Origins of the Jew’s Harp

Below is an extract from an excellent and thorough article from “The Search for the Origins of the Jew’s Harp” by Michael Harp, whose overview sheds light on the development, diffusion and spread of the musical instrument called the Jew’s Harp, a version of which is a very distinctive part of the material culture of the Ainu aboriginal people (as well as of the ancient Jomon) of Japan.

“What is a Jews harp?

The first thing to recognise is that Jew’s harps are subtle musical instruments with an extraordinary variety of shapes, sizes and methods of playing. They are international, being made extensively throughout the world from Polynesia, Asia, and Eastern Russia to Europe and the United States. They are known in the Middle East and Africa, though these were exported from Europe or introduced as barter by early colonists and do not appear to be native to those countries.

A Jew’s harp is a single reed instrument of two types: idioglot, where the vibrating reed or tongue of the instrument is cut from a single piece of wood, bamboo, bone or thin flat metal, such as brass, and hetroglot, where there is a cast or bent metal frame to which is fixed a separate, flexible metal reed.1

4th century BCE on (Fig. 8), but finds are few and far between and the time gaps are immense. A better idea of the huge variety of instruments is provided by the study of local instruments collected by museums. Bringing together these two strands provides a bigger, if risky, picture (Map 1).

Click here for a larger image
Map 1. World Jew’s harp types.

The most likely and compelling theory of the beginnings of the instrument suggests an Asian origin, though there is no evidence to support the hypothesis. Bamboo examples are played throughout Asia and Polynesia, but, because of the basic structure of the single reed concept, it is possible that the instruments evolved in various ways independently rather than from one single source. The Polynesian types, for instance, require the player to find an optimum part of the reed, which is then tapped or bounced upon a bony part of his wrist or knuckle, allowing the reed to vibrate through the frame. Filipinos and North Vietnamese, on the other hand, have instruments that are plucked with the thumb or finger. A common method, however, that is found from Bali to Siberia, Japan to Nepal, is a string-pull (Fig. 9). It is this type that was found in Inner Mongolia dated circa 4 BCE (date unsubstantiated).

Curt Sachs, the esteemed musicologist, suggested that the change from bamboo to metal is likely to have occurred in Northern India [Sachs 1917]. Sibyl Marcuse points out that the instruments of Taiwan and Engalio of the Philippine Islands represent a transitional type, as these are idioglot in form, but hetroglot in manufacture (Fig. 10) [Marcuse 1965, p. 264]. They are, however, on islands on the eastern periphery of known Jew痴 harp use. A bamboo or wooden frame with a metal tongue produced in Vietnam does have the characteristics of a hetroglot instrument, but might just as well be a copy of the metal type using local materials. What is apparent is that idioglot instruments centre around Asia and hetroglot centre around Europe (Maps 2 and 3).

The move from East to West

Theoretically the instrument could have been developed in Europe in its own right and not from bamboo single reed instruments at all. I think this is unlikely, all

Fig. 9. String-pull bamboo
Jew痴 harp.

Fig. 10. Transitional
Jew痴 harp.

the evidence pointing to an instrument fully formed when in Europe. This means that at some point they moved from east to west, and the most likely source appears to be trade routes or migration. David Christian suggests that four cultural zones can be identified that have an influence on the region covered by the Silk Road. He notes that:

the important gateways into Inner Eurasia were through the northern and northwestern borders of China; across the Central Asian borders with Iran and Afghanistan, and through the passes of the Caucasus; and through the passage between the Black Sea and the Capathians that leads from the Balkans channelling particular Outer Eurasian influences to particular regions of Inner Eurasia. [Christian 1998, p. 18]

The western regions are indicated as the Urals and the Caspian Sea, influenced by the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Europe; the southern as Central Asia and Kazakhstan, influenced by Iran, Afghanistan and India; eastern as Zungaria, Kansu (provinces in northwestern China) and Mongolia, influenced by China, with a limited impact from the north that stretched from Scandinavia to the Bering Straits [Ibid.]. Linking these to Jew痴 harps played in known regions provides a way in which they might have spread, particularly from the south and east (Map 4, previous page).

Going back to the Gallo- Roman finds in France, there was trade between Rome and India; so it is possible for the instrument to have arrived in Europe via that route. There are, however, no instruments played by the indigenous people on the western section of the Silk Road, which one might have expected and which we find in other areas

Click here for a larger image
Map 2. Idioglot Jew’s harp areas.

Origins

Further to the east archaeological finds give tantalising glimpses of instruments from the 4th century BCE on (Fig. 8), but finds are few and far between and the time gaps are immense. A better idea of the huge variety of instruments is provided by the study of local instruments collected by museums. Bringing together these two strands provides a bigger, if risky, picture (Map 1).

