On the way to China

Today I travel to China to give a lecture at the Tianjin Conservatory of Music – and to look at what seems to be the earliest jew’s harps ever found.

The jew’s harps are from excavations in the northern part of the country, in the provinces of Inner Mongolia, Liaoning and Hebei. The oldest finds are from Xiajiadian culture, which are dated between 1200 and 600 BC, making them by far the oldest jew’s harps we know about. Until now, Chinese archaeologists and music archaeologists have not given much attention to these findings, and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to study them and place them in a larger context, culturally and organologically.

These jew’s harps are made of bone, and their tongue is cut out of a flat piece of material. Similar jew’s harps are found today in large parts of Asia, and are usually made of bamboo or metal. One example is from the Yunnan Province in southern China, where they play on small mouth harps (Kou Xian) of brass. The musician play on up to five pieces simultaneously. They are connected in the form of a fan. One of the great performers on this jew’s harp type is Ma Guo Guo, who you can hear on this YouTube video.

Gjermund Kolltveit

Music archaeologist, ethnomusicologist, musician – Nesodden, Norway. Main research interests: sound and sound tools (e.g. jew’s harps, lyres, ringing stones, bells) in human culture and soundscapes.

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