A blog about the Jaw harp.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

'Tis the season to be Jolly Boingin'!

Ho Ho Ho! Or should I say Boing Boing Boing!? It's that time of year when we're celebrating Christmas, winter solstice, friendship, love, long nights by the fireplace all huddled together, having feasts with friends and family and then some. Some of us will spend more money than we should just to buy that something special that will bring a twinkle in the recipient's eye... But then again, some will consider that these are not the best of economic times and think about buying a gift that is meaningful, fun, personal, unique, economical and won't end up in the trash. The obvious choice is of course... a Jaw Harp! They come in all shapes and prices, from the ridiculously inexpensive to the -hum- a bit more. You can spend from under $10 and go all the way up to... $100! The question is: where to buy and who from? Following are my recommendations.

First, I buy a lot of my own from Mouth Music. Their selection is limited but Mark picks really good j-harps. On the low price end, they sell a Cambodian Bamboo Jew's Harp for $8. I have one, it sounds great and is fun to play. I love playing along Iggy Pop with it. Another favorite of mine that they've started selling recently is the Nepalese Murchunga. It's a fun brass j-harp for only $16. Higher up the price range, is the Altai Khomus by Vladimir Potkin. That is one terrific little j-harp that packs a super punch and many harmonics. It's priced at $39 but could easily sell for twice the price. Plus, the case is hand-carved and very pretty. Another great buy is their Brass Hmong Harps by Chong Moua Lee. This is a hand-crafted gem through and through that can be yours or a loved one for a mere $69. Look around on their website and you'll see many more like Yakutic j-harps that are sure to fit your budget and make someone happy.

Nepalese Murchunga from Mouth Music

Next, you can visit Wang Li. His selection is also limited but well chosen. Most of his j-harps come from China, his native country. I recommend his Hohos. They sound amazing with their multi-tone range and folks won't think of it as your usual boinging j-harp. As a matter of fact, you can read some of the past posts here and listen to Ma Guo Guo play the Hoho (or Kou xiang). Wang Li also sells pull-string bamboo harps that are a bit challenging but very fun. He does not list his prices online but you can email him and he will respond promptly. His prices are like Mouth Music's, i.e. affordable. Wang li now lives in France but his shipping is expedient and reasonably priced.

In the UK Sound for Health sells j-harps but also didgeridoos, flutes, Tibetan singing bowls, crystal bowls, shruti boxes, monochord, udu, tingsha, damru, gongs, ritual bells, books, CDs, DVDs and then some. All of his items for sale are well chosen and if you're not sure about what to get, check out Jonny's videos here.

Finally, you will find the largest selection of j-harps at Dan Moi, out of Germany. Name the continent, the country or the type of harp you want and you're sure to find it there. They have a page of Christmas specials and I recommend their Dan Moi Christmas Set which includes one Mini Dan Moi, one Standard Dan Moi, and One Bass Dan Moi. It comes with playing instructions and a beautiful fabric bag. You can't beat the price at 18 EUR.

I'm probably missing some very cool independent makers so if you know anybody I should mention, do let me know.

I leave you with a fun piece using a J-harp, a mike, a Boss RC, a synth and a guitar. Happy holidays everybody! Health, peace and love.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Good vibrations

Nepalese brass Murchunga

I recently read an interview with a Russian shaman. Russia is a big, diverse country with nine time zones and many ethnicities so amazing as it may seem to some people, there are shamans in some regions. The shaman was talking about the jaw harp and the positive vibrations it brings to the soul and body. He had a mystical approach to the instrument and one thing he said that stuck with me is that one should carry the j-harp with him/her in order to communicate with it. Get to know the instrument, get it to know you.

I don’t know about the rest but I have found at least that part to be true. The Jaw harp is one the most democratic instruments: everybody can afford one, it’s easy to carry and you don’t need lessons to play one. I’ve bought many jaw harps over the years and each time, I’ve found that it’s like a person. I have to get to know him/her before it sounds good and vice versa. Once there’s familiarity, care and love, it’s all nice: no panging, no twangs, no plinks, just good vibrations (Hey! Beach Boys!)

Those of you who read this blog know how much I love the jaw harp. I want people to know about it, pick one up and have fun with it. It’s a worldwide and ancient instrument that brings together different peoples with different histories together. In this age of fear of the other, a small, cheap, and easy to play instrument exists that says to us: you, man/woman, I am you in Nepal, France, Cambodia, Chile, India, Laos, Afghanistan or wherever you find me. I am you, everywhere.

If I know one thing is that we all need good vibrations. The jaw harp is not just an esoteric instrument reserved to shamans. It is an instrument that gives a particular flavor to a piece of music, the universal language. With that in mind, I spent some time to look for examples where the jaw harp is featured. As these few clips show, it comes up in unexpected places.

Listen closely and you can hear the good vibrations of the Jaw harp on this great song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Back in time, when The Who had Keith Moon and were musically daring, they too used the jaw harp.

In movies too you can hear the jaw harp. Here's the soundtrack to For a Few Dollars More, by the great film director Ennio Morricone. I just love the whistle and jaw harp together.

