Jew´s Harp in Japan

  • Mukkuri: Kimiyo Suzuki makes the Bamboo Jew's harp of the Ainu people.

    Kimiyo Suzuki plays Mukkuri Jew's Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014 Kimiyo Suzuki plays Mukkuri Jew's Harp at the Ancient Trance Festival 2014

    In Japan, many different types of Jew's harps are played. The modern Japanese term for metal instruments is Koukin, which roughly means "mouth zither". Jew's harps made of bamboo are played by the Ainu, an indigenous tribe that has lived in the north of Japan for as long as anyone can recall. For the Ainu, the Jew's harp Mukkuri is an important part of their culture. One of the most recognized Mukkuri manufacturers and Mukkuri players is Kimiyo Suzuki from the city Kushiro in the southeast of Japan's largest island Hokkaido.

    The Mukkuri has accompanied Kimiyo for her entire life. Her grandfather had worked as a wood carver and decorated commodities with traditional Ainu designs. It was also he who began to manufacture Jew's harps made of bamboo. He passed the craft on to his son who taught it to his daughter Kimiyo. There has never been a debate whether she as a women could build the Mukkuris herself. It was a natural process that she learned herself the manufacturing of Mukkuris after her marriage, Kimiyo says. At first, economic reasons lead to Kimiyo getting involved in the production of Jew's harps. The sale of Jew's harps helped to support the family. Over the 40 years that Kimiyo produces Mukkuris already, it also increasingly became an spiritual task to manufacture Mukkuris, because through this instrument she is also passing on the culture of the Ainu.

    In Hokkaido Kimiyo Suzuki is currently the only woman producing Mukkuris. "There are many people who try to make a Mukkuri. Of course they succeed to produce the form of a Mukkuri, but it is very difficult to make instruments with a really good sound. One has to treat the bamboo for the Jew's harp e.g. by frying it in oil, to make the material stable and resonant. That is something not many can do." Instruments made of Bamboo have the disadvantage that they can break fairly quickly. Therefore Kimiyo is very careful with which instruments leave her workshop. Only top-quality Mukkuris are sold.

    Mukkuris are played by the Ainu only on joyfull occasions. Be it for one's own pleasure or for a celebration, the Ainu Mukkuri is above all played collectively: "As a child I always looked forward to the excursions to my grandmother's house. My mother and other women got together there with their children and played Mukkuri together. We children danced to the music. These afternoons are among the nicest memories of my childhood." Suzuki first played the instrument in her youth since it is not easy to produce sounds with a Mukkuri. It requires quite a bit of practice to get the bamboo tongue to vibrate using a cord.

    At the International Jew´s Harp Society in Yakutia in 2011 Kimiyo Suzuki received the prize for the best Jew's harp producer. Since then orders and invitations have been coming in huge numbers. "In the last few months I have been working with almost no break at all. I am being invited to talks and presentations and received inquiries for Mukkuris almost every day from all over the world." From time to time Kimiyo also welcomes interested Jew's harp players to Kushiro, to give them an introduction to the art of playing the Mukkuri.

    For many years the Mukkuri was played as an attraction for tourists. Now the Ainu culture has grown in confidence in Japanese cities and more and more professional musicians are dedicating their efforts to the instrument. On the Mukkuri the performance is mostly impromptu. As part of this, the sounds of the environment and the landscape of the region are a major inspiration for the pieces. If you ask Kimiyo, how one can imagine Kushiro and Hokkaido, she responds with a song on her Mukkuri: "I live in Kushiro. I am now describing the environment and the nature surrounding Kushiro. I mirror the sound of the water from the river Kushiro and the roaring of the bears that live in the region:"


  • 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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