• Revival in West Russia: The Russian jaw harp expert Aksenty Beskrovny

    30 year old Aksenty Beskrovny from Moscow is already one of the most important experts representing the jaw harp to the public not only as musicians but also as scientists. When he discovered the jaw harp for himself in the age of 18, he decided to wholeheartedly focus on this instrument. Since then he has been studying it with his whole attention and living on his activities as a jaw harp virtuoso. He plays solo concerts, cooperates with international musicians, and he gives lectures and runs workshops. Aksenty adds new features of sound to the Russian jaw harp technique. And thereby he also draws attention to the mouth harp in Western Russia.

    Russian Jews Harp Vargan expert Aksenty Beskrovny. Foto by Olga-Prass.

    Russian Jews Harp Vargan expert Aksenty Beskrovny. Foto by Olga-Prass

    Letters to Aksenty

    In some areas of the Russian Federation jaw harp music is officially acknowledged and even fostered, such as in Yakutia (Sakha), in the Altai region, in the Republics of Tuva and Bashkortostan. Research, classes at music schools and concerts add to the lively interaction with the instrument. In the areas of Russia less touched by the mouth harp the scene organizes itself. Such as in Moscow – where for several years single enthusiasts have been trying to achieve more public acknowledgement for the jaw harp and to remind of its historical roots.

    To find out more about the Russian Vargan, I wrote directly to Aksenty Beskrovny and asked him to tell me about his life as a professional jaw harp player in Moscow. We conversed via a number of emails in which he described his approach to the jaw harp playing. I wanted to understand his personal appreciation of this instrument which seemed to be far from any specific regional tradition.

    "Книга призвуков" – The book of overtones

    At first I listened to a few of Aksenty’s latest pieces on his website The single recordings belong to the constantly updated web album "Книга призвуков" which could be liberally translated as “book of overtones”. The tracks are called “improvisations”. For each track Aksenty plays a jaw harp with a different keynote. These mouth harps are made by the smith Sergei Pyzhov. Aksenty writes that he has tried out a few thousand different jaw harps from all over the world in the past years. “There have been a few really good models among them. But since 2012 I have only been playing instruments made by Sergei Pyzhov. Some of his models seem to be made just for me. With them I enjoy music the most.”

    Russian vargan from Sergey Pyzhov

    Russian vargan from Sergey Pyzhov

    One can hear it on the recordings: the melodies and florid passages swing with precise contours, they float dynamically and rich in resonance. The “book of overtones” is a study of jaw harp music centering on melody. In parts it reminds of the Norwegian jaw harp tradition, but with less strokes. Aksenty uses the swinging of the mouth harp tongue to produce several notes with only one stroke, and to integrate shades (overtones) and slides into the music.


    Aksenty Beskrovny’s style of jaw harp playing is characterized clearly individually. But this musician is not only led by his own intuition, he also benefits from the exchange with other musicians. In one of our emails he wrote: “When I started playing there was hardly anybody in my area, in and around Moscow, who could have taught me. So I taught myself how to play the mouth harp. I improvised a lot and did not follow any certain tradition. I totally fell in love with this kind of music making, and until today I have mostly been playing my own improvisations. But a lot of experiences I also collected at jam sessions with other musicians. In the past years I have played music with hundreds of jaw harp players from all over the world. This has been an enormously important treasure of experience for me. Many of those people were part of a certain jaw harp tradition or played their very own jaw harp style. Through them I could always broaden my own concept of mouth harp playing.”

    A life as professional jaw harp player

    For about eleven years already Aksenty has devoted himself extensively to the jaw harp. When others attended university he chose an autodidactic study of the Vargan. He writes: “If you want to work as a professional jaw harp player you got to do everything by yourself: you have to finance your work by yourself, to organize your own projects, lectures and presentations, and you got to care about improving your playing technique.” Without doubt it is a huge challenge in a city like Moscow where the jaw harp is not really popular yet. But Aksenty does not regret his decision. “I understand these same daily challenges as very enriching.”

    The reason for being fond of this of all instruments is, according to the improvisation artist himself, that the mouth harps differ profoundly from all other instruments. “The music is created in yourself, in your own body. While playing you literally transform yourself into an instrument. The sound changes with every move of your muscles. It is a wonderful process: you compose music, and at the same time you create a unique musical instrument with your body. The more you play the Vargan, the more your body interacts with the music. I like to be part of this very process and to feel like an explorer of my own skills.”

    The jaw harp is immortal

    His first tone on a jaw harp the Muscovite did not play on a Russian Vargan but on a mouth harp from Austria by Karl Schwarz. “I tried to play it and I even managed to coax a few sounds out of it. I liked it, and since then I haven’t stopped playing the jaw harp.” Since that day Aksenty Beskrovny has not just played the instrument but also studied it. “The jaw harp has an amazing history. In many countries it is connected to an own tradition, mostly it has even got a country-specific identity. Therefore the mouth harp traditions of two countries often differ totally from each other. These instruments have existed throughout all eras and all over the world. According to my opinion this is possible because the jaw harp does not only exist within a tradition but to some extent also outside of traditions. Local societies change, sometimes even become extinct, but this small simple mouth harp just can’t get lost. This is the reason why I am so interested in the history of these instruments. Sometimes I spend days in a library to discover a new detail.”

