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Ainu Music

  • Utae Ehara: The Mukkuri Jaw Harp of the Ainu people as a mean to establishing contact

    Utae Ehara plays Mukkuri

    The name Utae in Japanese is composed of the characters "song" and "poem". The Mukkuri Jaw Harp player Utae Ehara now lives in Tokyo. However, her family history is closely entangled with the island of Hokkaido and the culture of the Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan. Nowadays, not all Ainu people in Japan speak openly and freely about their origins. Many people are trying to deny their cultural history or hide it completely. Seven years ago, Utae started to deal with her cultural background. Music and dance have given her the possibility to access to the Ainu culture and to identity herself as an Ainu.

    Although music, singing and dance did not play a particularly important role in her family, Utae´s mother was the one who kept the memories and traditions of the Ainu alive. Her father once said to her, "I am proud to have a daughter who can say out loud that she is a member of the Ainu people and strives to carry on the culture of the Ainu." When her father died, Utae suddenly realized that it was up to her, together with her mother to preserve the cultural heritage of her family. After many years of it not being important to Utae where she came from, she became aware that her origins were important to her. When she was in her mid-twenties, she began to search for her history and the history of the Ainu. The Mukkuri, she says, was the medium that paved her entry into the Ainu culture. Many young people today, says Utae, want to know more about culture. Music and dance can open important doors in the search for one's own identity.

    As a child Utae often saw people who played Mukkuri Jaw Harps. But she did not see herself as part of the indigenous culture of Japan. Today the Mukkuri makes her understand: "I am Ainu." From the women in the "Ainu Culture Center" in Tokyo she learned how to play the Mukkuri. Nearly all women there play Mukkuri, it is less important to be able to play an instrument that is relatively difficult to play perfectly. It is far more important to share and pass on the knowledge of improvisation and the feeling when playing Mukkuri. "First of all I came in contact with the Ainu culture via the Mukkuri. Then the instrument became a tool for me to establish contact and to exchange information with other people. It's hard to play the Mukkuri, so I asked people who could play it already, young people and old. They taught me how to play the Mukkuri."

    "The Mukkuri has become interesting to me because you can produce very diverse sounds with this simple piece of bamboo. As a musician, who performs with the instrument on stage, I try now to tonally reflect my own very subjective emotions and experiences. The Mukkuri also become a tool for me to tell others about me." Utae hopes that she can link her entire life with the Ainu culture. Under the name "Hapo ne tay" - in the language of the Ainu it means something along the lines of "the mother's forest" - she organized an exhibition project in recent years. Bearing this name, a forest exhibition took place in a woodland near the city of Obihiro in the southeast of Hokkaido, where the Ainu's artistic works were displayed. The exhibition took place within a framework of workshops and concerts around the Ainu culture. Today Utae Ehara designs "Hapo ne tay" T-shirts, that recreate Ainu designs.

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