Here’s the intro to a 1970s TV show from France about the exploits of Mandrin, a French Robin Hood. Music by Lino Leonardi.

I hope you enjoyed these clips. There are many more examples but I have to leave some for you to discover. Until next time, boiiiiIIIiiiiiiininIIIininining!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Fall season in the Northern hemisphere

It's Fall for us folks north of the equator. Leaves are falling (banks too) carried off by the winds of the changing season. There is solace in the fact that down south, Spring is here!

Here are some news and happenings in the world of Jaw harps.

Jaw harp punk from Vienna, Austria! Ing. LOOP (pronounce: Engineer LOOP), the alter ego of Robert Koch, is a one-man-no-budget band. Ing. LOOP combines jaw harps, steel pans, marimba, percussion and other music instruments to create new sounds. Check him out!

From Boca Raton, Florida, here comes Professor Cunnigham. No J-harp here but I know some of you are also throat-singing enthusiasts and I think you'll enjoy this clip.

James E. Cunningham Ph.D. is an ethnomusicologist and assistant professor in the Department of Music at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. I know which university I'll be going to next. Check out his MySpace page for an extended version of "The Hamburger Song".

Earthsync is a world music record label committed to nurturing folk, tribal and native music. Musicians and singers from Myanmar, Maldives, Aceh, Indonesia, India and Thailand were brought together to perform for their Laya Live Project. Listen to and watch this magnificent piece played with morsingh, tabla, mridangam, bass guitar, drums and violin.

Dave Ruch has just put out his first record. This new release features venerable old folksongs, ballads, dance tunes and ditties from rural New York State interpreted tastefully with guitar, mandolin, jew's harp, 5-string & tenor banjo, concertina, fiddle, spoons, voice and more. Dave is equal parts historian, entertainer, educator, comedian and folklorist, he finds his song material in dusty archives, obscure songbooks, diaries, old recordings, scholarly journals and more. He’s a member of the New York State Historical Association.

No jaw harp here but similar sonorities from another great band from Congo called Kasai Allstars. Brought to you by one of my favorite record labels, Crammed Discs. This is the third volume in Crammed's Congotronics series.

From Israel by way of New York City comes Drummer Amir Ziv's and his band KOTKOT which includes percussionist Cyro Baptista, guitarist Marc Ribot and electric bassist Shahzad Ismaily. He describes his music as Melodramatic Popular Song / Grindcore / Lounge. I haven’t heard anything that experimental since John Abercrombie and friends or the Sex Pistols back in the 70s. I guess you’ll have to catch them live to hear the Jew's harp opening of "My Dentist in Hawaii." Meanwhile, you can check out Told You So.

Here is a neat project brought to you by Altamira, an association dedicated to exploring the role of culture in the development of societies. This release features the talent of the Lemhadong, a collective of women artists from the Sebu Lake region in the Philippines. I believe this album was recorded and produced by Boris Lelong. Check him out, he does very interesting work of his own. Praise to him for his 74’ long piece Hypnostasis. Here’s a piece from the CD played on a bamboo J-harp.

Reminder. Percussionist, multi-instrumentalist, pioneer in ice instruments, musical director
and more, the great Terje Isungset is touring with Trio Mediæval. They will be in the US in November. Don't miss!

I leave you with a piece by Pippo Di Stefano, King of Marranzano. Pippo shares some of his jaw harps and playing techniques. Way to go, Pippo!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Summer boings

The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Baley, by Thomas Hart Benton

This wonderful 1934 painting by Thomas Hart Benton is part of a series inspired by popular folksongs. It depicts a scene inspired from a traditional Ozark folksong. This song is a tragic love ballad in which a jealous lover lures his fiancée into the woods to talk about their upcoming wedding. She grows tired and wants to turn back. He accuses her of cheating, she protests, and under the light of the full moon, he plunges a knife into her chest. Apart from the fiddler, who Benton said represented a genuine Ozark fiddler from Jasper, Arkansas, his models for the figures are relatives and students of the artist. Benton's sister-in-law Lucy P. is the tragic victim, and the young Jackson Pollock posed for the man playing the jaw harp.

Here's a gold nugget for you. Muzina Shangai out of Osaka, Japan posts this interesting video featuring several J-harps playing together.

Oakland, California based band The Lumerians, a band that thankfully doesn't fit any category has put out a new album and they boldly feature our beloved instrument. Check out Olive Alley. I'm not sure whether the jaw harp used is a dan moi or a low Szilagyi but it's definitely a band worth checking out.

The Lumerians

Out of Chicago but sung to you in Spanish courtesy of a Belgian record company, here comes allá. Listen to a song called Es Tiempo among others to hear the jaw harp. The band is getting really good reviews from the Chicago press and I hope to catch them in LA. They're on a fantastic record label, Crammed Discs, the same label that brings us Congotronics, Balkan Beat Box, Bebel Gilberto, Romania based Mahala Rai Banda, Timbuktu locals Tartit and more. Come to think of it, one of LA's great bands, Los Lobos, should sign with them for distribution outside the island called the United States. Spread the wealth!


