Tran Quang Hai

  • The online sound archive at the Musée de l´Homme in Paris is a treasure trove of Jew's harp music

    It is one of the most exciting internet archives of folk music currently in existence: The collection at the "Centre de Recherche en Ethnomusicologie (CREM) des Musée de l´Homme" in Paris. At the moment, you can find 1000 hours of archived material, music recordings from all over the world. The scientists at CREM have been working up until today to digitalise the old phonograph cylinders, tapes and DAT cassettes in order to allow the public access to them online. Around 3700 hours of material have already been released on recording media, roughly the same amount of live music recordings have still not been published. Some rare recordings worth listening to can be found by using the keyword "guimbarde", Jew's harp.



    An „Air de jig“ entitled „Padeen O’Rafferty“, recorded by John Wright in 1955 in Irland, is to be found among them. There is a recording of the tchang Jew's harp, drums and rebab from Radio Kabul in Afghanistan. The geologist Francois Ellenberger recorded Jew's harp music in 1959 in Lesotho. In 1955 the Philippine composer and music ethnologist José Maceda documented Bilaan Jew's harp music on the southern end of the island of Mindanao.

    Les Guimbardes du musée de l'homme - Geneviève Dournon-Taurelle & John Wright

    Made in the second half of the 1940s , the recording from the island of Puluwat, Micronesia, is a rare jewel worth listening to. The recordings made by the musicologist Geneviève Dournon between 1976 and 1982 in Rajasthan are also a voyage of discovery. These field recordings were first released in 1984 on the record "Rajasthan vièles et guimbardes" by Le Chant du Monde, but can now also be listened to in CREM's online archive. In 1978, together with John Wright, Geneviève Dournon released a classic scientific book about Jew's harps: "Les Guimbardes du musée de l´Homme", the Musée de l´Homme's Jew's harps' collection catalogue.


    Furthermore, there are sound recording examples from Bali and Timor (Indonesia) in the CREM data base.

    In the archive itself there are further recordings by John Wright or Tran Quang Hai, but they cannot yet be listened to online. This is partly because the rights to the recordings lie with the publishers, so they are only available in the archive or on CD. Incidentally, the CREM archive infrastructure is based on the Telemeta open source software. There is a lot to discover. Have loads of fun browsing!

  • Speaking Jew's harps – how one can encode languages with the Jew's harp.

    In the year 1964 the French ethnologist Jacques Lemoine spent a number of weeks in the Saiyabouri province in North-West Laos. He had a tape recorder with him and during his stay among the Hmong people he recorded music time and time again. The Hmong are a number of indigenous tribes, who live in the mountains of South China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. One afternoon the ethnologist turned on his microphone exactly at that moment when two people began to converse using their Jew's harps. This conversation has been documented in the online sound archive of the Parisian CREM (Centre for the Research of Ethnological Music) here:

    CREM - LEMOINE,JACQUES - DUO DE GUIMBARDE - 1. Januar 1964 - 31. Dezember 1964

    The Jew's harps played on Jacques Lemoine´s recording are not simultaneously played in a duet, but rather one after the other. The first Jew's harp player listens to the second and then answers him. They send messages and sentences to one another, they translate words on their instruments. In order to transfer the spoken word to the Jew's harp, they follow in their mind the word they might sing and automatically imitate the speech melody with the Jew's harp. The pitch of the Jew's harp is based on the eight tones of the so called Miao-languages spoken by the Hmong.

    Patrick Kersale - Music and Singing of the Hmong in Vietnam

    And with the khen mouth organ, too, the Hmong encode words and entire sentences. The musical ethnologist Patrick Kersalé writes in the accompanying sleeve notes text to the CD "Music and Singing of the Hmong in Vietnam", that it is a case of complicated encoding which only those privy to it can understand. The Khen musicians also usually dance to their music. These dances are important, for example, at events such as funeral ceremonies. By means of the music played on the khen at funerals, they show the deceased the way to the next life and at the same time ensure that he can no longer find the way back into the world of the living.

    Ncas - Dan Moi - Hmong Maultrommel

    The Hmong jew's harp ncas (the instrument known as Dan Moi) is used by boys and girls for courting purposes. Kersalé writes: „When all are asleep, the boy makes his way secretly at night to the girl's house. Discreetly, the boy goes to the wall of the house behind which the girl is sleeping. The walls of the Hmong houses are made of wood, with holes between the wood planks so that one can easily hear what is happening outside. The two start a conversation, whose words are partly simulated by use of the Jew's harp.