The most likely and compelling theory of the beginnings of the instrument suggests an Asian origin, though there is no evidence to support the hypothesis. Bamboo examples are played throughout Asia and Polynesia, but, because of the basic structure of the single reed concept, it is possible that the instruments evolved in various ways independently rather than from one single source. The Polynesian types, for instance, require the player to find an optimum part of the reed, which is then tapped or bounced upon a bony part of his wrist or knuckle, allowing the reed to vibrate through the frame. Filipinos and North Vietnamese, on the other hand, have instruments that are plucked with the thumb or finger. A common method, however, that is found from Bali to Siberia, Japan to Nepal, is a string-pull (Fig. 9). It is this type that was found in Inner Mongolia dated circa 4 BCE (date unsubstantiated).

Curt Sachs, the esteemed musicologist, suggested that the change from bamboo to metal is likely to have occurred in Northern India [Sachs 1917]. Sibyl Marcuse points out that the instruments of Taiwan and Engalio of the Philippine Islands represent a transitional type, as these are idioglot in form, but hetroglot in manufacture (Fig. 10) [Marcuse 1965, p. 264]. They are, however, on islands on the eastern periphery of known Jew’s harp use. A bamboo or wooden frame with a metal tongue produced in Vietnam does have the characteristics of a hetroglot instrument, but might just as well be a copy of the metal type using local materials. What is apparent is that idioglot instruments centre around Asia and hetroglot centre around Europe (Maps 2 and 3).

The move from East to West

Theoretically the instrument could have been developed in Europe in its own right and not from bamboo single reed instruments at all. I think this is unlikely, all

Fig. 9. String-pull bamboo
Jew痴 harp.

Fig. 10. Transitional
Jew痴 harp.

the evidence pointing to an instrument fully formed when in Europe. This means that at some point they moved from east to west, and the most likely source appears to be trade routes or migration. David Christian suggests that four cultural zones can be identified that have an influence on the region covered by the Silk Road. He notes that:

the important gateways into Inner Eurasia were through the northern and northwestern borders of China; across the Central Asian borders with Iran and Afghanistan, and through the passes of the Caucasus; and through the passage between the Black Sea and the Capathians that leads from the Balkans channelling particular Outer Eurasian influences to particular regions of Inner Eurasia. [Christian 1998, p. 18]

The western regions are indicated as the Urals and the Caspian Sea, influenced by the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Europe; the southern as Central Asia and Kazakhstan, influenced by Iran, Afghanistan and India; eastern as Zungaria, Kansu (provinces in northwestern China) and Mongolia, influenced by China, with a limited impact from the north that stretched from Scandinavia to the Bering Straits [Ibid.]. Linking these to Jew痴 harps played in known regions provides a way in which they might have spread, particularly from the south and east (Map 4, previous page).

Going back to the Gallo- Roman finds in France, there was trade between Rome and India; so it is possible for the instrument to have arrived in Europe via that route. There are, however, no instruments played by the indigenous people on the western section of the Silk Road, which one might have expected and which we find in other areas

Click here for a larger image
Map 1. World Jew痴 harp types.

Click here for a larger image
Map 2. Idioglot Jew’s harp areas.

to the north. Again the Anglo-Saxon finds might have come via the Hun invasions of the 4th century, particularly as more instruments are to be found in the area north of the Caspian Sea. Thus there is a more rational link east to west. Given the theory that the Huns originated from the eastern end of the Eurasian Steppe as the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), and the wooden Jew’s harp find from a Xiongnu burial site in Mongolia, this looks possible. The Turkic movements of the 6th and 7th centuries also look promising, and we have the trade routes post-Marco Polo and the Mongol invasions, both of significance in the potential for cultural spread, but possibly a little late.

Jew’s harps in Asia, though scarce, have been found in archaeological sites in Bashkortostan, Altai, Khanty-Mansi Oblast, Buryatia, Sakha (Yakutsk, Vilyuisk), China (Inner Mongolia) and Mongolia (Map. 4). I have drawings of the Bashkortostan, and Inner Mongolia instruments, but not the others to date. So it is difficult to assess if there are any patterns of type or development, although with so few, it would be highly conjectural anyway. Finds from Finland make interesting comparisons with those played in Afghanistan, though how much emphasis can be put on the importance of modern instruments as indicative representations of a particular people’s ancient traditions is also open to speculation.

Fig. 8. 3 BCE Chinese
drawing

Conclusion

The Jew’s harp is an international instrument that is likely to have originated in Asia and travelled to Europe, arriving sometime around the 13th century. Archaeological evidence might push the date further back, and a substantiated Roman find would be a fantastic discovery, as would any instruments unearthed along the western section of the Silk Road. The Jew’s harp appears in Europe fully formed. Older types could be hairpin in shape developing into the later bow section common today, but there are no idioglot finds. These could have been wooden and have rotted away, but the lack of any other description or indication of an evolving instrument seriously undermines an earlier existence before 1200.

That it is an ancient instrument, there is no doubt. Finds are gradually coming to light and the picture is a little clearer, but what may well move the theories forward is the pulling together of information from outside the specific archaeological finds and ethnomusicological collections. Trade looks to be a likely source. We await further revelations that I am convinced will appear. The important thing is that this musical instrument clearly is worth investigating further and that the evidence be collected, preferably in one place.

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