Jablonski, Marek (Michael)



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Jewish Music Forum.


Organization active in the USA from 1939 to 1963, when it became the Jewish Liturgical Music Society of America; this evolved into the American Society for Jewish Music.

Jew's [jaw's] harp [gewgaw, guimbard, jew's trump, trump]


(Lat. crembalum; Fr. guimbarde, trompe de Béarn; Ger. Brummeisen, Maultrommel; It. ribeba, scaccia pensieri; Sp. trompa).

A generic term for a type of mouth-resonated instrument consisting of a flexible tongue, or lamella, fixed at one end to a surrounding frame. Its many vernacular names include variants of ‘trump’ and ‘trompa’. The association with Jews remains obscure. Buckley (1986) gives as the earliest reference an English customs register of 1545: ‘Iues trounks the grose, 3s. 3d.’ and in Hakluyt's Voyages, mention is made of ‘Jewes harps’ used as currency during voyages made in 1595. During a witch trial in 1591, ‘Geilles Duncan led a reill or short daunce upon a small trump, called a Jewes Trump’. Although there is no evidence to suggest that the instrument was particularly associated with Jewish people, the attempt to explain away the problem with the term ‘jaw's harp’ seems unfounded. In Northumberland the name ‘gewgaw’ (the local pronunciation of which is not so far removed phonetically from ‘jew's harp’) is still current; this could be related to the Swedish munngiga, the German (Saar region) Maulgeig or the Walloon French gawe. ‘Gewgaw’ also means ‘a cheap bauble’, the Norwegian equivalent of this being jugil.

The free end of the lamella is placed in front of the player's mouth cavity and set in vibration manually; this produces a sound of fixed pitch, rich in overtones which correspond closely to a harmonic series. By various movements of the tongue and the larynx the player is able to modulate the natural frequency of the air contained in the mouth cavity which acts as resonator of infinitely variable volume and amplifies selected overtones, thus producing a wide variety of sonorous and musical effects. The complexity of the working principle of the jew's harp probably explains why, although geographical distribution is wide, it is by no means universal. The jew's harp can be said to be indigenous to most of the Eurasian land mass, where outward-pointing instruments predominate, as well as South and South-East Asia, Indonesia, Papua and Melanesia – the realm of the inward-pointing type.

The instrument is grasped by the player in two basic ways: with the lamella pointing inwards towards the palm or outwards away from it (see figs.1 and 2). Two radically different approaches to jew's harp making and playing derive from this. The frame of an outward-pointing instrument is pressed against the teeth and is actuated by directly plucking the tip of the lamella, which is usually turned up at an angle. All known outward-pointing instruments are heteroglottic (the lamella and the frame are made from separate pieces) and are normally of metal, although wood-framed specimens are known (Sedang, Central Vietnam). The frame of the inward-pointing type extends beyond the tip of the lamella, which is the part the player grasps, placing the instrument before the lips without touching the teeth. These jew's harps are normally idioglottic (lamella and frame cut from a single piece), but specimens from the Bunun of Taiwan and others are heteroglottic with one to five brass lamellae mounted in cane frames. The lamella of this type is always in one plane only, and a number of systems exist to actuate the instrument; these entail tapping the lamella near its root against the upraised wrist (Tifalmin, Papua), tapping the lamella against the thumb assisted by a string (all of Papua, Melanesia), pulling on a string attached to the end of the frame (parts of South-East and East Asia, of Indonesia, of Papua; see fig.3 and see Mongol music fig.5) or near the middle of the lamella (Hokkaido, Eastern Siberia), plucking the end of the frame (Sino-Tibetan hill people, parts of Indonesia) or tapping an excrescence beyond the root of the lamella (Java, Sumatra). In the last two cases, the frame-end oscillates in the opposite phase to that of the lamella (compound oscillation); careful balancing of the two masses increases the duration of the note without lowering its pitch. All of these systems combined with the different materials from which the instruments may be made (bamboo, palmwood, ivory, bone, brass, etc.) plus the influence of local aesthetic tastes, bring about a very rich variety of forms for this type.

The feature which must be present for an instrument to qualify as a jew's harp, and which distinguishes its working principle from that of other known mouth-resonated instruments, is the arrangement at the free end of the lamella, i.e. the part of the instrument placed before the mouth cavity (here called the embouchure). Here the gap between the lamella and the adjacent part of the frame must be kept very tight otherwise the instrument will not sound. The beats of the lamella through this restricted air-space generate a sound spectrum rich in harmonic overtones, and amplify in great detail the reactions of the resonating mouth cavity. This is what enables the player to reinforce at will single overtones or to combine several by such means as varying breath velocity or forming with the tongue one or more resonator cavities. Cutting off the air flow with the velum turns the mouth into a closed vessel with the effect of masking even-numbered harmonics, leaving only the odd-numbered ones audible. Apart from hand attacks on the lamella, rhythmic effects may be enhanced by the timing of modifications to the mouth cavity.

The jew's harp's apparent simplicity thus dissimulates a complex sound-producing system and it is surprising that, judging by its wide geographical distribution, it has been in existence for such a long time. Given that its working principles would be hard to come by, it should not be regarded as ‘mankind's first instrument’. Within the Sachs-Hornbostel system, it is classified as a plucked idiophone (for details of classification see Idiophone); however, its similarities with the Free reed are obvious (certainly far more than with other lamellaphones such as the sanza) which is why many scholars in the wake of Frederick Crane (1968; see also Ledang, 1972) now classify the jew's harp as an aerophone. Clearer definition of the generic terms we use for instruments in general is perhaps the surest way forward.