    From time to time, the music ethnologist Tran Quang Hai, who is of French and Vietnamese extraction, has shown that the transfer of the spoken word to the Jew's harp can also form a source of inspiration for musicians from beyond the Hmong communities. In the documentary film "Mundton" he shows how the words "Hello, how are you. I'm very pleased to play the Jew's harp for you“ can be clearly played on the Jew's harp. In this manner, moreover, it is possible to simulate the sound of a robot. In any case, you can have great fun trying it out.

  • "Tran Quang Hai, where does the term "Dan Moi" originate?"

    Tran Quang Hai plays Dan Moi Jew's Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014Over many years, several thousand people participated in the workshops and presentations of the overtone specialist Tran Quang Hai. Tran Quang Hai has been involved for over 45 years in promoting worldwide awareness of the techniques of overtone singing and jew's harp and spoon playing. The ethnomusicologist from Paris, now 70 years old, has become known primarily as a teacher and musician. Tran Quang Hai was born in South Vietnam.  He studied at the Conservatory of Ho Chi Minh City before moving to Paris in 1961 to study music.

    "I became acquainted with the jew's harp not in Vietnam but in France. That was in 1960. I learnt how to play the jew's harp from John Wright. Six years later, I held my first Vietnamese dan moi in my hand. I received it as a gift, and at first I really didn't know exactly what I was supposed to do with it. I learnt the instrument step by step." As a scientist at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, Tran Quang Hai came across the jew's harp collection at the Museum of Man (Musée de l'Homme). Even at that time, the collection consisted of over 300 different examples of jew's harps from around the world. One of these was the dan moi from North Vietnam. With the aid of sound recordings, Tran Quang Hai became increasingly familiar with the jew's harp, learnt songs and mimicked techniques, until he finally began to compose original pieces for the jew's harp. He has composed over 20 works for the jew's harp.

    Tran Quang Hai plays Dan Moi Jew's Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014 Tran Quang Hai plays Dan Moi Jew's Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014

    Tran Quang Hai then sought out jew's harps even in Vietnam, his birth country. The instrument was not particularly widespread in the 1960s, and in North Vietnam it was played only by the Hmong. The Hmong mainly play melodies on the rab ncas, as the jew's harp is called locally. Rab ncas, according to Tran Quang Hai, is a rather complicated word in the Hmong language. As he proceeded with the search for the Vietnamese jew's harp, it immediately became clear to him that he needed a term that could also be easily pronounced outside of Vietnam. So, without hesitation he gave the jew's harp the now popular name "Đàn môi". "Dan means instrument, and moi means lips, therefore, the instrument that you press against your lips. So the name 'dan moi' comes from me", Tran Quang Hai states, not without pride.

    To his own jew's harp playing style, Tran Quang Hai added most notably a rhythmic pattern. To the western audiences for whom he now primarily played, the sound became more appealing. "When I play the jew's harp, I quickly slip into the role of a researcher. For me, the traditional techniques are not enough. I listen to other jew's harp players and incorporate some elements into my own playing, for example, from the Génggong of Bali, the Karinding from Java, the Kubing from the Philippines or the Morchang in India." With that being said, Tran Quang Hai considers himself first and foremost as a creative developer of new approaches and techniques for jew's harp playing. Typically, when playing faster, more rhythmic passages, he uses his thumb to pluck the tongue of the jew's harp. This allows him to produce a totally unique sound, almost like a fingerprint, that can be combined with a variety of different music styles. Tran Quang Hai is so forceful a soloist that his "beats" enable even a hip hopper to dance to them.

    It is a sign of friendship when one can reach his/her counterpart through a jew's harp. Tran Quang Hai prizes the little instrument because it can go with him everywhere in his pants pocket or backpack. He brings it out of his pocket at every possible opportunity and plays for people who request it. It is a challenge but also a great joy when Tran Quang Hai can bring his sound to other jew's harp players. "They are the ones who hear every nuance that is played, and are eager to try the new techniques or sound effects for themselves. They are probably more perceptive listeners than most other people," says Tran Quang Hai enthusiastically. An opportunity to play in front of experts comes regularly at the International Jew's Harp Society (IJHS) conference. As a member of IJHS, he enriches the regular meetings through workshops, his own performances, and his substantial contributions as an ethnomusicologist and specialist in overtone instruments.

    Tran Quang Hai is being quite popular on many websites in the internet. He is also running several pages in English, French and Vietnamese where he writes and publish exciting video clips once in a while:

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