By Lars Willadsen, copy writer & jews harpist, Denmark
I am not Norwegian but Danish nor am I attempting to be an expert on this subject, but I have read a fair bit about the Norwegian Jews harp traditions, and also take inspiration from it in the music that I play myself. Also, I understand that there is not much information available on the Norwegian/Scandinavian Jews harp traditions in USA. So it might be interesting for others to read a bit about Norwegian harping, the traditions, the instruments, the musicians, and the harp makers.
A long tradition and an important role
As in many other countries, jews harps have a long tradition in Norway. For sure Jews harp playing can be tracked back to medieval times. But the real interesting part comes in the mid-19th century, where a religious awakening swept through the mountains and valleys of Norway. Much of the traditional music was played either on fiddle or on the special Norwegian variety called the "Harding-fele" (Harding fiddle). In this new religious context the fiddle was considered a "Devils instrument" and fiddling was looked upon as being sinful. This however was not the case with the jews harp. So as the fiddlers burnt their fiddles and turned towards God and the churches, the jews harpists just kept on plucking. And they actually maintained and preserved the old fiddle tunes, which would otherwise have been forgotten and lost. With the folk music revival of the 70's came a new interest in reviving the old fiddle tunes, and the new generation of fiddlers turned to the jews harpists to learn the tunes. In this way the little instrument has played an enormous role in preserving an important part of Norwegian traditional music.
Most Norwegian folk music is performed solo, and band playing is rarely seen. This is the case with the fiddle as it is with the jews harp. The Jews harp is used for accompanying dance and for religious tunes as well, but practically always as a solo instrument.
During the 60's and 70's the Jews harp became very popular among young urbans in Norway. Odd, that they picked on the cheap and mass manufactured Austrian harps and not the traditional handcrafted Norwegian harps. But that could be due to price and availability. Good hand crafted Norwegian harps are hard to come by at least there is a long waiting time for most of them.
The Norwegian instruments
The Norwegian Jews harps are, with only few exceptions, of the medieval type, where the frame takes the least space of the instruments total length and the arms takes the most space. The frame can have difference shapes, but a round or tulip-like shape is the most common.
The Norwegian Jews harp makers
With the profound Jews harp tradition of Norway, the country also has several great harp makers. In the following Ill try to give a short description in alphabetical order:
Jakob is a teacher in a technical school, who makes harps in his spare time. The harps are made from brass with steel tongue, and they are great craftsmanship. Some think, that the volume is not so loud, but I dont necessarily agree. The tongue is made from watch springs, and they are quite soft. This makes them delicate, but on the other hand you can really stretch the tone with breath control. Jakob makes beautiful wooden boxes for his harps. The standard box is made from beech while the "deluxe" model is made from juniper with an ancient locking mechanism. Jakob Lavoll has a long waiting time for his instruments up to more than 1 year. The D-harp that I had (and gave away) took app. 2 years to arrive but it was worth waiting for. Now I have another harp on order with him. Last time I bought a harp from Jacob, the prices were from NOK 800 NOK 1.800, depending on the box. Should you consider a Lavoll harp, then contact:
Tel: +47 32083373
Folke only makes harps as a hobby, so his production is limited to 20-30 harps per year. The waiting time is 1-6 months and he doesnt make harps in the summer. Anyway I have an A-harp from Folke, and its a great little instrument with a lot of sound. The spring is very flexible and gives good opportunities with breath control. His standard price is app. NOK 500 NOK 600,- excluding box. Should you consider a Folke-harp, then contact:
Tel: +47 37 93 81 84.
Bjoergulv is mostly known as a true virtuoso on the Jews harp, but he learned harp making from Folke Nesland, and now produces very nice instruments. The normal key is G, but C, D and A is available on order. I have a G-harp myself, which I am happy about. The tongue though is a bit stiff and rigid, as the spring material is quite thick. This limits the breath control possibilities, but gives a strong and loud sound on the other hand. Bjoergulv Straume harps are sold through the folk music shop Rotspel in Stockholm, Sweden:
www.rotspel.se, who also carries a CD and a tutorial video with Bjoergulv Straume. The harps sell at app. SEK 585,-.
I dont know a lot about Knut Tveit, other than he is making harps of an excellent quality. Whether he is still producing I dont know Im trying to locate him somewhere in Norway to actually buy one of his harps. What I do know is, that he made one of Bjoergulv Straumes first harps from machine parts from a B-17 flying fortress, that was shot down over Norway during W.W.II. Bjorgulv composed a tune called "Luftslaget" (the air battle) as a tribute to the British airmen, who died. Ill come back with further information on Knut Tveit, when and if I locate him.
Two CDs with the Scandinavian Jews harp as lead instrument
Should anyone be interested in getting acquainted with the Norwegian and Scandinavian Jews harp music, I can recommend the following two titles:
Bjoergulv Straume, Norway: "Fra aett til aett" (from generation to generation).
A mixture of Norwegian tunes, "Stev" (little songs) and poetry recital. A great way to get to know the real Norwegian solo Jews harp tradition from one of the leading Jews harpists from Norway. Available from Rotspel in Sweden:
www.rotspel.se, who also sell Jews harps made by Bjoergulv Straume as well as his tutorial video (PAL) where he teaches traditional Norwegian Jews harp techniques and tunes.
Tapanis Varis (Finland): Munniharppuuna (The Jews Harp).
A blend of traditional and new tunes, some composed by Tapanis himself, along with traditional Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian tunes. This is great music. Available from GO Music in Denmark: www.folkmusic.dk/GO2/index .