    Research on Russian Vargan by Aksenty Beskrovny

    Aksenty Beskrovny is doing research on Russian Vargan

    Even if he feels like a lone wolf at times, over the years a small Russian jaw harp scene has evolved. And this nurses Aksenty’s hope that the jaw harp in West Russia might experience a revival anytime soon – not least because of the continuing work of mouth harp enthusiasts like him. After all, such an upturn is said to have been successful a few times already, such as in Sakha where the jaw harp playing hardly played any role a few decades ago and where today it is supported and spread through many public activities. “Yakutia is a good example and a hope for all those who wish for a professional development of jaw harp traditions in other areas, too.”

  • Nadishana: Whilst Playing the Jaw Harp I Imagine a Whole Orchestra

    Nadishana plays jaw harp at the Ancient Trance Festival 2008

    The multi-instrumentalist Nadishana plays more than 200 instruments. Among those the jaw harp, he says, is one of his favourites. „You can play it everywhere, even in public spots, without causing too much of a stir. I often use the time for practicing, when I need to wait somewhere.“

    Nadishana grew up in a southern Siberian village and studied at University in Sankt Petersburg. He’s been living in Berlin for more than 10 years now, and is one of the favourite musicians as well as a regular performer at the Ancient Trance, the festival for jaw harp and World Music. In August 2016, Helen Hahmann met him at the 8th Ancient Trance in Taucha, near Leipzig, and had a chat with Nadishana at the castle yard, where he talks about his approach to music, his very individual style and his favourite jaw harps:


    I want to learn something about music in general

    Where I come from, the jaw harp is not really popular. 15 years ago, in Southern Siberia it was virtually non-existent. Also, the jaw harp was by far not as present in the Northern parts of Siberia, in Yakutia, as it is now. I believe the first time I heard those peculiar sounds was on vinyl records, back then in Russia.

    One could only borrow records in libraries as 10 years ago you couldn’t just get the music you took an interest in from the internet the same we do today.

    Anyway, I was excited by those recordings. I was wowed and just wanted to know what kind of instrument that is. So, I started reading books and visiting museums about music instruments. Until that point, I’ve never seen anybody in a live performance with a jaw harp. Three years later, when I started going to Uni a friend of mine purchased one in a second-hand store. He played it and let me try as well.

    I bought my first jaw harp in Kyzyl, Tuva. It was not really a good quality jaw harp and broke down easily. But I started practicing with it. Then, I got a jaw harp from the Altai region. Originally, I am a guitar player, and I am also into percussions and flute as well as several other instruments. For me, it’s not about playing that certain instrument. I rather want to learn something about music.

    Whilst playing the jaw harp I imagine a whole orchestra

    I don’t consider myself as a jaw harp player. I am a musician who explores music in all imaginable ways. But the jaw harp is an interesting instrument. Though it’s a simple one, it has got a lot of power, provides many possibilities, and so many strange sounds that can be generated. And it’s truly an ancient sound. As is the case with other overtone instruments, the flageolet tones can be accentuated.

    My style is a product of my previous experience that I made with music. I play drums and percussions and I apply those techniques and rhythms to the jaw harp. I also arrange the music. That is to say, I imagine an orchestra during my jaw harp play: now the violins start to play, and then the percussions chime in. Then again, the percussions are pausing and the whole orchestra is playing, or all but one instrument just stop. I think of alteration in speed, modulation of the melody etc. I arrange the music during playing the jaw harp the same way I would do for an orchestra.

    Naturally, I am inspired by other jaw harp techniques and other music, for instance the Indian art of jaw harp playing and actually Indian music in general. What is being achieved in India with the Morsing is just amazing. Or have a look at Norway: over there they have this fantastic tradition to play tunes with the jaw harp.

    Playing the Japanese jaw harp Kohkin is what I like best

    I’m fascinated by the jaw harp because it is so small and such a quiet instrument as well. I can take it with me everywhere I go. You can play the jaw harp at public spots without harassing anyone at all. That’s the reason why I play the jaw harp as often. I simply take it always with me. While I’m waiting somewhere, I just get it out of my pocket and pass some time.


    I like best playing the Japanese, black jaw harp, the so called Kohkin. I like it, because I play on small jaw harps only and the smith in Japan builds small, good quality instruments. On those small Kohkins I can apply all my playing techniques. The only problem I encounter is that my way to play makes the instruments break rather quickly. Three of them already broke and since the Kohkin are quite valuable I decided to go for some budget instruments. That’s why I play the Vargan instruments from Paul Potkin that come from the Altai mountains. They are inexpensive, quality is solid and they simply don’t break as quickly.

    More information on Nadishana:

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