Wooden Jew's harps


guimbarde en bambou, kumbing
Samuel Mourot

Inspired on the Philippinean kumbing is this bamboo Jew's
harp of Samuel Mourot (photo: Izz van Elk)

REViEW will come in future


the Philippines:

(photo: Izz van Elk)

This is a bamboo-wooden Jew's harps made by the collective of Ubo-women living in the south-eastern part of the island Cotabato in the Philippines. Large-scale production of a simple bamboo Jew's harp, ornamented with line carvings in mainly a dark-green color. The kumbings can produce loud and clear sounds that may surprise you. Very often - and I see it as a defection - the sound has no sustain and makes the tone too dry and too short. Out of the world collection of wooden Jew's harps the kumbing is one of the simplest to play. A wanted object for people in general who are not used to play. Just a toy (but with joy!) for the (semi)professional.

Hokkaido (North-Japan) - Sachalin (N.E.-Siberia) 
 mukkuri, mukkuna

mukkuri of the Ainu (photo: Izz van Elk)


This is a Jew's harp indigenous to the islands Hokkaido (Japan) and Sachalin (Siberia), both the home of the Ainu-people. This quite tiny instrument ever did accomplish functions of relaxation after the Ainu's bear-cult of Iyomande. I've heared saying that the mukkuri, usually made from sabita-wood, once had to invoke the Kim-un-kamui or the deity of the bear.

The mukkuris that are exported from the present Ainu-culture, may all be originated on Hokkaido. The instrument, usually played by Ainu-women, is quite hard to play on. One must learn the technique of pulling the sharp string in front of the Jew's harp itself. The string is very thin and may break easy. The instrument has never to be hold against the teeth, just in front of the opened mouth, touched by the tingled lips.Its sound will never be loud, I think.
One of the features that makes the mukkuri wayward, is its lamella and the fact that this part is not ground out as usually is with Jew's harps. The needle-lamella is thick as the wooden frame of the Jew's harp. It modifies the trembling of the sound, sometimes a very lot. Than it is nice to hear the special energy that's in it. But mainly, for Western people, this oblong instrument will be very tough to play.


hoon toung

 (photo: Izz van Elk)

Like the Philippine kumbing and the Hokkaido mukkuri, the hoon toung of the A-kha is a prerogative for women, meaning: a very thin Jew's harp only allowed to be played by the moiety of women. They play it with the flat side of the frame towards the opened mouth, so the sharp wooden needle moves into the mouth-cavity as far as possible.

The hoon toung is an exemplar of very fine carved work, a lamella and a frame cut out of òne piece of bamboo, tied to a colored string that will lead the oblong Jew's harp right into the dark interior of a bamboo-case for protection.
Exceptional is the construction of the embouchure part on the flat side of the frame. Here two tiny, fragile and rectangular bamboo-splinters are inlaid. It makes that the glottis can be adjusted accurate as possible.

This Jew's harp certainly belongs to a production that is considerable larger than a manufacture for domestic affairs. Evidence for this can be found for the fact that for a long period the hoon toung was sold in the Fair Trade & Third World Shops in Western Europe.
Like the kumbing, we are allowed to consider this Jew's harp as a childtoy, but this instrument is so mùch more than that, only yet if we look at the embouchure. It has a beauty in its principle of raising sounds. And again, as so many South-East Asian Jew's harp types, it needs a tiny plucking hand. Probably because of the fragile needle-shaped lamella in the middle. Ow, you will be happy with such a specimen in your collection.


Bali (Indonesia):
Wayan Pande

génggong lanang (photo: Izz van Elk)

The first time I came into touch with the Balinese génggong at the Centre for Ethno-musicology Jaap Kunst, I didn't know what to do with those Jew's harps with strings and pieces of cotton. With the help from ethno-musicologist Ernst Heins I've discovered how to handle them. In the meanwhile (17 years later) I've Iearned to consider the Balinese génggong as the most powerful instrument of all wooden Jew's harp-types I know. It is a very rhythmic instrument that can produce intensive tone-colors. It's only a hell to play on a génggong uninterrupted for a long time. But I played a lot on it, the most in accompanying the Indonesian music & dance-group Orang Génggong (= Jew's harp playing man). Yes, I suffered a lot because of the stressful tensions by jerking and stabilizing the Jew'sharp with both hands.

