Issue 7 12/98

The Jew's Harp Column

A FolkWorld column by Phons Bakx and Henk Postma

High-tech drowns the world in a melting pot of cultures. In this feast of miscellany, authenticity often plays a role as wallflower. When reason dances, the magic disappears. In that circom- stance there is a need for music that gets the soul in touch again with primal nature as the breeding ground of life. This brings us to the revival of a tiny, long forgotten musical instrument: the Jew's harp, also known as jaw harp, trump or (in Germany) Maultrommel. Jew's Harp Session

Throughout centuries and within practically all cultures the Jew's harp bridged the gap between all day life and the mysteries of nature, especially the gap between man and gods, or between male and female.

Five millennia ago the Jew's harp was deve- loped out of the running reed in the Far East. Rooted in shamanistic or animistic cultures the metal type of the Jew's Harp was transmitted into the folkmusic of Medieval Europe. For a while the instrument even appeared in the composed chamber music at the courts. The industrial revolution made an end to the popularity of the instrument. A special reputation was maintained in the more agricultural regions of North-Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Bavaria, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, Norway, Scotland and Romania.

Drawing by German artist Annegret Haensel; for more info on the artist, look at the editorial page The folk-revival of the last twenty-five years gave the Jew's harp a new chance. Every folk music-group may have used the Jew's harp, mostly as a rhythmical voice- instrument, but on the whole the Jew's harp has been considered in Europe as a poor limited sound-instrument on which you never can develop a worthy sound. In these present days we can break with this point of view: The Jew's harp had proved to be a very rich instrument, but it's possibilities still are unknown to many of the musicians. It also takes a lot of energy to master some of its sound-possibilities. So as it may concern every musical instrument, the Jew's harp is hard to handle.

Nowadays the Jew's harp more and more appeares in electronic pop, avant-garde jazz and world music. The overtones of the tiny instrument even shimmer in techno beat dance halls. Specialists from all over the world give new life to the instrument and explore the rich possibilities, all in the variated background of different cultures. Last summer a main group of near hundred Jew's harp specialists gathered in the Austrian village Molln, where the 'Third World Congress and Festival for the Jew's harp was held. You could have met there all type of players, investigators, ethno-musicologists, publicists etc. from Japan, Siberia, Kyrgyzistan, Bashkortostan, Tuva, Altai-region, Austria, Germany, Norway, Holland, Finnland, Hungary, Switserland and the USA. For more info and photo's of the musicians, playing in Molln, you can mail to:

Jew's Harp Session The Jew's harp consists mainly of two parts: a stabilizing frame and a moveable lamella that is fixed on the frame. The lamella has to be plucked in front of the openend mouth agains the theeth. The mouth-cavaty serves as the sound resonator, and it also influences the timbre of the harmonic tones. or overtones. The Jew's harp can be seen as a melodic instrument reaching over the natural (pen- tatonic) scale. Each plucked tone presents the going-on sound (if we could hear it!) of the keynote wherein the Jew's harp is tuned. In this way we can call it an old fashioned burdon-instrument, that has been used for many centuries in rural and traditional folk-music in Europe. It's also a rhythm instrument, for instance in combining the fingerpluckings on the lamella togheter with breathing-pulses.

The Dutch artist Phons Bakx has written the history of the Jew's harp in a Dutch standard- work called 'de Gedachtenverdrijver' (The thoughts Dispeller). Around him an internationally orientated Jew's harp culture developed over the past ten years. Various aspects of this can be heared on his cd A Song for the Jew's harp. More information about Bakx Jew's harp music and publications you can find at his Internet-site: the Dutch Jew's harp pages

Some other cd's on which the Jew's Harp playes the dominant role are:

Drawing by German artist Annegret Haensel; for more info on the artist, look at the editorial page

To the content of the FolkWorld columns
To the content of FolkWorld online music magazine Nr. 7

© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 12/98

All material published in FolkWorld is © The Author via FolkWorld. Storage for private use is allowed and welcome. Reviews and extracts of up to 200 words may be freely quoted and reproduced, if source and author are acknowledged. For any other reproduction please ask the Editors for permission.

FolkWorld - Home of European Music
FolkWorld Home
Layout & Idea of FolkWorld © The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld