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Jew's Harp

  • How the jaw harp became a commodity in Great Britain and Ireland: Michael Wright’s book about the jaw harp

    “The Scottish and Irish integrated the jaw harp into their music culture, the English did not,” writes Michael Wright in his book about jaw harps in Great Britain and Ireland, which was published in 2015. Even though the English didn’t play the jaw harp that very often, since the 18th century at the latest England was one of the largest jaw harp manufacturers and exporters. In his detailed book about the British and the Irish “jews-harp” the jaw harp expert Michael Wright contributes important information about the economic and cultural history of the widespread instrument. On what trade routes did the jaw harp get to England and who bought it? Why became Birmingham the center of jaw harp manufacturing? Who built the instruments? Why is the jaw harp in English called jews-harp? The book is recommended for jaw harp lovers and beginners, but also for experts. It provides the basics of the instrument, uncovers several correlations in the European history of the jaw harp and invites to look into the numerous references from archives about the culture of the instrument and its depiction in the fine arts, architecture and press.

    Michael Wright book The Jews-Harp in Britain and Ireland

    Although music is not the first priority in Michael Wright’s “The Jews-Harp in Britain and Ireland“ it is possible to get an idea of the music from the British and Irish jaw harp. Wright’s book contains recordings in a supplementary CD, which all root back to the Wright family – who are the strongest protagonists in fostering jaw harp culture over the last 50 years. The recordings are from 2008 to 2015. Some of them are from the legendary John Wright, Michael’s brother. Particularly the last piece on the CD (no. 17) is impressive: Banish Misfortune. It’s the first piece that John Wright taught his brothers in 1968. The three-tone played jig from Ireland unfolds a broad tapestry of sound and covers the whole range of instruments. It’s the example for polyphonic jaw harp playing per se.

    The book comes in 3 parts with respective 3 chapters. All basics regarding origin, name, and already published literature is summarized in the first part. The jews-harp as an economic commodity with traders, jaw harp smiths, and oversea buyers are outlined in the second part of the book. Part 3 is a collection of numerous jaw harp sources and references in arts and culture of several eras.

    Part 1: Basics

    How is a jaw harp sound formed, what playing techniques have an impact on the sound, how is the instrument defined in old encyclopedias and what literature does already exist? The first chapter named “Theorists” explains those basics. Right at the beginning Wright is posing a question, which will be discussed from different angles: does the jaw harp belong to “pluck idiophones” – as defined by musicologists Hornbostel and Sachs in their classification – or is the jaw harp an aerophone – as suggested by the jaw harp expert Frederic Crane – since the sounds are created by air swirls and the jaw harp material itself does not produce the sound.

    In the second chapter the next discourse starts. What is the origin of the jaw harp? Since experts and scientist haven’t agreed on a common theory yet, Michael Wright decided to collect what archaeological findings are able to prove. He discusses the function of the instruments in history. While the jaw harp in Siberia has had a spiritual meaning until today Wright proves that in the territory of today’s Great Britain and Ireland it was an affordable instruments for relatively poor people. Wright comprehensively analyses the archaeological finds and insights. He mainly refers to the research of the archaeologist Gjermund Kolltveit. They prove that in the 15th century the jaw harp was a commodity for the mass market. This conclusion is discussed in detail in the second part of the book.

    In the third chapter, a discourse with importance for the English-speaking area is being discussed. It features the origin and use of the term jews-harp. Wright researched more than 3,000 newspapers, journals, trading papers and dictionaries to find out, in what times how often the word was used. He portrays the history of the word jews-harp with the support of those references . He demonstrates that different terms circulated such as Gewgaw, Juice Harp or Jewes Harp. Wright agrees to the thesis that a lot of those words may have originated based on misunderstandings, e.g. words were written down as heard. Yet one can only speculate – Wright points out that there have been many attempts to prove how jews-harp became the common name of the instrument. Some arguments were confusing, others just ridiculous.

    A very detailed overview is outlined in the section named “The Jewish Connection”. It helps the reader to understand why the term jews-harp today is being critically perceived and partially being avoided. Since the instrument has no historical connection to Jewish culture and the term has been used in anti-Semitic or at least pejorative contexts as early as the 19th century, some jaw harp fans in the English-speaking community more and more have come to use “mouth harp” or “jaw harp”. If due to popularity one sticks to the term “jews-harp”, then, as Wright suggests, the word should be written without apostrophe and thereby create a proper name that does not allow the association to “harp of the jews”. That’s why in his book Wright continuously uses the term jews-harp without apostrophe and with hyphen.

