Leo Tadagawa

  • "The Jew's harp is just a kind of hum supplier" – Extensions of the Jew's harp mechanics

    The mechanics of the Jew's harp is very simple: In a frame made of metal or bamboo a movable reed is mounted which, as a rule, is set in motion by a person's hand. The air turbulence which occurs between the frame and the moving tongue generates a humming sound. This humming can be strenthened by resonators. The most treasured and most varied resonator is the human body - if one holds the Jew's harp to the mouth, the quiet whirring gets louder and it can be varied with the help of the mouth cavity. How can this mechanism be extended? What alternatives and extensions are imaginable? What does such an extension sound like? At this point a number of well-known experiments are brought together.

    The Swiss sound artist and Jew's harp expert Anton Bruhin says, "the Jew's harp is just a hum supplier. That could also be a shaving device or an electric toothbrush. There is a sago palm tree in Papua New Guinea. The sago beetle lives in this palm tree. There they take a leaf from the palm tree and skewer the beetle to the rib of a leaf. The beetle hums and wants to escape but is caught fast. The humming beetle is held in front of the mouth. That is just to say that the generator can actually be replaced" As animal rights protectors, we have reservations about this musical instrument and hope it will be very rarely or never built at all. The basic idea of a 'hum supplier' is all that is interesting. Music made using the sago beetle referred to by Bruhin was published on the CD "Music and the Dispel of Thoughts" by the Dutch Jew's harp expert Phons Bakx.

    Beginning with this idea Anton Bruhin has been experimenting on a variety of new constructions for many years. In 1994 he gave an engineer the job of building an electromagnetic Jew's harp. A magnetic coil is placed on the spring of the Jew's harp and this sends impulses which cause the tongue to vibrate. This enables new sound effects to be achieved, e.g. the tone can be played continuously. As a result of this, when playing the Jew's harp, one hand is free and with his free hand, Bruhin holds other resonators in front of the oral cavitiy, e.g. pans with holes or tuned pipes.

    Albina Degtyareva plays Khomus Jew's Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014 Albina Degtyareva plays Khomus Jew's Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014

    The way the electromagnetic Jew's harp sounds can be heard for instance in the song entitled "Mr. Terrine" on Bruhin's album "Travels with a Trump". Virtuosi such as Leo Tadagawa from Tokyo and Albina Degtyareva from Yakutia have come together on the album. For any listener the solidarity of traditional jew's harp music, folk music and avant-garde sound experiments is still today a very exciting voyage through the sound cosmos of the Jew's harp. The film "Trümpi" by the Swiss film producer Iwan Schumacher, who accompanied Anton Bruhin on a trip to the Yakutian Jew's harp players, gives a detailed impression of how multi-faceted Anton Bruhin's understanding and interpretation of the character of the Jew's harp is. "Travels with a Trump" is the soundtrack of the film "Trümpi" about Anton Bruhin and the Jew's harp dating back to the year 2000.

    In the case of the mouth bow, the mechanism used to create the sound is very similar. A steel or rattan string is extended on a piece of wood and struck with a stick. The musician's mouth cavity acts as a resonator. Mouth bows are played most frequently in a variety of African countries such as Angola, Malawi, Nigeria and South Africa. In 2006 Dan Moi Records released a sample recording containing mouth bow music from Malawi, Angola, Tanzania, Gabon, Namibia and Senegal. The CD "The African Mouthbow" gathered together the most diverse styles and variations of mouth bow playing. The material may not just inspire the Jew's harp player but rather offers Jew's harp players stimulus for new melodies and rythms. The Akele people in Gabun play the "ngongo". "Ngongo" is the word for the mouth bow in the Akele language.

    The mouth bow is also at home in the Maori culture of New Zealand. It is an instrument that is also known among the Mapuche in Southern Chile and Argentina. The much-loved birimbau, which is played at the Capoeira, functions as a mouth bow, except for the fact that the note is amplified by a gourd and not by the musician's oral cavity.

  • A conversation with Leo Tadagawa about the path to a personal Jew's harp style

    Leo Tadagawa plays Jaw Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival for Jew's Harp and World Music 2014Japanese native Leo Tadagawa is one of the best Jew's harp players worldwide and is an important ambassador, researcher and innovator for the instrument not just in Asia. Leo Tadagawa developed a new sledge-shaped Jew's harp: "Leo's Sledge", he regularly participates in CDs as a musician, collects old Jew's harps and publishes texts about the history of the instrument in Japan where the Jew's harp is called "koukin" (or in an older transcription "kohkin") or "biyabon". Helen Hahmann met him at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014 in Taucha and spoke to him about his very personal approach to the Jew's harp.

    What awakened your interest in the Jew's harp?

    "I have always been interested in musical instruments. I lived in Africa for a year in order to learn the Mbira. But I found that Africa was simply too far away for me. At some point during this time I became aware of the Jew's harp. The instrument is not exclusive to Europe, it can be found in many parts of the world, including Asia. Then in Japan I went searching and acquired every Jew's harp that I could find. I have now been playing for 25 years."

    Was there a special moment that triggered your desire to learn how to play the Jew's harp yourself?

    "At university I played the piano in a Jazz band. With the band we also traveled to the north of Japan and met Ainu people who play the Mukkuri, a bamboo Jew's harp. At the time I thought that it was one of those interesting musical instruments played only there. Some years later I traveled to Bali and discovered a very similar type of Jew's harp there. On the one hand, the Genggong from Bali are very similar to the instruments in Japan. But on the other hand, the material used is different and the   style of play and music are completely distinct. How is this possible?, I asked myself and I couldn't find much about it in books. It only said that the Jew's harp is a toy. But that is not true, Jew's harps have existed for centuries in niches of practically every culture."

    Leo Tadagawa plays Jaw Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival for Jew's Harp and World Music 2014What influences have shaped the way you play the Jew's harp?

    "On the mainland Japan we have lost our own distinctive way of playing the Jew's harp. Only the Ainu on Hokkaido have been able to preserve their traditions. Even if 200 years earlier playing the Jew's harp used to be very popular in Japan. I found it intriguing to consider how this old Japanese style of playing the Jew's harp might have sounded. Unfortunately there are no sound recordings from that period of time. Starting from that point I continued. I also listened to Jew's harp music from China, Taiwan and the Philippines. I therefore try to find out how it was played but I naturally only play it the way I want."


    Leo Tadagawa plays Jaw Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival for Jew's Harp and World Music 2014So what makes playing the Jew's harp special for you personally?

    "At the beginning playing was very difficult for me. This is because I was very focussed on melodies, harmonies and single sounds, which one plays in a particular rhythm. The Jew's harp is known to be not particularly well equipped for this type of music. But then I got to know the Yakutian style. In Yakutia neither the melody, nor a strict rhythm or harmony are of primary importance. All that matters is the timbre, how can I adjust the instrument´s timbre? I noticed that was exactly what I wanted. And this way I discovered my personal style."

    Is there a particular Jew's harp you like to play most?

    "I like to play most a Jew's harp from Yakutian, produced by smith Gogolev. I also find the instruments from southwest China very exciting. They look like small fans. Jew's harps are mainly played by minorities in China, e.g. by the Naxi. In China the term Kou Xian is used for Jew's harp. I play it for example this way:"

    Leo Tadagawa playing an improvisation on a Kou Xian.

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