In the province of Yakutia located in the far East of Russia the jaw harp is an instrument with national relevance. It is a symbol and an ambassador of that region. One of its refined artists goes by the name of Olena Podluzhnaya who uses the stage name UUTAi. With her set she was a guest at the Ancient Trance Festival 2017 in Taucha. Helen Hahmann from DAN MOI met her in person and, among other things, they had a chat about the effects of jaw harp music to the human body.
“Yes, the jaw harp is the central music instrument for the people in Yakutia”, said Olena Podluzhnaya. “We call it the khomus. It is an ancient and shamanic instrument in our culture. Everyone, whether young or old, plays the khomus.” I am sitting with a brilliant jaw harp player at a folding table in the barn of the Taucha Castle. We’re drinking hot tea from white plastic cups. Here at the temporary backstage area of the Ancient Trance Festival a lot of international jaw harp players have prepared their instruments for the stage. The Yakutian mouth harp smiths Petr Osipov and Revoriy Chemchoev were at this place, too. This was during the conference of the International Jew´s Harp Society back in 2014. Right in her first sentences Olena Podluzhnaya does not leave a single doubt about what’s so special about the Yakutian jaw harp: “This music is healthy for the people. It has healing powers. The khomus initiates deep shaman processes. That’s why the khomus is regarded as holy in Yakutia.”
“When I’m playing I can feel the healing effect on my body. But the instrument has also a positive effect on the body of the people that are listening to the khomus. The vibration is good for my head, my teeth, and my whole body. The vibes emanate through the whole body. People who listen to the khomus can feel those vibes as well. The sound can be physically noticed. The vibes of the khomus get people to cry, laugh, dance or sing.”
About 40 years ago, Olena Podluzhnaya’s parents moved from the Ukraine to Yakutia. Her family is not very deeply rooted into the language and culture of Yakutia, tells Olga and laughs about the wide-spread wrong assumption that traditional culture would be something ancient in any case. Olena was born in Yakutia and this culture is her culture, she says. Olena is playing the khomus for 24 years now. She learned to play the khomus at school. Although she is a trained pianist, the khomus has become the center of her life: “I’m a truly happy person as I pursue the work I love; I play and teach the jaw harp.” For two years, UUTAi was also part of the trio Ayarkhaan with Albina Degtyareva. Albina was her jaw harp teacher at school.
The stage name UUTAi is a combination of the Yakutian words “water”, “secret”, and the verb “create”. So the meaning of UUTAi is: “The secret that was created from water.” One cannot ignore the strong connection to and the sounds of nature in the songs of UUTAi: “It roots back to shaman tradition. The animal voices of cranes, horses, and wolves that I imitate on the jaw harp are sounds from shamanic rituals. During the ritual, a shaman is changing roles. He becomes a wolf or a crane, and thereby travels between worlds.”
“In today’s Yakutia, men and women play the khomus. Back then, this was only done by women, though. When a woman expected her man back from hunting she would play the khomus. She would be sitting at the fireplace in front of the house and while waiting she would carry out a ritual, so the husband would return safely from the hunt. Today, the khomus is also used by shamans, that is to say the female shamans, the so called Udagan.” There are people that come to UUTAi that ask for her help. UUTAi herself does not claim to be an Udagan, but states the khomus can help people in difficult circumstances. “The khomus creates the magic moments, not I.” She considers herself as a medium who mediates between khomus and human. It is the khomus that can help the people with meditation, she says. And, the khomus cleanses and helps people to listen to their hearts again.
“When I appear on stage I never know what I’ll be playing beforehand. That is because the khomus plays with me. It plays with my emotions and with the people who listen to the concert. The khomus absorbs all those energies and transforms it into music. I cannot claim the music I am playing is mine. It is the khomus that plays it.” Those are improvisations that UUTAi presents on stage. She merely utilises a certain repertoire of techniques to form the music such as the cry of the wolf. The music has no titles as such. There are rather themes that she likes to describe with the jaw harp, for instance a fight between warriors in ancient times.
UUTAI performs international solo concerts and meditative concerts. She teaches master classes, among other she worked as a musician and conducted workshops in China, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Lebanon, Venezuela, Hungary, and Germany. She has published jaw harp online lessons in Russian and English, too.
“I possess jaw harps that I only play at concerts. Others, I only play for meditation. And others I use for putting humans into trance. My preferred jaw harps are from Afanasievich Mandarov. But I also have many other jaw harps from around the globe.” The concert khomus UUTAi plays to entertain the people and get them to dance, has a loud sound and has strong vibes. For meditation, she rather uses instruments with a slow vibe generating long vibrations. As these sounds have a soothing and relaxing effect.
UUTAi takes the last sip from her teacup, grabs her bag with the jaw harp and starts to get ready for the concert on the court of the Taucha Castle. She holds a costume made of leather, metal, fur coat and horsehair in her hands and says to me as I’m about to leave: “This is a Udagan Amazon costume. It expresses that I’m part of the nature. Everything is connected, you see, the costume, the music, the atmosphere and the khomus one uses ...”