I taught myself to carve génggongs, and I cut several good ones, depending on the quality of the bamboo-wood I chose. Not every génggong is a good Jew's harp. In general 80% of all the manufactured génggongs will be judged as mediocre or less than that. The other 20% will give a good sound. My opinion is that it depends on what particularly part of the tree or the plant is chosen: the wet side, a young part, a sunny side, the shadow part, et cetera.

I came in touch with a dozen of Balinese génggongs and also several engungs, made by a man called Wayan Pande, living in Sukawati on Bali. It's a tradition in Bali that every génggong-maker makes himself an engung, a one-tone blown frog-reed that is used in alternating the current génggong-repertory for toad-dancing.
The génggong sometimes is played with the help of a
těbeng, a piece of painted leather that reflects the sound of the genggong right back to the ears of the player.

Probably it was not the pohon jako (kind of sago-palmwood) itself that made his génggongs (on which I played) so defective. All the twelve Jew's harps missed a sort of an elaborated finishing touch. That is what a génggong needs, for jerking and stabilizising are quite hard jobs. Of one I immediately broke off the jerking-string - by the way: the strings were all too thin and too sharp for the hands. I had to correct the whole parcel intensively (see photo). A pitty, that the man himself didn't do this important work at all.

Click for: How to play the génggong


génggong lanang
musicians of the group
Panti Pusaka Budaya


génggong lanang (photo: Izz van Elk) 

I am the happy owner of one very excellent génggong lanang (high-tuned, litterly: 'male' Jew's harp) made of the arèn-palmwood. It was made by a member of the Balinese music & theatre-group Panti Pusaka Budaya, commanded by the dancer I Made Djimat.

Click for: How to play the génggong


mondharp, génggong
Koen Kuijpers

(photo: Izz van Elk)

Oblong génggong with red-colored parts,
cut in stiff bamboo by Koen Kuijpers.

aman khuur, khulsan khuur

(photo: Izz van Elk)

Aman-khuur or khulsan khuur from Mongolia. A short wooden Jew's harp that is very tough to jerk. With this Jew's harp, the mouth of the player has to function in an very unusual way.


 Mindanao, Philippines


(photo: Izz van Elk)

There are no specific references on this Philippinean kubing from the island Mindanao, which measures 28 cm or 11 inches. Ornamented with colors, carvings and even several brand-stigmated holes.





Kalimantan (Borneo)
gendang untuk mulit 


(photo: Izz van Elk)

This is a very fine gendang untuk mulit from a (here unknown) Dayak-population in Kalimantan on Borneo. The long Jew's harp was manufactured somewhere in the 1930-ies. At the tip (right) there are some carved ornaments. Size: 20 cm / 8 inches




(photo: Izz van Elk)

Three engungs from Bali: left and right were manufactured by musicians of the group Panti Pusaka Budaya, in the center is an engung of Wayan Pande. More about this reed: genggong








 (photo: Izz van Elk) 

Karombii is the name of this Toraja-Jew's harp
from the Indonesian island Sulawesi. Its principle of
playing can be compared with the Balinese
genggong, but its sound is much more mellow.
Size: 13 cm or 5 inches

The karombii-maker Ne'Karombi of the Toraja-population
in Sulawesi playing on a Jew's harp

(photo: Lia v.d. Broek, 1996)


Hear Ne'Karombi play at: http://batusura.de/neka.htm

  Papua (former Irian Jaya)
momborsa & toka2

(photo: Izz van Elk)

Set of bamboo Jew's harps from Samarokena, Papua (the former Irian Jaya). Usually, when Jew's harps are kept together as a set, they are parttaking in a ritual context of courtship or in rites of male adulthood. In Melanesia these sets are often forbidden to be seen by children or women. The momborsa (large one) personifies the male's energy, the toka2 (small one) personifies the female's energy.



