Ger Groothedde – More than Half a Century Jaw Harps

“… was an absolute pioneer as jaw harp maker in The Netherlands in the sixties of the 20th century. Inspired by (mor)čang players (jaw harpers) from Afghanistan and Pakistan, he took up iron work, because the jaw harps he could obtain broke down quickly. He didn’t make them in large quantities, but they were of very good to excellent quality. Nowadays he hardly makes jaw harps anymore, because the work has become too intensive for him. It is one of my wishes to ever get a Groothedde jaw harp for my concert collection.”  Source: Phons Bakx. 

Talking to  …

Photo Anne Borsboom

I had several talks with Ger Groothedde (1942), jaw harp maker, legendary in select circles, and visual artist. I came into contact with Ger via a friend of him, Marjolijn Bos, “He has made beautiful jaw harps, in different pitches. A real craftsman.” Both are active in Workgroup Culture | Archipel & Willemspark in The Hague.

Originaly written in Dutch

By René Paes

Photo Jan Zweerts

Drawings, paintings and forged jaw harps

On a daily base, Ger still works on his drawings and paintings. Visual artist by profession, Ger is a serious man with humour. For most of his life he has lived in The Hague. Ger is also still active as jaw harp player and he only plays with his own forged jaw harps.

Lyrical and abstract with natural elements
Ger Groothedde calls his paintwork lyrical and abstract. He mainly works in small formats, with acryl, pen, water paints, and pencil. Mostly on paper. Often he uses elements from nature, air, landscapes, animal or human figures. In case of the latter, sometimes with alienating effect. In 1989 Ger received the Jacob Hartog award, bearing testimony of special artistic achievements. Regarding this price, he soon took a detached attitude. 

Without teachers
In the sixties or even end fifties, Ger was introduced to jaw harps. He noticed them in the shop window of a music store in Amsterdam (his birth place). The owner had a batch of pre-war jaw harps, which he sold for 25 cent per piece. In those times almost nothing was known about jaw harps and overall nobody recognized these musical instruments. The first time Ger heard jaw harps recorded in audio tracks was in the mid-sixties via a Dutch radio programme Van Heinde en Verre (From Far and Wide), introducing musical cultures and instruments from all over the world. Via these broadcasts Ger became inspired by jaw harp players from Norway, Ireland, up to Kyrgyzstan. In his young adult years, Ger travelled to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, India, Afghanistan up to Persia. In India and Pakistan he bought jaw harps from street vendors. Back in The Hague he began to forge his own harps with very simple tools, and without teachers. Actually anything he has learned, he developed by trial and error. Making a jaw harp took much time and effort.

Photo Anne Borsboom

Once he made a jaw harp for Karel Korfker (friend and colleague visual artist). And in his young years, Ger had inspired Phons Bakx (undisputed jaw harp master) in a certain degree to take interest in this instrument, via Karel Korfker. Ger still has tools to make and repair jaw harps. But he hardly makes any new harps anymore. “So don’t expect to get a jaw harp made by me.”

Photo Bas Korfker: Karel Korfker with Groothedde jaw harp on necklace, 1968


Book cover by Karel Korfker with Groothedde jaw harp

Best jaw harps in Western Europe in the sixties and seventies of the 20th century
Ger once made a jaw harp for his brother. “I don’t make jaw harps for anyone anymore, but if you like, I’ll show you how to make one yourself.” Ger knew John Wright (jaw harp pioneer of same generation), didn’t know John was deceased.  

De Wandelende Tak (Stick Insect) radio programme
In the early Nineties of the 20th century jaw harp music tracks by Ger together with his brother Niek were broadcast in a transmission of VPRO’s radio programme De Wandelende Tak (Stick Insect). These tracks were recorded by Phons Bakx.  

Internet, email and revival of jaw harp interest
Ger is well informed via internet about what is going on in the field of jaw harp activities, and he has seen several interest revivals. The jaw harp performances of the Yakutian women with their impressive dresses, doesn’t mean much to him. He repeatedly shows interest for the Russian contemporary jaw harp makers. Email is a communication tool he refuses to use. Because he doesn’t want to be absorbed by digital communication. ‘Before you take notice, you’ll be occupied with this for a couple of hours a day.” With the rise of interest in jaw harps, he sees a coherence with the interest in spirituality. In that respect he makes music together with a friend who organizes sound circles, with attention to elocution among other matters.

Photo Ger Groothedde: a Groothedde jaw harp made in 2018

Photo Anne Borsboom

Other musical instruments

Ger also plays other instruments such as Yugoslavian and Bulgarian adaptations of the bagpipes. He plays flutes as well. And didgeridoos, he makes from PVC tubes. He likes primordial sounds. He also developed skills in overtone singing. Making far travels is an occupation of the past. Though he doesn’t really consider himself a city dweller, The Hague is his home where he has his good acquaintances, friends and art circle. 

Haagse Kunstkring (The Hague Art Circle)
Ger Groothedde is part of the Haagse Kunstkring, with has an impressive history. The Haagse Kunstkring is an association in The Hague for and owned by artists and art enthusiasts. Among its members are visual artists, architects, writers, literary performers, photographers, musicians and designers. For example, Jan Toorop organised at the end of the 19th century for the Haagse Kunstkring the first exhibition of Vincent van Gogh, controversial art from a then unknown artist. In 1923 Dadaists, such as Kurt Schwitters and Theo van Doesburg held the first meeting of the Dada tour through The Netherlands, at the Haagse Kunstkring.  

Pulchri Studio
Ger Groothedde is also connected with The Hague art society Pulchri Studio. This society also has a rich history. Founded by painter Lambertus Hardenberg. Pulchri Studio regularly organises exhibitions with work from members and artists from The Netherlands and abroad. In the latest decades sculpture, graphic art, photography and new media are also important at Pulchri Studio.