An instrument that fits in your pocket and makes a pleasant yet arguably hilarious ploinky-ploink sound is pretty hard to take seriously and much easier to just dismiss. If the mouth harp is your musical weapon of choice, no fame, glory, or fortune awaits; such is the life of the humble mouth harpist. Also known as a jaw harp or even a Jew’s harp, the mouth harp actually wields a secret power that’s at least 4,000 years old, and this power is able to slot seamlessly into contemporary music whether it’s noticed or not. Here, master of the mystical mouth harp, Danibal helps to explain how and why this wee and weird instrument is well worth your time.

The Mouth Harp: The Sound, Origin & Playing Technique

The Mouth Harp: The Sound, Origin & Playing Technique

What’s that you’ve got there?

The mouth harp doesn’t even look like any musical instrument you could name. While you could kind of see why the word ‘harp’ has become attached to it, it does look more like a pocket-sized crossbow than anything you can play a tune on. At least that’s the view of Daniel Hentschel (artist name Danibal), and it’s a view that gets regularly reinforced. “I was once sitting in a crammed train and the girl sitting across from me suddenly cried out ‘What’s that you’ve got there?’, to which I nonchalantly replied, ‘Oh, I’m an olympic archer in training.’” Obviously everyone on the train fell about laughing.

It’s actually a pretty hefty task to explain exactly what a mouth harp is, but thankfully, Danibal does it with verve. Sitting at his kitchen table in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, he lays out his immense mouth harp collection to help demonstrate. The most accessible mouth harp has a horseshoe shape with a steel tongue running down the middle. At one end, the tongue is ‘crimped’, fixing it to the frame and at the other end it’s bent into a 90 degree angle (the trigger), ending with a loop. The mouth harp player places the harp against their teeth and plucks the trigger to vibrate the tongue and produce that characteristic ‘ploink’. In this way, the entire mouth serves as the sound box.

What most people might not know is that the mouth harp is a direct ancestor of the harmonica and the accordion. Without the mouth harp, we wouldn’t have either of them since the sound-making principle is pretty much the same. In place of sucking or blowing air, you get sound out of a mouth harp by plucking the trigger to vibrate the tongue.

Jew’s Harp

The mouth harp is one of the oldest instruments in the world. A wooden version of the mouth harp is known to have been played 4,000 years ago in the mountains of Yunnan province in South China. This wooden example provides a blueprint for the metal variations that would be forged much later in the far East, but there are mouth-harp-like instruments that are far older than the 4,000 year old wooden version. A mouth harp made from palm leaves was discovered in the Polynesian islands, and in India, elongated mouth harps are cut from bamboo.

Danibal: “Many cultures claim the mouth harp as its own. Some Sicilians still insist that they invented the mouth harp, but of course, it’s more likely that the instrument made its way to Sicily much earlier.” The mouth harp is also often called a Jew’s harp, but the origin of the instrument has nothing to do with Jewish culture. During a performance of the song ‘Democracy’ in Belgium in 2012, Leonard Cohen commented that he was probably the only Jew ever to play the Jew’s harp professionally.

The most likely story is that the mouth harp found its way from China to Europe via the Silk Road, eventually landing in the Netherlands as evidenced by a painting that hangs in the Central Museum in Utrecht. Painted by Dirck van Baburen in the seventeenth century, the piece shows a common young man plucking merrily at his mouth harp. “If you view the mouth harp from a social perspective,” comments Danibal, “it’s definitely not a high society instrument.” And he’s got a point: across Mongolia, the Ural mountains, and Yakutia, the mouth harp is the number one instrument of the common people. “In Yakutia in North Siberia, the mouth harp is a really big deal. It’s a national instrument,” says Danibal. “The Yakuts use a more abstract approach to playing the mouth harp which rests less on playing songs and more on the sound of the instrument, much like playing the didgeridoo. This approach is all about the nature of the instrument. The mouth harp has just one root note – which is perhaps the biggest challenge. The trick is in the rhythm and overtones. If you have good control over the overtones, then you can actually play clear melodies, but that root note will remain dominant no matter what. This is actually common with many folk instruments like the bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy. Nursery rhymes also use the same trick.

The Austrians actually tried to cheat the root note problem by clamping two mouth harps together; an innovation that made it onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. In Austria, the mouth harp is called the ‘maultrommel’ which literally translates as ‘mouth drum’, which immediately makes logical sense since it is more of a percussion instrument.”

Mongolian Herders

Danibal has been performing with the mouth harp since 1999 and managed to tackle the root note issue decades ago, having already started the real work when he was a kid studying overtone singing. “I was in a guitar band at the time and wanted to have a more raw singing voice. Then I saw a documentary about Mongolian herders and throat singing – or polyphonic overtone singing. The next day I went straight to the library and picked up every throat singing CD I could find, and it’s on those CDs that I heard full instrumental pieces played on a mouth harp for the first time.”