The melodic possibilities of any jew's harp depend upon the fundamental pitch of the lamella's vibrating frequency. Instruments are most commonly found tuned to pitches ranging from around C = 66·4Hz up to about d = 147Hz; conversely the mouth cavity forms a resonator of fixed ambitus. A melodic player must therefore choose the pitch of the instrument according to the musical scale covered by the piece to be performed. As lower-pitched instruments have a less brilliant sound, one way of obtaining a fuller scale (and more conventional intervals) using higher instruments is to alternate, during the same piece, two or more jew's harps tuned to complementary pitches. The changes of fundamentals will moreover give a bass line and make modulation possible. The Bavarian Mayr brothers, who normally use four instruments each, first brought this technique to the attention of the wider world; other noted present-day exponents of this technique include Max Engel and Manfred Russmann. The great virtuosos of the 18th and 19th centuries were also multiple jew's harp players; Scheibler's Aura of 1816 consisted of three and five instruments, each group mounted radially on an axis. The last and most celebrated virtuoso was Eulenstein, active in the middle of the 19th century, who normally used 16 jew's harps laid out on a table before him. Orchestral compositions for jew's harp have survived, notably four instrumentally demanding ones written from 1769 to 1771 for crembalum and mandora or small ensemble by Albrechtsberger. The brummeisen also figures prominently in the Parthia ab VIII instrumentis by Johann Friedrich Hörmann (1684–1773). In the Sakha republic, numerous orchestral compositions are now being written for the khomus.

Melodic playing with a single instrument predominates in many Eurasian traditions including Western Europe, and the instrument is frequently used to provide dance music. A notable Scottish exponent was Angus Lawrie of Oban (d 1973) who played Highland bagpipe tunes with full gracing. He clearly defined each note by accentuating the contrasting tone-colours derived from varying the resonance cavities, alternately lowering and raising the velum according to whether he was playing an odd or even harmonic. Perhaps nowhere is this aspect more fully exploited than in Norway where there are many fine munnharp players, notably Eric Røine, Svein Westad and Ånon Egeland. In Kyrghyzstan there are some thrilling players of both the wooden string operated jygaç ooz komuz and the small outward-pointing temir ooz komuz when playing the latter type, the player presses the very tips of the frame on the teeth at an angle, tightly pursing the lips, giving soft, fluid sounds, occasionally enriched by a whistled note produced at the back of the mouth. In many parts of Asia and Indonesia the almost exclusive use of odd-number harmonics is much in evidence. This mode gives an unusual musical scale ‘offset’ from the drone since the octaves of the fundamental cannot sound; the technique also clearly brings out the formants of vowels giving a polyphonic ‘gong’ effect. This, interspersed with a loud trumpeting effect obtained by intermittent hard blowing through the embouchure is especially common in Indonesia – indeed, the karinding rakit played in West Java includes a bamboo tube to amplify this effect. In Bali, the gamelan genggong consists of about 15 boys playing string-operated instruments accompanied by a gong, a suling (flute) and a kendang (drum). Predominantly rhythmic use occurs in many parts of India; here the generally high-pitched and loud outward-pointing morchang or morsing plays classical tāla along with tablā or mridigam drums.

The jew's harp often occurs in more or less ritual contexts. Among the Buang of Papua, the begnakr appears, along with spinning tops, only during the yam growing season. In many parts of Siberia and Mongolia it is connected with shamanism, serving among other things to trigger off a dissociated state. Among the hill people of South-East Asia in particular, there are traditions of using the jew's harp as an artificial voice for spoken communication between courting couples.

Outward-pointing instruments are most often made by blacksmiths – a neat piece of virtuoso forging. There are many tricks of the trade essential for achieving a good instrument. In the mid-20th century it seemed that this knowledge was fast disappearing, but since the early 1990s there has been something of a revival in both jew's harp making and playing. Leaders in this movement are the Sakha (inspired over many years by the research of Ivan Alekseyev and Spiridon Shishigin) and the Norwegians, especially in the Setesdal area. Historically, commercially manufactured European instruments, emanating from centres such as Mölln in Austria and the Birmingham area of Britain (more than 20 firms at the turn of the 20th century) were widely exported from the 17th century onwards as barter goods, being enthusiastically adopted by many cultures to whom the principle was formerly unknown. Although these cultures have often produced some fine players, cases are rare in which local blacksmiths have been inspired to make their own versions. The very distinctive shapes of the bamboro by West African Songhai, Hausa and Fulani blacksmiths suggest that they have been making them for some considerable time. One finely-wrought specimen in the Musée de l'Homme, Paris, appears to have been based on a 17th-century French model; this also applies to some Madagascan lokanga vava in the same collection.



Archeological remains of the outward-pointing type are now quite abundant, many of them dating from medieval times onwards. Most are of forged iron specimens, but cast bronze frames are also common. The oldest known specimens are several cast bronze frames, some still bearing traces of an iron lamella, conserved in the Musée des Antiquités, Rouen. They were excavated in 1860s from two separate Gallo-Roman villas. Occurrence of identical frames in much later and diverse medieval sites may suggest that these cast instruments were already the products of an industry and peddled for centuries all over Europe. In Japan, iron instruments of the Heian period (9th–10th century) from the Hikawa shrine have recently been unearthed. These are nearly identical to a modern Nivkh (Giliak) specimen from the Sakhalin Peninsula, in the Musée de l'Homme. Similar smaller modern instruments from Karelia are conserved in the Finnish National Collection, along with other instruments with Indian characteristics. All this would suggest that the circulation of jew's harps as trade goods goes back much further than the European colonial era.


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