The forever and always beautiful as well as talented Kitty Donohoe has just released a new album called Northern Border. Here's what the Lansing State Journal says: Donohoe has always been adept at choosing accompanists, and "Border" abounds in treats. Jeff Taylor's accordion obbligatos light up "When I Was the Queen," as does his Quebeçois turn on "Pierre and Marie." Mosher's burning slide guitar, Doug Berch's jew's harp and uilleann piper Tyler Duncan (Millish) combine on a break in the unsettling "Kid With a Gun," an utterly original - and dynamite - grouping. Well hot dang, that sounds really good! Just one thing, Kitty: can you post a couple videos or music samples?

I was looking at the Jaw Harp World Map the other day and noticed a new name: Jens Mügge, from Berlin, Germany. He's a member of the Overtone Music Network I told you about in the last post and does some interesting work using voice and/or j-harp. If you haven't done so already, add your name and URL/MySpace/Youtube so others can check you out.

I leave you with this fantastic performance by Ma Guo Guo from the Yunnan Province in China. She's a virtuoso of the Kou Xian Jaw harp. She is performing at the world music festival Le rêve de l'Aborigène July 18-20.

Hasta la vista and don't forget these two festivals!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bing Bang Boing!

Greetings J-harp tribe!

The Jew's harp is the national instrument of the Yakut People of the Sakha Republic of Russia. Photo by Sidkorn

First of all, mark your calendars. The 16th Annual North American Jew's Harp Festival is in the works. It is scheduled for August 1 and 2 in Downtown Bay City, Oregon. For those of you outside the U.S., it’s a great time to come and visit, courtesy of a very low dollar. Hotel rates are very reasonable, gas is cheap compared to Europe, and food is also cheaper. J-harpists are also cool people, so don't hesitate to contact fellow members of our Yahoo group to ask questions or for a place to sleep!

I received an email a while back from Steev Kindwald. Steev has been studying Asian musics (specifically folk, gypsy, nomadic or tribal) or working with traditional instrument makers --- from the mountains of Northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to the Thar Desert/ Indus Valley of Rajasthan, Sindh and Kachchh to the jungles, beaches and mountains of Central Indonesia to the rugged hills of Northern Myanmar even to the quiet rice field villages of Japan. He has some videos on his website as well as youtube (search: steevkindwald)

I also received an email from Danibal who invited me to join a throat singing group he either started or is a part of. I can’t find the email so I’m not sure but a quick Internet search led me to the Overtone Music Network. I randomly listened to a song recorded in a church by Monika Sramlova and found it absolutely beautiful. Back last winter, I saw the Asylum Street Spankers and during the live set, one of their newer members does a short Tuvan throat singing piece. Two notes at once, I've tried it and can't do it!

Finally it's OUT! Ipercussonici has just released its first "official" album published by an independent label called Finisterre Records out of Rome, Italy. The album sounds great and you can listen to some of it at the band's MySpace page.

As far as new recordings, from Southern country rocker Jesse James Dupree and Dixie Inc. comes a new CD featuring the J-harp. Check out this song called Rev it up and go go, complete with heavy metal guitars, banjo and the twanger. A lot of fun for sure.

I hear that the Danger Mouse produced new CD by the Black Keys features the j-harp on some tracks courtesy of Patrick Carney’s uncle Ralph. Ralph happens to play horns for the great Tom Waits. I don’t have the CD so let me know if you hear it.

One thing I do know for sure is that Jack Kerouac was a Jaw harp devotee. Check out this photo of objects that Kerouac treasured throughout his life. This pic was taken at the "Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac on the Road" exhibit at the New York Public Library, March 2008. I can just imagine Kerouac on the road, hoboing it, playing his J-harp.

From the 1930s comes a tune called Jew’s Harp Bill by The Greene Brothers. It’s a comic piece but worth a listen.

A while back I posted a video of Dizzy Gillespie playing the J-harp. Here’s an even better one of Dizzy with Jon Hendricks. Just crank up the volume because it is barely audible:

We have a new friend, German from Lithuania. He shows how to make a homus (khomus) from scratch, a bit like Craftymonks. He uses basic tools and watching these videos is fascinating. I ordered one from him and am anxiously waiting for it.

Check out a new artist from Hungary, Tamas Arki. He does very interesting work he calls experimental electroacoustic electronica ("Triple E" for short?) Give it a try, I think you'll like it.

I leave you with a performance by Airtist, live in Kecskemét at the WorldmusicTogetherness. Markus Meurer on Didge, Beatbox by Döme, Áron Szilágyi on Jew's harp:

Have a great summer and as always, don't hesitate to drop me a line if you want me to post something of interest.

Friday, February 15, 2008

It don't mean a thing


Here's an absolute gem. Listen to our beloved instrument played by (according to Geosilver) none other than The Man, Dizzie Gillespie. Dizzie is with Teresa Brewer in concert doing Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing". Start at 4'23" although the previous stuff is worth a listen. Dang, Dizzie, you're a mighty fine J-harp player! And Teresa, you sure do have that swing!