Tapani Varis’s Jews Harp

cover art for Jews HarpLiz Milner wrote this review.

It’s hard to develop warm and fuzzy feelings for an instrument that produces the sounds of prolonged belching. Nonetheless, I was prepared to try. Listening to a master musician has often opened my ears to the beauty of instruments I’d disdained, and Finnish Jew’s harp virtuoso Tapani Varis is a musician’s musician who is master of a wide variety of instruments. Varis is best known for his bass playing with Maria Kalaniemi’s band Aldargaz.

On this CD Varis plays traditional tunes from Finland and Norway, plus his own compositions on Hungarian, Norwegian and Indonesian style Jew’s harps.  He is accompanied by Piia Kleemola on fiddle, viola, and jouhikko (a medieval bowed lyre similar to the Welsh crwth); Marja Penttinen on Jew’s harps and renaissance bass flutes; Kurt Lindlad on Jew’s harp and natural scale flute; Veikko Ojanlatva on acoustic guitar and Teemu Korpipää on sampler and tenor banjo.

This recording, the first CD ever of Finnish Jew’s harp music, also represents the revival of a lost tradition. The notes to this CD say that while Finnish Jew’s harp playing goes back to at least the 15th century, the tradition had died out in the 20th century.

Finnish folk music usually brings to mind the tradition of the Kalevala or the songs of Finland’s indigenous people, Sami. Varis, however, focuses on the less known tradition of Pelimanni music. While the music of the Kalevala is rooted deep in antiquity, Pelimanni music is a relative newcomer to Finland. The word “Pelimanni” hints at the music’s origins. It is said to be derived from the Swedish word “spelman.” Pelimanni music is said to have infiltrated Finland from Scandanavia from the 16th century onward. Primarily a dance music tradition, the characteristic instruments are fiddle, clarinet and accordion.

Though the introductory notes suggest that this recording is an attempt to revive a lost Finnish musical tradition, the recording’s 14 cuts feature two Norwegian tunes as well as two original compositions by Varis, and even the theme from a Siberian television show about yak herders: “where all those macho yak-riding cowboys shoot each other in the head.” Throughout the recording, the arrangements seem to owe more to New Age than to traditional music. This is tradition-infused meditation music.

The recording opens with the stark sound of a solo Jew’s harp playing the polska “Gammal bröllopspolska.” Varis plays at a relentless pace, never stopping for air. When he segues into another polska from Southern Finland, “The Old Wedding Polska,” a fiddle joins in and provides a wonderfully fluid counterpoint to the jagged twang of the Jew’s harp.

Before hearing Tapani Varis, I thought of the Jew’s harp sound as gutteral and percussive and nothing more. Varis however can coax enough overtones out of the Jew’s harp to send chills up a Tuvan throat singer’s spine. The use of overtones was especially marked in “Fanitullen,” a Norwegian dance tune that Varis plays on solo Jew’s harp. On the polska “Taklax G in A,” Varis’ use of overtones, combined with the otherworldly sounds of a renaissance flute, gives credence to Northside Records’ claim that Varis’ music is “the ultimate ‘trance music.’ ”

Varis and his accompanists turn in flawless performances. The pairing of bowed instruments with the Jew’s harp was especially evocative. It created a feeling of great antiquity. It also made me realize that when I listen to instruments I anthropomorphize them. I’m always looking for a human voice. The Jew’s harp is the first instrument I’ve encountered that won’t let me do this. Even in the hands of a master, the Jew’s harp has a very limited emotional range. Listening to this CD was like spending an afternoon in the company of a very personable extra-terrestrial. Varis’ Jew’s harp playing is flawless and diverting, but there is nothing that seems human in it.

(NorthSide, 1996)

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