(photo: Izz van Elk)

All references are missing on this alibaw from the Philippines. The half of the frame (bottom) is just ornamented with brass mounting. Size: 33 cm - 13 inches.

 Maprik, Papua Niugini

(photo: Izz van Elk)

A large binatang or a sago-beetle from Papua Niugini, which very rare is used for the function as a living Jew's harp. The player puts the living, buzzing beetle very close to his opened mouth, so that the harmonics of the beetle's drone will resonate in his mouth-cavity. On the Antropodium-CD Music and the Dispel of Thoughts a small binatang can be heard in a field-recording of Mahisu in Maprik (East-Sepik), made by dr. Robert MacLennan in 1963 (see front cover of the CD-booklet). The binatang on this photograph is about 9 cm in measure.



(photo: Izz van Elk) 

These three těbengs (of leather) are not musical instruments, but attachments for génggong-players. It helps a player to hear his own sounds better among the louder instruments of the surrounding gamelan. It will reverberate the sound to (one of) his ears. The player has to hold the piece of leather in the same hand in which he stabilizes the génggong. Just in front of the embouchure part of the Jew's harp.

Îles Marquises (Polynesia)

 (photo: Izz van Elk)

This utété is a reconstructed, unsophisticated (Jew’s harp-like) mouth instrument of grassy wood, of which the obsolete originals for the last time were in popular use among the Polynesians on the Marquises Archipelago in the Pacific at the end of the nineteenth century. It was described by Curt Sachs in hisTypologische Vorstudie of 1917.

Its sound evokes the spheres of a grass-like micro-cosmos of chirping insects. It can be heard on the CD Music and the Dispel of Thoughts in the Jew's harp Mosaics-part.


đan môi sat

(photo: Izz van Elk)

This is very rare object that carries every aspect of a primtive brass Jew's harp, but it could undoubtly be interchanged for a thing as a hairpin. I miss every clear reference to its background, but it was bought for me in Saigon for a few coins. It is said, that it was manufactured by a montagnard from the north of Vietnam. The sound is mellow, deep, and maybe poor. It has almost no sustain. It is protected by a wrapped piece of paper, carrying a Vietnamese newspaper-text. But seeing this object, and playing on it, is so affective, because there seems to be something magic in this weird object, that on the same time looks like complete empty. One of my real rareties.


Baliem Valley, Papua (former Irian Jaya)

A small Jew's harp from the Dani-tribes in the valley of
Baliem-river in Papua, former Irian Jaya (photo: Izz van Elk)

In Melanesia this vernucalar Jew's harp-type is very extensive. It's a small sized bamboo bigon-Jew's harp from the Baliem-valley, originated by the Dani-people.
We can distinguish the miracle of nature in it that causes the sound. From a piece of bamboo-wood (14 cm) three oblong wooden splinters are carved out. They are hold tight next to each other by the natural node of the bamboo-stalk. The two carvings separate the three splinter from each other in a small strip of air, and stipulate the two glottis-parts of the Jew's harp. At the other end the Jew's harp is open. The middle splinter functions as the lamella and is shorter of size than the two others. It's the instruction for the player to pinch his finger and his thumb in such a manner at the two outmost splinters that they will diverge a little. In this manner the two glottises find their way to be optimal for the sound. A very small string is used for jerking.

Remarkable is another fact that these kinds of Jew's harp are manufactured under very primitive (and maybe uneasy) conditions, that's to say, just in the free field, with no woodblocks or table around to lean on. They will be carved by the free hand with the incisor of one or another rodent.



East-Sepik, Papua Niugini

A large susap from East-Sepik in Papua Niugini
(photo by Izz van Elk)

[ review will follow soon]



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