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JEWS-HARP, n. An unmusical instrument, played by holding it fast with the teeth and trying to brush it away with the finger.

From The Devil's Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce

I prefer the term guimbarde to the more common terms of Jew's harp or jaw harp for a variety of reasons. Jaw harp is simply inaccurate - one does not play it using one's jaw. Jew's harp is no more accurate and the euphemisms J-harp and juice harp are colourful, but not much better. Many people consider Jew's harp to be a culturally insensitive term, although one could argue that it shouldn't really be considered any more insulting than using the phrase term French harp to describe the harmonica. Still, the instrument has no connection with Jewish people and it seems a little bizarre to use this term to describe versions of this instrument from the Far East. It is often said that Jew's harp is a corruption of jaw harp, but the former is by far the older term and is possibly derived from the French words jeu (a game) or jouer (to play). I have chosen to use the term guimbarde to describe this family of instruments (I am well aware that this is a less than flattering term itself, being used in France to describe old and badly running automobiles, but it would seem to be the best of a bad lot - although I must confess to a liking for the Latin term crembalum...), using local names to describe particular forms. Those of you interested in reading more on the naming debate are referred to the following web site:


Pictured at the top of the page are (from left to right) a brass dan moi from Vietnam with its decorative bamboo case attached, a bamboo hun toong from Thailand (also with case), a bamboo angkuoc from Cambodia, a brass quadruple hoho from Southern China, a steel harp of familiar Western design, a set of three bamboo gue gueq from Southern China and along the bottom of the picture a bamboo kubing from the Philippines,

The kubing (also known as kobing, kebing or kumbing) is a fairly typical bamboo guimbarde, with similar instruments (sometimes with palm fronds substituted for bamboo) being found all over Asia, such as the Malaysian bungkao and the Polynesian utete . The instrument is pressed tightly to the lips, rather than being held against the teeth like the more well known heteroglottal types, the pointed tip of the frame being plucked by a finger to set the reed in motion. The player alters the shape of his or her mouth to emphasise different overtones.

The dan moi (also commonly known by its Hmong name of ncaas) is played similarly, but is much more responsive and capable of subtle, ethereal sounds, as well as being surprisingly loud for such a small delicate instrument:

This dan moi has a reed with a single tip, but reeds with two or three tips are not uncommon. Traditionally, the dan moi is used to communicate coded messages between lovers. Similar brass instruments are found throughout Asia, with iron versions being found in some places.

In China, where the instrument is known generically as kouqin, kouhuang or kouxian (meaning "mouth harp", "mouth reed", or "mouth string" respectively), they are often played in sets of three or four. The Naxi minority play the gue gueq, a set of three small bamboo instruments tuned to the tonic, fifth and minor seventh. They are held between the finger and thumb of the left hand and sounded with the first two fingers of the right hand:

The Yi minority play a similar instrument called the hoho. Rather than being made from bamboo, it is made from brass and the three or four that make up the set are joined at the ends like a small fan. This particular one is tuned Eb, Bb, F and Ab:

For more information:

The Jews Harp Guild
Foundation Antropodium
The Search for the Origins of the Jew's Harp

Some recommended listening:

The Jew's Harp World, Svein Westad (Etnisk Musikklubb EM3)

As well as traditional Scandinavian style playing from Svein Westad, this CD also features pieces in the British style by John Wright, with Trân Quang Hai and Leo Tadagawa playing guimbardes from Vietnam, Bali, China, Japan and Siberia, solo or with sparse accompaniment. The enclosed booklet talks about the Norwegian guimbarde tradition, gives a quick overview of the different versions of the instruments used in other cultures, brief biographies of the players on this album and commentary on the individual tracks. If you have only ever heard these instrumets used as cartoon sound effects, you will be amazed at the range of music that can be coaxed from them by master players of both heteroglottal and idioglottal guimbardes.     Click here to buy it from Amazon.com

Jew's Harps of the World/Guimbardes du Monde, Trân Quang Hai (Playasound PS 66009)

The title is pretty self-explanatory. The noted Vietnamese musician and musicologist plays a wide variety of guimbardes from all over the world - wood and metal; idioglottal and heteroglottal; plucked and string-driven. As a bonus we are treated to some of Trang's haunting overtone singing. Comes with a 12-page booklet in both English and French.     Click here to buy it from Amazon.com

A Brief History of Mouth Blown Free Reed Instruments
What Is A Free Reed?
Origins Of The Free Reed
Eastern Free Reed Instruments
A Selective Discography Of Asian Free Reed Instruments
Western Free Reed Instruments