Tiny, Twangy Harp Takes Center Stage
A carrying case full of Jew's harps. By Deena Prichep.
Deirdre Morgan playing the Rajasthani morchang. By Deena Prichep.
Festival co-founder Gordon Frazier's collection of Jew's harps from around the world. By Deena Prichep.
BAY CITY, Ore. - The Jew's harp is a plucked mouth instrument that you can find all over the world. A dozen even made the trip to the Northwest with Lewis and Clark.
Surprisingly, the Jew's harp has absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish people. But it does have a distinctive sound and a lot of fans in the Northwest. Deena Prichep traveled to Bay City, Oregon, where musicians came together this month to celebrate the tiny instrument.
Here at the 20th Anniversary North American Jew's Harp Festival, there's a lot of twangy music in the air. About 50 people are milling around the local arts center, attending workshops and plucking out everything from Siberian folk melodies to Broadway show tunes, and, of course, old-time fiddle music. But if you haven't heard of the Jew's harp, you're not alone. Deirdre Morgan is an ethnomusicologist in Vancouver, BC, and executive director of the Jew's Harp Guild. But she didn't even know what a Jew's harp was when she first saw one.
"I thought it was a bike tool or a screwdriver or something," she says. "And I found out it was a musical instrument, and I thought, oh it's that thing that I've heard in the background of old-time music."
Morgan has since become an expert, writing her masters thesis on an Asian Jew's harp. She explains how they work.
"It's a fairly simple principle. It's a tongue, or a lamella, that you flick, and it goes doy-oy-oy-oy-oy," she demonstrates. "And it's only one more step to bring the twig up to your mouth, and it gets all these different pitches."
The Jew's harp always has that constant fundamental note of the lamella. That's what gives it a droning sound like a bagpipe. But it's what you do with your mouth that changes things. California player Dan Gossi explains:
"If you open up your esophagus you get the lower notes," he says. "And if you make your mouth a real tight, small cavity, you get the higher notes. But basically you're the instrument."
Because the Jew's harp is so simple, versions of it have cropped up across the globe. Deirdre Morgan says that its pocket size helped it spread.
"It was definitely traded a lot along the Silk Road from Northern China, Russia, Mongolia, Siberia, down through India and all the 'stans, Afghanistan, into Europe," she says. "And then the European harps were the ones that were brought into Northern America."
And you can find all of these versions at the festival.
-Filipino kubing, made of bamboo.
-Chinese ho-ho, with a different brass plate for each key.
-Balinese genggong, where you pluck the lamella by snapping a string.
Despite the different shapes, sizes and materials, all of these Jew's harps clearly belong to the same twangy family. But even harpers admit it can be a hard family to love. Portland's Rob Hoffman has been coming to the festival for five years.
"For me—this is a matter of personal taste ... I don't like hearing hours and hours of Jew's harp as a solo. It gets kind of old," Hoffman says. "But what it does, is when played with other instruments, it's like the gravy on the potatoes. It adds inflection, it adds something unexpected, it adds a counterpoint."
And for just a few loud days in August, this unexpected, twangy little global instrument gets a chance to take the spotlight.
Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network
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