So, the challenge for any mouth harpist is getting as many notes as possible out of their instrument. “The lower the root note, the more overtones you can produce. The same is true of overtone singing. The logic is the same. To make the note as big as possible, you make your mouth as big as possible to make an ‘oo’ sound, and then by making your mouth smaller and smaller, to the point where your tongue meets your front teeth, you get a smaller ‘ee’ sound. These two sounds and all of the variations in between is the range you have to play with, and by breathing in lightly, you can raise or lower a note by a semitone which can be used to create a nice rhythmic effect. You can actually do some proper techno-style things with a mouth harp. You can even make it sound like an early synthesizer.”

In 1992 (during the height of the first wave of techno), Rotterdam Termination Source released the gabber hit ‘Poing’ featuring a sampled mouth harp which, just a couple of years ago, Danibal played live with the outfit. “Had I met them twenty years ago, we could have done some really cool things, and ‘Poing’ would have just been the first step.” As it happens, Danibal also had a hand in the dance scene with his project Plunk which combined beatboxing with the mouth harp. The Hungarian band, Airtist share a similar sound and, under the motto ‘dance and trance’ tour dance festivals with their beatboxing, didgeridoo and mouth harp combo. Danibal has also been seen joining forces with multi-instrumentalist Jan Schellink with whom he put on absurdist shows involving stacking sounds using live looping. Together, they released the album ‘Voor in de Auto’, where Danibal treated his mouth harp like a lead guitar backed up by heavy percussion and screaming trombones. Danibal: “Yeah, it’s like pop music that got way out of hand.”

But seriously…

In his rock band, Dial Prisko, Danibal’s mouth harp also plays the role of a solo instrument as well as backing up the other instruments in the band. “The mouth harp immediately gives the band a different sound.” But, of course, the mouth harp is seldom seen in the standard band line-up. Many musicians struggle to take this underrated instrument seriously because of that ploinky-ploink noise. “Yeah, people think that’s all it can do.”

Danibal is a festival-circuit regular, “In 2012 I got booked to play a slot at the Khomusic Proms in Moscow. Initially I was billed as a representative of the Dutch underground folk music scene, but the Netherlands doesn’t really have any mouth harp tradition to speak of, so I turned up with my punk-style approach and shook things up a bit. Earlier, I was very melodically focussed, but since I started combining the harp with live loopers, I started to lean more towards rhythmic work and improvisation. I still write complete songs, but I find improvising much more exciting. I feel like I’ve managed to carve out something unique in that sense. I play with more jazz-flavour and more groove than most mouth harp players, which has a lot to do with the looping. I tend not to use straight forward rhythms and that, combined with my lyric-less vocals probably sounds a bit mad – a bit more interesting.” When Danibal performs, he throws his whole body into it and his facial expressions are yet another part of the show, earning him the title Mister Body Language.

The Calling

It seems remarkable that an instrument like the mouth harp could lend itself so well to more modern genres like dance and techno, which immediately conjure up images of laptops and digital manipulation rather than acoustic ‘folk’ instruments. What folds the past into the present is that both share that meditative repetitiveness – and the mysticism that this repetitiveness can evoke is something that trance music is aimed at achieving. The mouth harp is part of a long shamanistic tradition and has a mythical reputation when it comes to sound healing. Mongolian Darkhart shamans use the mouth harp to drive away malicious spirits. While this is far from Danibal’s experience of the mouth harp, he says he does feel a meditative effect when playing his smallest mouth harp, which came from Tuva in Southwest Siberia. “The sound is so lush that I almost always get a warm and fuzzy feeling when I play it. It’s like taking a nice shower.”

Mouth Harp Playing Technique

Good to Know

A mouth harp isn’t a harmonica

Harmonicas are often incorrectly referred to as mouth harps. Why? Is it because of the similar way in which sound is produced? Maybe, but it’s probably more likely that people are getting it mixed up with the term ‘blues harp’. Blues harp is a popular term for the diatonic harmonica: a kind of harmonic that’s commonly used to play the blues.

The mouth harp & film soundtracks

In the sixties, the mouth harp was viewed as a bit of a hippy instrument, and later, its use in popular music was largely limited to genres like folk (including folk metal) and country, but black and death metal bands have also been seen with a mouth harp. Black Sabbath used a mouth harp on the song ‘Sleeping Village’ in the early seventies. The Who used one on ‘Join Together’. Parliament used one on ‘Little Ole Country Boy’. In ‘Get Back to Your Country’, Neil Young brought the mouth harp a little closer to its roots, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers added an effective ‘alien’ accent of a mouth harp to the hit ‘Give it Away’. The legendary Canadian troubadour, Leonard Cohen made an entire album of mouth harp in 1969 (‘Songs From a Room’). The mouth harp is probably most famous for its appearance on film soundtracks like ‘For A Few Dollars More’ by Ennio Morricone, and reaching even further back, the eighteenth century Austrian composer Johann Georg Albrechtsberger penned Two Concerts for the Mouth Harp and Mandora.

See also…

» Mouth Harps
» Didgeridoos
» Kazoos
» Sound Effects
» Melodic Percussion
» All Percussion Instruments
» Loopers

» Meet the Kazoo!
» The Things You Can Actually Do With a Theremin

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