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A dancing tongue

Friday, June 29, 2018

When Kunal Naik discovered the mouth harp, an instrument that goes back 9,000 years, it changed his whole life

One of the most ancient instruments known to man is a small, three-pronged  instrument, that looks somewhat like a tuning fork. The two outer prongs are placed on the teeth, and the third—the tongue of the instrument—is plucked with a finger, keeping a gap between the teeth which, gives it the space to vibrate when plucked. The air in the mouth is displaced and hence creates the sound.

It makes hardly a sound on its own, but when held in front of the cavity of the mouth, the vibrations of the mouth harp’s tongue are amplified, and the sound produced is controlled by the shape and size of the inside of the mouth. The magic happens with the tongue.

The human tongue dances, and as it dances it choreographs the most unimaginable sounds.

Highs and lows, twitters and flicks, and the dance becomes a song. The sounds are divided into three basic acoustic channels—onebeing the mouth supported by the tongue, the other is the throat and then the stomach.

Mouth harps are made of iron, brass, chrome, steel or bamboo. Each mouth harp is unique and is based on its geographical location and culture when it comes to the design and sound.

The mouth harp is extensively used in Rasjasthani folk, Karnatic classical and Assamese traditional folk music. It can be an accompaniment and can also be used for solo performances. It is played in many parts of the world including Nepal, Austria, Belarus, Russia, Germany, France, North America, Hungary, Siberia, Japan, Italy and so on. It’s dated to 9000 years ago and nobody really knows where it originated.

Another great thing about this instrument is that you can carry it anywhere and everywhere because of its size. It varies from two inches to six inches on an average, almost as big as a pair of scissors or as small as a hair pin. Playing the mouth harp is great for your lungs because it’s all about breathing.

Creating music with air as you breathe, it’s the only instrument in the world that can produce electronic sounds with electricity.

A good quality mouth harp could cost you anywhere from `800 to `80,000, depending on the maker and the material.

My story

I had faintly heard about an instrument that is played by placing it in the mouth and plucking some kind of a wire. The first thing that came to my mind was the tongue getting cut, so I did not give it any thought till one day, a friend named Teddy, a passionate collector of odd instruments, dropped by my studio with a couple of mouth harps. I had never seen one and was very curious to play it. But that’s when I realised how difficult it was to hold a cold piece of iron in your mouth which tastes metallic and rustic.

At first I tried to imitate my friend who had just managed to produce a sound on his mouth harp after a lot of struggle. I knew it wasn’t going to be simple. But I kept at it and took some tutorials on Youtube. It took me 16 days with many cuts and bruises on my tongue and inner lips to produce the first clean sound. Once I understood how to play it, there was no looking back. I started playing it for long hours at a stretch, as long as eight hours in a day. I began exploring various techniques of playing.

My world once again changed when I met Neptune Chapotin, a mouth harpist and unicyclist from Goa who is a collector of mouth harps across the world. When I saw his collection, I felt like a child let loose in wonderland. It was here that I realised how vast and widespread this instrument is. This was a turning point. I bought four Hungarian mouth harps made by the great master Zoltan Szilagyi.

Passion became an obssession and I began adding mouth harps from around the world to my collection. Today I am fortunate to have one of the most beautiful pieces from Hungary, Estonia, Russia, Vietnam, Rajasthan, Assam, Belarus and Tamil Nadu. I am yet to acquire a Japanese one.

In the last seven years, I have broken at least 15 mouth harps while playing. I have pushed this instrument to its limit. There isn’t a single day that I don’t play the mouth harp. It’s like breathing. It keeps me alive.

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