Jawbone of an ass

When I see the news about the American primaries, this image pops up in my mind over and over again.

The music of the rich is always pleasant, even when its played on a jaw.

An engraving by Johannes Wierix after Pieter (I) Bruegel, made about 1566-70. The title is “The music of the rich man is always pleasant, even when it’s played on a jaw”.

TrumpIt seems many people who vote for Donald Trump follow this old proverb. The idea that someone must be right because he is rich. Right and rich are not neccessarily synonyms, just look at the Kardashians or Paris Hilton. Often people tell me that “Trump acts like a fool, but he is a good businessman, so he will know how to run a country.” But is this adage true?

Last week my Oregon friend Darin Molnar answered this pretty nice in a few scentences:

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the federal government is not now nor has it ever been a profit-making institution. Its sole purpose is to manage the redistribution of wealth accumulated through various taxes, fees and other forms of revenue acquired from its citizens to provide sufficient support for their common infrastructure and security.

Those who think a businessperson with no political/governing experience is qualified to assume the mantle of President of the United States based on his/her perceived virtue as a selfish, greedy accumulator of wealth are misguided and really should pick up a civics book or, heck, visit a related website or, if reading is too much, listen to a podcast on the role and function of government in our society; it can be done with just a little effort.”

Darin R. Molnar – 20 feb 2016

I like to add my notion that some activities of the government are just too dangerous (army, justice) or too vulnerable and precious (arts, education, care for health, children, handicapped or the elderly) to leave to the whims of the free market and private enterprises.

Its not my style to call someone names, or to ridiculize people. But the rise of populist parvenus like Trump in America and others like him in Europe fills me with fear. They cultivate the fear that lives among people and try to turn it into hatred. Saying and giving the impression that they want the best for the common people is a mask, a cover up for an egocentric led by greed. They serve nobodies interest but their own, with a selfish hunger for power.

Clay BennettAnd yes I know he has a certain amusement factor. His loud mouth and dumb expressions make fun television. But a court jester is rarely fit to rule. I feel sorry for the people who vote for him. A democracy is built on the judgement of a well-educated, well-informed and well-thinking citizen. (Although last week Trump declared that he loves the poorly educated… Wonder why…). But his electorate seems to be blissfully ignorant, preventing their brains from wearing out by letting somebody else think for them, to listen to the jokes of a parvenu, instead of something serious. When this goes on America wil shift from a democracy to a idiocracy. But not only in the USA, western civilization as a whole seems to face an intellectual zombie apocalypse….

16th century symbolism.

Let’s get back to the engraving. Like most of Bruegel‘s works there is a lot of symbolism hidden under the surface.

There is even another depiction of this scene, by Johann Theodor de Bry in "Emblemata Saecularia" (1596)

There is even another depiction of this scene, by Johann Theodor de Bry in “Emblemata Saecularia” (1596)

The Dutch word for jaw is “Kaak” and in 16th century it had also different meanings.

In a city “de kaak” was a name for the pillage, where people who had committed small crimes were shamed. Often this was a metal cage on the outside of a town hall, hung on the first or second floor above the street. Those convicted were locked up for a set amount of time (depending on the nature of the crime) and exhibited to the public. Often people threw mud or rotten eggs to the cage. “Iets aan de kaak stellen” (To put something on the jaw) is still a common expression in the Dutch language, meaning to stand up for something that’s wrong.

Another thing thought to be named the “kaak” was a lookout for ships. We see a depiction of one in the background of the engraving. There is a figure with a trumpet in it. But at the same time it also looks like a cage, which brings us by the third meaning.

This is found in the old Antwerp dialect, where they use the expression “kaak zijn” (to be a jaw) and “op de kaak slagen” (to win on the jaw) for making money with shady business or to practice usury. Two things for which one could be “aan de kaak gesteld” in the 16th century.

Another of somebody playing violin on a piece of bone... Detail of the "Job Triptych". Workshop of Jheronimus Bosch (ca 1507-1515)

Another of somebody playing violin on a piece of bone… Detail of the “Job Triptych”. Workshop of Jheronimus Bosch (ca 1507-1515)

When we look back at the engraving we see that the man isn’t only playing the jaw, he’s also sitting on a large example. Could it be that he made his fortune in an unsavory way? Or that he has done other things for which he could be condemned to the pillage?

Well, maybe there is a little irony in this… And is it even more applicable to Donald Trump than we think at first glance…

To play the jawbone of an ass…

But the main question in this: Is it possible to make music on a jaw? And how would it sound?

The answer is simple: YES!

In Latin America they use the ‘quijada de burro’, a donkey’s jaw as a rattler. Here is a little clip of Suz Slezak of ‘David Wax Museum’ demonstrating this instrument.

But also guitar maker Randy Parsons comes to mind, who uses pieces of animal skull as bracing in his instruments…

This entry was posted in History, Research, Think different, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Jawbone of an ass

  1. rawlingsrod says:

    If Trump is elected, it won’t be the first time (dumb) Americans have voted an ass into office. I’m thinking of Reagan and both Bush’s. If Trump is elected, and I think that is a big IF, it will be time to exercise what Reagan said, i.e. vote with our feet– move out of the country.


  2. paulhoog says:

    Cape Breton has already put out the welcome mat for those of us who would be less than pleased with Trump in office.


  3. How did this propaganda enter my face book pages? Please note: anyone who throws around the word populist does not believe in democracy. People are much smarter than elitists give them credit for. It does not take a genius to be a good president.
    Who is the only candidate who is not a warmonger and not beholden to the military-industrial complex?


    • It isn’t propaganda, just a analysis of how the message of an old engraving is still valuable today. If you don’t like it: it isn’t mandatory to read.

      Why should somebody who uses the word populist not believe in democracy? I’m a little more pessimistic about the intellectual capabilities of the masses. Millions of people can be brainwashed into saying that a square is a circle, but that doesn’t mean it is true. Populism is a phenomenon that only appears in democracy. That doesn’t make democracy a bad thing, what I like to point out that to make a democracy work we need a responsible, educated, informed and well thinking citizen. Populists excist and rise mainly by means of a democracy with a hollowed out educational system and media.

      It certainly doesn’t need a genius to be a president, history has shown us that with the Bush administration. But shouldn’t we strive for somebody who is smart enough to be a good president instead of luring people in like a pied piper?
      And what grounds and arguments do you see to assume that Trump will be a good president?

      I beg to differ about Trump not being a warmonger. Just look at his statements on ISIS and North Korea. If he becomes president a new World War is thinkable, as is the ethnic cleansing of muslims.

      I invite you to read two blogs I earlier wrote on this subject; “To fight or to write” and “Populism – The Wave and current events…” and tell me what you think.


  4. Juan Carlos says:

    Do you know of any other European sources regarding a jawbone or a skull as a musical instrument? Were they actually played far from being a methaphor? Without being able to closely look at an unlikely copy, the bowed version of the instrument doesn’t really make sense to me. I’d love to be proved wrong, though. As far as I understand, the jawbone in Latin America was supposedly brought from Africa, and so, the position is completely different to that of the images shown here (which is obvious because in Latin America it is not a bowed instrument). Almost all the information I can find about this instrument takes me back to the traditions of LA and the US. Googling to no avail. Found a czech flute made of a jawbone.


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