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Vargan, the Russian Jew’s-harp
July 14, 2009 17:51

The Russian name of this reed instrument originated from the Old Slavic “Varga”, which meant the mouth, lips. In different parts of the world one can find various names for this instrument.

The history of vargan, the music instrument which has existed almost in all continents, goes back into antiquity. They suppose that the forefather of the vargan was the bow, which appeared in prehistoric times in the Mesolithic era about 9 to 12 thousand years ago. A man just had to set one end of the bow against one’s teeth or palate, and rest the other one against the ground, to turn the deathly weapon into a music instrument, which was played by strumming on the bow string with fingers or sticks.

The modern vargan originated from the so-called platelike vargan made of wood. Then metal vargans came to be. First they resembled the platelike ones, but changed gradually. To achieve better sound expressiveness and higher volume a metal arc frame was added to the instrument. Such vargans came to be called arcwise or arc ones, and they remain most popular with performers till date.

The vargan was very popular in Russia as well, women playing it mostly at that.

This is what the Dictionary of Russian Academy of Science of 1789 reads about it: “Vargan is an iron tool used by the common people: about one vershok (an old Russian measure of length, equal to 1 3/4 inches or 4.4 cm) long, with its head bent almost into a ring; from the point where the ring is open, two triangle bars are parallelly stretched; to the middle of the head a metal band is welded on, it goes between the bars without touching them and has a hook on the end. This instrument is played by way of holding it close to one’s teeth, breathing in and out and moving the metal band with a finger”.

In the digging works held on the area of Veliki Novgorod since 2003 there were found six vargans dating back to the 13-14th centuries. One of the finds is displayed in the State History Museum (Room 9. The Old Russian Town. (11-13 cc.)).

According to the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, this instrument could be found among the Russian people in the 2nd to 20th cc, especially in the Volga Region.

The historic chronicles also mention the vargan as a military music instrument; however the word “vargan” probably stands for some other music instrument more apt for military music as compared to the vargan meant here.

Richest traditions of playing the vargan and making it existed among various peoples of the North and the Far East, as well as with the Turkic nations until the 1930s. The vargan was an indispensable partaker of shamanistic rituals on a par with the buben, sometimes even replacing it.

The Sakha Republic (Yakutia) is one of the main world centres of making and playing the vargan. Vargan – khomus – is considered here to be the instrument which can convey any feelings of a person. The music with it is based not on the melody, but on the expression of one’s emotions, reproducing certain moods, imitating the sounds of nature, or even lyrical narration – when words are pronounced through the vargan (this method is referred to as “talking vargan”).

In the Stalinist epoch the vargan was banned as an adverse vestige of the past, in particular because of its close connection to shamanism. In spite of that, the older generations contrived to preserve the traditions of vargan playing and pass them on their children and grandchildren.

Today, along with “rehabilitation” and growing interest in the Russian heathen culture, people in Russia have become more interested in the vargan also. More and more people play the vargan in this country, and consequently Russian vargan masters also start to spring up here.



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