Phons Bakx

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The Dutchman, whose name looks like a typo or a badly written message to phone back, first discovered the wonders of the Jew's harp while traveling casually through Ireland as a teenager. This instrument…
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The Dutchman, whose name looks like a typo or a badly written message to phone back, first discovered the wonders of the Jew's harp while traveling casually through Ireland as a teenager. This instrument has roots and variations all over the world, something the fascinated Phons Bakx began to find out as he began what would become a lifelong study of the instrument, its origins, and the music it is involved in playing all over the planet. He cut his teeth on the instrument in the second half of the '80s, or should we say smacked his teeth as the instrument gets its identity from a flexible piece of either metal or wood that is twanged back and forth while the player makes adjustments in the shape of his mouth, cheeks, and whatnot. By 1992, he had completed the first of his Jew's harp masterworks, a history of the instrument that had in its first decade of existence only been published in Dutch. By the end of the '90s, he was ready to sink his battered teeth into recording projects involving the instrument, also sometimes called a "trump" or even a mouth harp, although the latter term might create confusion with the well-loved harmonica; and enough jokes about a trump player's teeth, because as Irish Jew's harp player Michael Wright says, "I don't have a problem with my dentist."

In 1997, Bakx released the acclaimed A Song for the Jew's harp on the Barad Durbeheer label. This collection brought together many of the world's great trump-meisters, including the Irishman John Wright and 16 others. Many different examples of Jew's harp music from Europe, North America, Asia, Siberia, and Indonesia are presented here in a collection that is fascinating if only to hear the different variations on this simple instrument design.

His next production, Music and the Dispel of Thoughts, focused much more on his own playing and compositional ideas, although a host of collaborators were brought in once more, again including John Wright. Jew's harp player Enno Meijers, with whom Bakx has maintained a performing duo for several years, is also featured on the disc. One section that lasts more than 20 minutes uses recordings the composer created during the early days of his trump study overdubbed and mixed into a kind of sonic collage. In this way, Bakx assembles on one CD many traditional forms of Jew's harp playing, as well as establishing its potential importance as an instrument in modern music. One of several interesting bonus tracks features an almost unbelieveable trump variation that certainly is a credit to Bakx's work as an ethnomusicologist. On this track, a native of Papua, New Guinea, performs on a Jew's harp-type instrument created out of a living, buzzing beetle. This CD was released on the Antropodium label.

He formed the Phons Bakx Ensemble in the mid-'90s with other mostly Dutch musicians, including Rosildje Vermijs on accordion, Marijke Karreman on violin and guitar, Marjolen Kvaver on violin, and Iz Van Elk on didjiridoo and percussion. Bakx left the group in 1998. He was replaced by Gerald Marinus Verkerke and the group changed its name to Primrose, continuing to play its repertoire of European and North American folk music with klezmer, gypsy, and Siberian overtones. Bakx also performs from time to time with the blues group Banty Rooster and with the singing Irish brothers Robert and Jules Bitter. He also teaches at the Stedelijke Music School in Amsterdam. Bakx over-sees distribution not only for his book and recordings, but for a catalog of hard to find Jew's harp recordings from around the world and several other publications about the instrument.