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Written in fRoots issue 287, 2007

4th International Jew’s Harp Festival, Rauland, Norway, 2002

Heilo HCD 7189 (2005)

Despite a common audience reaction of “What is that?” the jew’s harp, under a plethora of names, is an extraordinarily widespread and varied free-reed instrument and is still undergoing experimentation and constructional development. (The common cheap and not particularly accurately pitched or resonant models sold in British and European music shops are mostly manufactured in Austria, where at one time jew’s harp making was the main industry of several towns; millions of these were exported, but there are many other designs and makers worldwide).
      For 2002’s 4th International Jew’s Harp Festival (not an annual event; the 5th was in Amsterdam in 2006) leading players gathered from around the world in Norway, a country with a significant tradition dating back to the 13th century, if not earlier, of the playing of finely-made jew’s harps (munnharper).
      You wouldn’t believe me if I said that a double CD, fifty-seven tracks, of solo and accompanied jew’s-harp performances, even though leavened by occasional diversions such as fujara and tuba, was a great through-listen; even the most jew’s-harp obsessed would consider it more in the nature of an archive to be dipped into.
      But this package also contains, as well as the two audio CDs and a booklet with concise notes on the jew’s harp traditions of these players’ home countries across Europe and Asia, a DVD of their performances, and to see how they make these noises is often quite a revelation. (Some great hats too).
      The twenty-seven video tracks include England’s John Wright, Austria’s Manfred Russmann swapping between three maultrommels as if changing chords, the pitch-variable sliding tongue of the kubyz played by Robert Zagretdinov, and the bamboo lubu of Taiwan and mukkuri of Japan’s Ainu people which are both twanged by tugging a string. There’s Bolot Bairychev of Altai overtone-singing while playing, Mike Seeger and Larry Hanks providing a fiddlesticks accompaniment to the USA’s David Holt, Japanese virtuoso Leo Tadagawa making extraordinary howling, liquid and chordal sounds on a Chinese three-tongued brass ho-ho, a Yakut khomus duet evoking the dripping and flowing water sounds of spring, Norwegian and Yakut players providing music for dancing, and Hungary’s Aron Szilagyi showing the sound possibilities of a twin-tongued ‘Apocalypt’ doromb which is one of the varied range handmade by his father Zoltan and now widely sold across Europe.
      The DVD is the most interesting and entertaining part, but the whole package forms a cross-section of world jew’s harp forms, traditions and techniques which while not aiming nor claiming to be a complete survey, simply a report on one festival, is more substantial than anything else available.

      www.grappa.no, www.munnharpe.no

© 2007 Andrew Cronshaw

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