• The Norwegian Jew's Harp Festival 2015 from September 25 till 27 in Dovre

    norsk-munnharpe-forum-festival-2015-imageOne of the liveliest Jew's harp scenes in Europe is to be found in Norway. Thanks to the efforts of the Norwegian Jew´s Harp Forum (Norsk Munnharpeforum), founded in 1998, there are numerous possibilities, year on year, to continuously exchange information regarding the Jew's harp. The forum now has just under 150 members who meet up each year in September for the Jew's harp festival.

    In September 2014 the Norwegian Jew's harp enthusiasts and enthusiasts from other European countries met on the Karljohansvern peninsula on the south coast of Norway. The Jew's harp festival has become a nationwide attraction. Along with concerts and workshops, Jew's harp players have above all the opportunity to exchange ideas about playing techniques, music pieces Jew's harps and the latest news. The festival first took place as early as 1955. Three years later, the Jew's harp specialists of Norway founded the Norwegian Jew's harp forum, with the aim of extending and spreading knowledge about the Jew's harp, cultivating the construction of Jew's harps and stabilizing the music on the Jew's harp, as well as conducting research into the instrument.

    Resulting from that a network consisting of smiths, scientists and musicians sprang up which, among other things, run and administer the website where numerous links to relevant Jew's harp websites are listed. In 2006, the double CD "Fille-Vern – Old and new masters on Norwegian Jew´s Harp tradition" (Fille-Vern. Gamle Og Nye Mestre I Norsk Munnharpetradisjon) was released, on which recordings from the archive of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation from the years 1937 to 1970 were published along with some current recordings of tunes. Furthermore, a newsletter appears four times a year, compiled by the well-known folklorist Bernhard Folkestad, and this is also published in English.

    At the international Jew's harp congress in Taucha, Germany in 2014, Bernhard Folkestad told of the many Jew's harp players that one meets at the"kappleiks" - music competitions - in Norway. These folk music competitions take place at local, regional and national level. Along with Jew's harps there are also, among other instruments, fiddles, langeleiks (zithers), flutes and accordeons to be heard. Experts judge, among other things, the standard of the playing technique, the melodic and rhythmic consistency and the interpretations of the folk melodies played. The best performers receive a prize and then advance to the next level of the competition. At national level up to ten musicians compete.

    The first Jew's harp found in Norway, is estimated to be about 800 years old. Bernhard Folkestad writes that in Norway Jew's harps had always been played and the instrument only vanished from the scene after World War II. In the 1990s musicians rediscovered the Jew's harp. Traditionally, it is melodies that are always played on the Jew's harp in Norway. In Norway dance and folk music songs are played on the Jew's harp and the feet are often used to tap out a clear and audible rhythm. According to Bernhard Folkestad, many melodies were adopted from other instruments such as the fiddle or or the langeleik (zither). The Sami, too, incorporated the Jew's harp into their cultural experience. Although it is not a traditional Sami musical instrument, the Jew's harp still received its own name, in Saami the Jew's harp is known as the "njálbmefiolaš", the mouth violin.

    The next opportunity to experience the Norwegian Jew's harp scene will arise September 25th till 27th 2015 in Dovre. There will be workshops on instrument building for Jew's harps and flutes as well as courses in playing the Jew's harp and the langeleik. More information can be found on the website of the Norwegian Jew's harp forum closer to the event. 

  • Jew's harp stories from Norway, Part III: Four protagonists of the current Munnharpe music

    Who are the people bringing Jew's harp playing back to life today? In the spectacular collection "Fille-Vern" more than 30 active people are listed who take part as musicians, smiths or researchers and as connoisseurs, if not regarded as ambassadors of the Norwegian Jew's harp. At festivals, music competitions and in forums, male and female folk musicians meet to learn new melodies and to pass on Jew's harp playing techniques to others. Three other people should be introduced as representative of many other Norwegian Jew's harp players: Bjørgulv Straume (*1938), Tom Willy Rustad (*1966) und Hallgrim Berg (*1945).

    Bjørgulv Straume

    Bjørgulv Straume from the area known as the Setesdal first took to the stage with a Jew's harp in a folk music competition (kappelik) at the age of 50 (1988). He was a source of amazement there due to his unmistakeable playing technique with the index finger. At that time he took first place. Shortly afterwards, he recorded a cassette which he named after the melody he created, "Luftslaget". In addition he recorded a CD with traditional music ("Frå Ætt Til Ætt", 1995) and an instruction video on how to play the Jew's harp, won the Landskappleiken in 1990 und 1991 and crossed genre borders: Straume left his mark on the extremely successful CD "Fra Senegal Til Setesdal" (1997) by the Norwegian folk singer Kirsten Bråten Berg. In the music project the two female Norwegian musicians met the two Senegalese musicians Solo Cissokho and Koame Sereba. Straume made a name for himself as a "mestersmeder", a maker of Jew's harps.

