It is more than a 15 hour plane ride, 20 hours by car, and another 5 hours walking until you get from Central Europe to the mountain villages of Southwest China. 2000 meters high up in the mountains where the rice-growing terraces are smothered by dense cloud, one will find music which sounds organic and electronic at the same time. Playing the jaw harp, Kou Xian, is very common among the Yi-people in Yunnan and Sichuan.
If you ask a paddy farmer, who is on his way along the mountain paths between the fields, to play a melody on a Kou Xian, you will find out that he is able to elicit lively melodies out of the small fans of the fragile instrument. The same experiment will have the same result on a market place in a city of Southwest China: People will be drawn by the sound of the jaw harps and will play them with ease. For many Yi-people the playing of a mouth harp is as essential as speaking.
The Kou Xian is played by the Chinese minority of the Yi-People
This episode of the documentary “Masters of the Yi Mouth Harp” by Chinese anthropologist Yi Wu and American ethnomusicologist and expert for East Asia, Jonathan Richter, tells us a lot about the character of the jaw harp and the significance of music among the Yi-people. The Yi are one of 55 minorities who live in China alongside the Han-people who are China’s majority. The almost 8 million Yi-people are one of the biggest ethnic groups in China. They speak their own language and represent a stunning culture through music and apparel. Most of the Yi live in remote villages which are difficult to access. Though they partly have electricity, they possess only very unstable telephone connections. The people there grow rice, tobacco, and corn. And they raise pigs, chicken, and buffalos. Many of these people, especially the older generations, never went to school.
The music of the Yi-people sounds of the upland rice-growing terraces of Southwest China
Music plays a central role in the everyday life of many Yi. When working on the fields, but also in their free time, people sing polyphonic songs and play the jaw harp, but they also play on rolled up tobacco leaves. There is not only the impressive vocal tradition, but there are also fascinating musical expressions within the instrumental music. Not only the mouth harp and some simple wind instruments made of natural materials are part of the instrumental inventory but also various lutes, mouth organs, and flutes. The melodies of the Yi could be understood as the acoustic counterpart of Southwest China’s mountain scenery with its upland rice terraces: Just like the terrace fields the melodies climb up to steep altitudes; the key register abruptly changes between high and low sounds, from a piercing call to a musing murmur. The music of the Yi-people is deeply connected to the landscape in which they live.
Some of the song lyrics deal with the work on the rice fields, wander in thoughts down into the valleys, or remind of the march to the next village. For all those who want to get an impression of the instrumental and vocal traditions of the Yi villages in Southwest China, the BBC feature “World Routes in China” is recommended.
Discovering the most beautiful jaw harp sound with the Kou Xian
The jaw harp is probably the most personal instrument if the Yi-people, not least because of its fragile sound. It is played by men and women. With the instruments the people express their emotions such as their longing, homesickness, grief, or joy. Even words or language can be encrypted by the Kou Xian. It is possible that two people with their instruments get into dialogue with each other. The instruments made of metal are more popular than the Kou Xian made of bamboo.
The instrument maker modulates a sonorous musical instrument from a thumb-sized, thin piece of metal sheet by using small hammers and knives. The tongue is cut out of the sheet, and its edges are ground down by a file. The tone pitch is adjusted by ablating layers of metal with a knife from the upper end of the jaw harp. The space between the moving, buzzing tongue and the corpus of the instrument is very narrow.
The Yi attach several of these instruments to each other at their lower end. That way they can be pulled open and closed like a fan. Each of the single jaw harps is tuned in a different basic key. Thus it is easier to play melodies. The combination of several tongues leads to the typical sound spectrum of the Kou Xian, which is regarded as the most beautiful jaw harp sound by many mouth harp players.
The Kou Xian as pocket synthesizer
When leading this processed piece of metal to one’s mouth and pulling the flexible tongues/tines one can produce sounds by deforming the oral cavity, the tongue, and the palate. These sounds are sometimes described as cosmic, transcendental, or even electrifying. Someone who has heard a synthesizer before will inevitably think of the modulations of the frequencies or basic keys generated on analogue instruments with buttons and controllers. Therefore the analogy between the Kou Xian and a synthesizer is not very far-fetched and has often been verbalized by jaw harp experts. In this sense the jaw harp is an organic synthesizer, small and portable: simply a pocket synthesizer.