A jaw harp is a small instrument with one tongue and many names: more than 1 000 worldwide. It is called mouth harp, Jew’s harp or jaw harp (United Kingdom, U.S.), Maultrommel, Brummeisen or Trümpi (German-speaking countries), scacciapensieri or marranzano (Italy), drumla (Poland), doromb (Hungary), guimbarde (France), mundharpe (Denmark), munnharpe (Norway), vargan (Russia), morsing (India), kubing (Philippines), dan moi (Vietnam), rab ncas (Thailand), lubu or datok (Taiwan), susap (Papua New Guinea), angkuoch (Cambodia), kohkin (Japan), kouxian or gue gueq (China) – to name but a few.
In terms of musicology, a jaw harp is a plucked idiophone and bourdon instrument. Bourdon means that a ‘buzzing’ fundamental tone will always be heard, which forms the basis for numerous overtones. The better the jaw harp, the more overtones will be heard. The human mouth and throat are used as a resonator. By changing the shape of the mouth or moving the player’s tongue, as well as breathing techniques, different rhythms and melodies are created.
The oldest documents describing jaw harps date back to the late Roman empire. It cannot be specified when and where the principle of vibrating a tongue before the player’s mouth was used for the first time. Some theories refer to Yakutia, others to China, and the majority to Asia. The tradition of jaw harp playing continues to be upheld in south-eastern and central Asia, the U.S., Scandinavia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, France and Austria. In Africa mouth bows that produce a similar sound are found, but they are plucked with a wooden stick.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, jaw harp production flourished in Austria. In 1818, the small village of Molln, Upper Austria, had 34 jaw harp producers. During the reign of Maria Theresa, jaw harps were forbidden and then tended to be replaced by harmonicas: a unique tradition was in danger of being forgotten. But three producers at Molln and about a dozen Austrian musicians are endeavouring to preserve this endangered species. The mission of the LOOPING jaw harp orchestra is to expand the domain of jaw harps by exporting them to other than their traditional genres of traditional folk and world music.