kubyz had been close on passing out of mind in the Soviet Union and only been played by a very few musicians, the instrument has gained again a pretty good reputation within the Bashkir society by now. Today the Kubyz is predominantly played on stage, but in the past this jaw harp used to be an instrument used by Shamans during ceremonies. Mindigafur Zainetdinov is one of the nationwide most known specialists.

     

    The Vargan in the Altai Mountains

    Vargan Mouth Harps from the Russian AltaiIn the Altai Mountains the legend of the bear jaw harp is known. It tells the story of a hunter who, while hunting, observes a bear plucking the splint of a larch which was split by a lightning. The wood of the larch was dry, and the corpus of the tree had a good resonance. The hunter enjoyed the sound which was produced by the bear with the split wood. He did not just let the bear live, he even made a mouth harp for himself. Since then mouth harps are made in the Altai.

    Playing the mouth harp has a long tradition among many Turkic peoples of Central Asia and therefore in the Altai Mountains as well. Just as in Sakha/Yakutia the jaw harp is an instrument for women. They are said to have played the mouth harp when milking for example, for the cow to produce more milk. One can recognize the spatial proximity of Sakha and the Altai (and also Tuva) when hearing and seeing the jaw harp being played. While the player moves only the forefinger to pluck the jaw harp in older Altai style, the whole hand circles dance-like when playing in the classic style. Similar to the technique in Sakha and Tuva, the musicians combine the sound of the mouth harp with vocal sounds.

     

    The Khomus in Sakha/Yakutia

    Khomus Mouth Harps from Yakutia at DAN MOIThe jaw harp music from Sakha/Yakutia is an important reference for musicians from all over the world today. The downright magical sounds of the Yakutian jaw harp music combine a precise playing technique with elaborate movements and the imitation of natural sounds such as the neigh of horses or the bickering rain drops. The specialty in Sakha is that the voice is purposely applied during the mouth harp playing. The Yakuts master this technique to perfection.

    The jaw harp Khomus is the national instrument of Sakha, and not least because of that it is widely supported. A mouth harp museum in Yakutsk, numerous concerts and programs spread the mouth harp playing. One of the nationwide most known groups is Ayarkhaan. But there are many virtuosic, some of them very young, players in Sakha. They can be heard at regional contests.

     

    The Khomus in Tuva

    The region of Tuva is primarily known for its overtone singers. But the jaw harp is also played there. Overtone singing and jaw harp sounds are merged with each other. That way a unique style is created.

    A Tuva legend tells how the mouth harp became a symbol for the love of two people: Once upon a time a smith and a girl fell in love with each other. But the girl was forced by her father to marry another man for his money. The smith suffered from this separation to the point that he made a Khomus and kept constantly playing it. He even stopped eating and drinking. He only played the jaw harp to forget his sadness. However, in his grief he threw himself down a cliff one day. When the girl heard this she followed him to death. The only remaining thing of the two was the jaw harp which was made by the smith with his broken heart.

    The Russian jaw harp scene is in motion. And this may be accentuated by the current intention to host the congress of the International Jew’s Harp Society 2017 in Moscow. For the one who wants to read more about the history of the Russian jaw harp and who can read in the Russian language, we suggest to have a look at an article by the Muscovite jaw harp expert and musician Aksenty Beskrovny.

    There is a selection of CDs for listening offered by the DAN MOI shop: Vargan-CD and Khomus-CD´s

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