What’s in a name?

If ‘jews-harp’ causes offence,
And to use the name makes no sense,
There are other options
And various concoctions
That you might consider from hence.

For in Scotland they call it a ‘trump’
Though it sounds like what comes from your rump,
And ‘jews-trump’ though old,
Might leave you cold
And one we should possibly dump.

‘Cymbalum’ is a Latin expression,
But there seems to be no concession
To the trembling wire
To which we aspire,
And besides, is beyond comprehension.

‘Jaw harp’ is commonly used
And one that can be excused,
Though with no historical reason
Why this should be ceased on
Over others that you might have refused.

‘Juice harp’ may make your mouth water,
Coming from the American quarter,
And is used in great spaces,
Like Oz and such places
And is as good as any other (well sort-a)

Then ‘gewgaw’ from Northumberland hails,
And ‘strument’, which comes from Wales.
Of commercial names found,
There’s ‘Ducey’ and ‘Snoopy’ around,
Or ‘Bruce harp,’ if everything else fails.

Or you could try another countries designation,
Such as ‘guimbarde’ from the French nation.
Then there’s ‘khomus’ and ‘morsing’
‘Munnharpa’ and ‘Karinding,’
Or many another land’s appellation.

‘Mouth harp’ has become a new moniker,
Used by any young Tim, Paul or Veronica.
But I think you will find
If you are so inclined,
It is also a name for a harmonica.

So whatever name you choose it is plain
That the instruments are all the same.
So do not think what you call it,
Just buy one and play it,
Though ‘jews-harp’ is its original name. (In English, that is.)

Michael Wright ©

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A Means not an End

I do not want to be thought of as a jews-harp player, but a musician who plays the jews-harp. There is a significant difference which colours the way of thinking about the instrument’s musicality. I said in my book (I think they are the final words), that the jews-harp is, after all, just another musical instrument, but what does that actually mean?

By focusing too much on the truly impressive techniques available to the jews-harp player, the danger is that it can easily be seen as a novelty, something with a unique and distinctive sound, but irrelevant when it comes to being treated as a serious musical instrument. While its uniqueness of sound is unquestionably true, too much emphasis on technique continues the marginalization that has, and has been its fate throughout its history in those regions where it is not an accepted part of a musical culture. Comments on how astonishing it is to hear a tune or its melodic capability are common, and the danger is that by pandering to the ‘novelty’ response, this will continue to be so. While we might think we are opening up the minds of audiences to the instrument, I would contend that for the most part listeners only respond to its unusual sound, or it’s ‘World Music’ novelty, yet dismiss it as having any relevance to their musical needs or, indeed, has anything to offer.

We know this is untrue. The question is, therefore, how to challenge the preconceptions of the untutored, uninitiated and, frankly, uninterested. One way must be for players to demand recognition for their ability as musicians and equally for them to recognize that they are such. This may well require that the jews-harp has to be subjugated to and in support of the music. In other words, what is the story or purpose of a particular piece of music and how does the jews-harp fit into it. If it is just to show how clever we are, that has only a limited appeal. If we listen to a piano concerto the technical skill of the player is obviously important, but when a piece becomes truly great the piano is the means, not the end. And that is what I want to hear of the jews-harp. Unless we make it the means and not the end, the jews-harp will continue to be nothing more than a novel sound beyond which, other than for aficionados, there is limited interest, and that is not good enough.

‘Sleeping Pedlar’ now available

SP Cover Digipac PosterMy debut album ‘Sleeping Pedlar’ is now available as a CD and to download.

In the book, The Jews-Harp in Britain and Ireland, published by Ashgate Publishing in November, 2015, I looked at the cultural history of this underrated musical instrument, showing, in fact, that the jews-harp has as interesting a history as any other.

Sleeping Pedlar explores its musicality.

Using the melodic, atmospheric and rhythmic qualities of the jews-harp, Sleeping Pedlar is a collection of songs and tunes that use these qualities as and when needed – just as you would use any musical instrument.  What was important was to consider a particular story to be told and to use the jews-harp appropriately to complement that story in a fitting manner. Using both studio and home recordings, there are fifteen tracks that explore some of the possibilities.

‘Sleeping Pedlar’ is available at:
Sound for Health: https://www.soundforhealth.com/products/sleeping-pedlar-michael-wright-cd 
Digital download: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/sleeping-pedlar/id1246726080 
For further information contact:
Michael Wright
Email: inchwormrecordingatgmail.com

The Jews-Harp in Britain and Ireland is published

The jews-harp is a distinctive musical instrument of international importance, yet it remains one of those musical instruments, like the ocarina, kazoo or even the art of whistling, that travels beneath the established musical radar. The story of the jews-harp is also part of our musical culture, though it has attracted relatively little academic study. Britain and Ireland played a significant role in the instrument’s manufacture and world distribution, particularly during the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. Drawing upon previously unknown written sources and piecing together thousands of fragments of information spanning hundreds of years, Michael Wright tells the story of the jews-harp’s long history in the Britain and Ireland. Beginning with an introductory chapter describing the instrument, Part One looks at the various theories of its ancient origin, how it came to be in Europe, terminology, and its English name. Part Two explores its commercial exploitation and the importance of the export market in the development of manufacturing. Part Three looks the instrument’s appearance and use in art, literature and the media, finally considering the many players who have used the instrument throughout its long history. For further information click here.

Michael Wright becomes Editor of the Journal of the International Jew’s Harp Society

Journal 6 of the IJHS can now be accessed free by members of the IJHS. Topics are many and varied from new discoveries to analysis of archive photographs and collections. There is an exciting article on the discoveries of new types and makers, regional updates from Canada and Norway, eccentric playing options, an interview with John Wright and the second part of an article on the Jew’s Harp in the Law, first published in the Folk Music Journal. Finally, there is an English translation by the Assistant Editor, Harm Linsen of the full authoritative article by Jaap Ypey on the Mondharpen. When you add a Book Review section and a poem or two… or three, there is something for everyone interested in the jews-harp. To become a member of the Society and get access to the Journal, click here.

Michael Wright features on Mercury Prize Nomination

Michael Wright is a featured musician on Sam Lee’s ‘Ground of His Own,’ nominated for the 2014 Mercury Prize. He can be heard playing on ‘Jew’s Garden,’ ‘George Collins’ and ‘Wild Wood Amber’, which was also nominated for Best Track at the BBC Folk Awards.

Tribute to John Wright (1939-2013)

John Wright died suddenly on 4 September 2013. Not only was he a jews-harp player with an international reputation, but highly respected for his study of the organology of the instrument. Widely praised for his seminal work ‘Les Guimbardes’ for the Musee de l’Homme, Paris, his understanding of the acoustic possibilities of the jews-harp inspired many of the young players around the world who have taken up the instrument. He also taught my brother, David, and myself how to play and was a constant supporter of our various efforts. As the Wright Family, which also included David’s daughter, Lucy, we performed rarely, but it was always special. John was also an important source in helping me understand the demise of jews-harp making industry in Britain, having met with the last maker. He was my brother, my friend and my colleague.

John Wright Obituary – The Guardian