    Part 2: Economic commodity

    The second part of the book is named “Commercial Exploitation”. Why did the jaw harp become already popular in the 13th century? Wright presents sources that prove a very early import of jaw harps in large quantities from the Netherlands to England. “There is no proof that back then the jaw harp had some ritual and social status. Furthermore. It didn’t have any particularly high financial value either. Nevertheless it was established that since the 13th century the instrument was shipped into the country in considerable numbers.” If one follows the trail of Michael Wright’s research, this commercial flow, which is proven by numerous documents, is connected to the economic upturn in the 12th and 13th century that is named by historians as the “Commercial Revolution”. The jaw harp became an import item in England. Its cheap price appears to be an indicator that people with a humble background were able to afford such instrument. The question where in Europe the jaw harps were produced remains unanswered as indication about the production site of larger quantities prior the 17th century is yet missing. So far it’s only known that many items were transported by ships from ports of the Northern and Baltic Sea into the country.

    The making of jaw harps in the big production centers of Boccorio in Italy and Molln in Austria can only be traced back to the early 17th century. In Great Britain, too, the production started about at the same time. England had its first own “trump-maker” since the 17th In the late 17th century the families in the West Midlands, in the wider Birmingham region, started producing jaw harps. Michael Wright describes in his book how Birmingham became one of the biggest jaw harp production centers in Europe. The tiny instrument as a mass commodity: in chapter 5 that features the jaw harp smiths in Great Britain and Ireland Wright demonstrates that as early as from the 19th century on jaw harps were made in different qualities, meaning there was a certain price range for the instruments. Still, one could buy jaw harps for only a few pennies, but more and more higher-priced items were sold as well. As Wright shows, some families passed down the heritage of the craftsmanship over many generations. Chapter 6 depicts how their jaw harps were shipped in vast amounts to North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Many instruments remained in Scotland and Ireland. There, the jews-harp was a popular instrument among a lot of people.

    Part 3: Jaw Harp References

    The third part of the book is the work of a collector. In chapter 7 and 8, Michael Wright provides references of historical and present representations of the jaw harp in art, architecture and media. These chapters are meant for the reader to browse, explore and be amazed. The readers will find caricatures, illustrations, paintings, and poems. An entertaining read that is fun and emphasizes the humoristic, playful side of the jaw harp. The last chapter is dedicated to British and Irish jaw harp players. The reminiscences of past jaw harp players that were convicted with the death penalty as thieves and murderers is curious. Particularly memorable is the story of Geillis Duncan who even played for the king with her jaw harp until she was executed in 1590 due to allegations of practising witchcraft.

    Reading all those stories, one wishes to be able to hear some historical jews-harp moments with one’s own ears. As far as it is known, the oldest jaw harp recording roots back to the year 1933. It was played in the song “I took my harp to a Party”. Furthermore, at the end Michael Wright refers to some jaw harp recordings. A collection of popular music songs that use the jews-harp is covered as well. The part about the new generation of jaw harp players, the role of the jaw harp in the internet and the outlook to the future are touched rather fragmentary.

    The book delivers many impulses. The strongest impression makes the depiction of the jaw harp in Great Britain and Ireland as a good and economic commodity. Wright demonstrates in a vivid manner and based on numerous proof how the instruments developed from an import good in the 13th century to an export good in the England of the 18th century. Unfortunately, it cannot precisely established what kind of people in the 13th century used the jews-harp on what occasions. Here, source material is missing. Again, we need to assume that at that time the jaw harp was given a low cultural status. Wright quotes the English author Samuel Pegge who wrote in 1778 that this instrument is nothing more than a “boy’s toy”, which would neither go along well with a voice nor with a music instrument. Content-wise, the book has a stronger focus on Great Britain and Ireland. The book does not deal with the music itself, i.e. the repertoire for English and Irish jaw harp. It was published in English by Ashgate. For a scientific paper, unfortunately “The jews-harp in Britain und Ireland” is with 80 Euro much more expansive than the average book.

  • 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

  • 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.

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