    Arne Nordheim: "Partita for munnharpe and electronica", performed by Svein Westad, Anders Røine, Tom Willy Rustad, Veronika Søum

    The national folk music competition was won by Tom Willy Rustad in the years 2005 and 2006. Jew's harp protagonists such as Bjørgulv Straume und Knut Tveit inspired his style of playing the Jew's harp. As an active folk musician, Rustad plays even more instruments, among them the diatonic accordion and the reed flute (seljefolyte). Together with the Norwegian folk group Kvarts, he produced numerous albums. In the company of the Jew's harp players Svein Westad, Veronika Søum and Anders Røine Rustad was at the performance of Arne Nordheims composition "Partita for munnharpe and electronica" on the occasion of the 15th jubilee of the Norwegian Jew's harp society in Oslo in 2013.

    Veronika Søum

    The 30-year-old Jew's harp player Veronika Søum from Numedal near Kongsberg learned to play the Jew's harp from Svein Westad. Together with Bernhard Folkestad, she worked on the instruction manual for the Jew's harp "Enkelt munnharpespel". In addition, she holds workshops in the Norsk Munnharpe Forum. Veronika primarily plays music from her own region, prior to this some melodies were only to be heard on a fiddle before she adapted them for the Munnharpe. She currently lives in Trondheim and also renders musical pieces from the local region on the Jew's harp. She runs the facebook group "Munnharpa".

    Hallgrim Berg

    While making music with the Jew's harp in Yakutia, Japan and Vietnam was and is obviously influenced by women, the Jew's harp landscape in Norway is still mainly shaped by men. Around ten percent of the members of the Norwegian Jew's harp forum (Norsk Munnharpeforum) are women, according to the Jew's harp specialist Bernhard Folkestad. The Oslo ethnologist Viggo Vestel refers to this fact in his foreword to the CD"File-Vern" and hopes that in the future this situation may change. Only once do female Jew's harp players play in a musical piece on the double CD. Tove Amundsen, Solveig Strand and Gro Offerdal play with the group Leksvoll Munnharpelag, which was founded in the year 2001 by folk musician and politician Hallgrim Berg. Berg plays the Jew's harp and reed flute (seljefolyte). In the 1960s and 1970s, he won several competitions on both instruments (Landskappleik) and also acted as a judge. Hallgrim Berg holds workshops on how to play the Jew's harp , among other things at the "Den Norske Folkermusikkveka" festival in Hallingdal.

  • Jew's harp stories from Norway, Part II: What legends tell us about the Munnharpe

    "Fangjen" performed by the Baikal Jew's Harp Orchestra

    Although the history of the Jew's harp in Norway before 1900 can only be partially reconstructed, due to the fact that only a few written testimonies regarding its use are known to us, the link between some Jew's harp melodies and legends indicate that there is an oral tradition which has been handed down with the instruments from generation to generation. Two of these legends are to be told here. One story stems from the Valdres region. It describes the belief in the magic power of the Jew's Harp to do good for mankind. The second story from the Gudbrandsdalen region deals with a prisoner who was a skilled Jew's harp player and is said to have written the melody to the well-known song "Fangjen".

    There are many legends about the Jew's Harp in Valdres. The folklorist Knut Hermundstad has collected some of them and published them. One of the legends tells of Hölje, who had gone fishing in the woods and spent the night in a small hut. Hölje could play the Jew's harp well. On this particular night he sat in the hut and played his instrument. All of a sudden, he heard noises outside the hut. People were dancing to the sound of his music. How could that be? Hölje knew that no other human was in the area apart from himself but he wasn't afraid and went on playing. Outside the dancing continued. When he grew tired he stopped playing and decided to head to bed. At that moment one of the dancers opened the door and said: "Oh, Hölje, you have been playing such lovely music." Holje answered: "you danced very well." The dancer replied: "Please, Hölje play one more song for us." You will not regret it. So please continue playing, Hölje. He played the whole night through, right until dawn. Hölje slept briefly and then rose to begin his work and to get his nets ready to go fishing. But when he arrived at the fishing nets, he found a big haul already in there. An amount of fish so great that it was too heavy to take it home with his bare hands. He had to walk back home to find a horse that would be able to transport the catch. The large haul was the payment for his Jew's harp music.

    A Jew's harp's ability to reach unearthly worlds is a subject which is to be found in other cultures too. In Russian shamanism the Jew's Harp is highly important. The Jew's Harp serves as a tool for humans on earth to contact people in another world. Today, the Jew's Harp, thanks to its unique sound, is also considered a spiritual medium connecting the organic and the transcendental. The artist Wang Li is of the belief that the Jew's Harp can create a connection between man and universe due to its vibrations. His greatest goal is that he will be played by the Jew's Harp and not the other way round.

    The second legend is called "Fangjen", the prisoner, and is told in Norway. It is the story of a young woman who was admired by two men The woman decided for one of the two men. The name of the other man was Kristen Forbergje. Hölje was known as good player of the Jew's Harp. It annoyed Kristen so much that he had not been chosen by the woman that he murdered his rival and dumped his body in a lake. However, his corpse was discovered a little bit later. When the funeral took place Kristen hid in a cave from where he had a good view of the road on which the funeral cortege passed by. One version of the legend has it that in the course of the funeral procession blood was dripping from the coffin as Kristen played his Jew's harp . The murder was solved and Kristen was sent to prison. Today, it is thought that the melody entitled "Fangjen" can be traced back to Kristen. He is said to have been executed in 1736. "Fangjen" is nowadays one of the most popular tunes in Gudbrandsdalen; it is played on the fiddle, the langeleik (Norwegian dulcimer) and the Jew's harp.

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