Jaw harps were introduced in the eastern arctic zone in the early eighteenth century. The jaw harp is most conveniently portable and ideally suited to the Inuit way of life. Despite the fact that large numbers of jaw harps have been in circulation in the eastern arctic zone (Barr 1994) imported to Hudson Strait by Hudson’s Bay Company ships for trade from 1738 and onwards, they are rarely mentioned in historical documents. Missionaries who systematically introduced Christianity to Alaska Natives in the latter part of the eighteenth century seem to have been hostile towards jaw harp practice.

Archaeological visibility
Perhaps because the jaw harp had become sidelined, it has remained almost indistinct in Inuit music research. Cavanagh (1982) mentions that jaw harps (along with harmonicas, ukuleles, and accordions) were present in several Netsilingmiut dwellings during her stay in the 1970s, but they have not figured in a striking way in any twentieth century musical practice. Contrary to expectation, the jaw harp has greater archaeological visibility than any other musical instrument in the eastern arctic zone (Gullason 1999).  Although they rarely survive intact, the simple bent metal frame is durable and recognizable, even if fragmented.

Musical qualities
In the dialect of Inuktitut the jaw harp is qanirvalauti or qanirvaluuti and qanirvalauqpuq is to play the jaw harp (Schneider 1985). The semantic association is with qaniq, mouth, and other words built from this stem. Jaw harp music is hardly availabe on distributed Arctic field recordings. An LP recorded at Povungituk, northern Quebec, in 1979 (Inuit Throat and Harp Songs: Eskimo Women’s Music of Povungnituk) includes ten jaw harp performances by Alasi Alasuak (Women of Povungnituk 1980). The pieces are short and often have funny titles (“Song About a Thumb”, “She Thinks She’s the Only Daughter”, etc). The liner notes give commentaries by the artist (“The person was making fun of another’s thumb.”, “The mother was telling her daughter that she was not the only daughter in the settlement, because she thought she was the only daughter for a long time.”). Alasuak is a gifted performer, and each piece is captivating.

An intriguing characteristic of jaw harp play is its acoustic resemblance to the katajjaq Inuit throat songs. In respect with other mouth resonated tools it also resembles the suluk (goose feather quilts), which seems to have been completely vanished (Tanya Tagaq 2017); a photograph of a woman playing a feather is found in the liner notes of Inuit Throat and Harp Songs). Although Inuit throat singing often dissolves in laughter, it is an refined vocal form, and can certainly be considered an art. In 2014 it was recognized as “intangible cultural heritage”, according to UNESCO guidelines. It is inescapable that throat singing sounds something like jaw harp play. Both produce a drone, a musical taste for which is believed to be one of the reasons the jaw harp became so popular in medieval Europe (Kolltveit 2009), and are more rhythmic than melodic. This acoustic resemblance must have been obvious to past practitioners, as their juxtaposition on the recording from Povungnituk suggests. Furthermore, both throat singing and jaw harp play were manageable to performance in the confined spaces of Inuit dwellings and dance houses.

For the Arctic communities in which she was working in the late 1970s Cavanagh noted how frequently Inuit performed music “in the private context of the family or when one is alone” (Cavanagh 1982). Similarly the jaw harp may have been important precisely because of its aptness as an accompaniment to the domestic “soundscape of the everyday” (King and Santiago 2011). It also resonated with the Inuit sensory world. The twang of the jaw harp recalls the harvesting and hunting before the advent of shotguns. Although at present a marginal instrument, the jaw harp appears to have been a meaningful part of Labrador Inuit house life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The shortage of documentary evidence relative to the clear archaeological trace is the inverse of the situation that obtains with most other musical instruments, by the informality and near invisibility of the jaw harp.

Arctic predecesor of the jaw harp: suluk

Inuit in the Arctic have created mouth resonating organized sounds with goose feather quilts (suluk) long before they obtained metal jaw harps from European fishermen and whalers. The practice of modulating sounds by vibrating a goose feather quilt not yet disappeared in the 1970’s.

Inuit Suluk Goose Feather Quilt

Photo by Nicole Beaudry, Inukjuaq, Arctic Québec (Canada) 1978.

Irregular Jaw Harp Radio Episode 1: Afghanistan

Instalment 1 of a series of broadcasts about jaw harp and jaw harp accompanied music. Each instalment comprises a compact selection of obscure recordings in a regional context. Each selection will be shared with irregular intervals. So no promise about when the next instalment will be available.

The first episode makes you acquinted with solo chang (jaw harps) and ensembles including chang recorded in Afghanistan between 1956 – 1968: 

Afghanistan Et Iran, track B4 Solo De Tchang (Guimbarde – Chan (Jew’s Harp) Solo. Recorded in 1956 by Jean-Claude Lubtchansky, S. Lubtchansky
Duration 1:24 

Folk Music Of Afghanistan Vol. 2, track B7 Chang Harp [Chang] – Boran Gul. Recorded in 1967 by Lorraine and Tom Sakata
Duration 1:26

Musiques classiques et populaires d’Afghanistan, track B2 Orchestre Amateur. Recorded in 1967 by Bernard Dupaigne,.
B2 Orchestre Amateur
Goblet Drum [Tabla] – Unknown Artist
Jew’s Harp [Cang] – Unknown Artist
Lute [Dambûra], Chimes – Unknown Artist
Vocals – Bangeca Tâshqurghânî
Duration 5: 13

Afghanistan untouched, disk 1, track 8 Bai Mohmad – Song from Wakhan. Recorded in 1968 by Mark Slobin
Duration 5:54

Irregular Jaw Harp Radio Episode 1: Afghanistan

Afghanistan Et Iran Folk Music Of Afghanistan Vol. 2 Musiques classiques et populaires d'Afghanistan Afghanistan Untouched


Muziek, showqi en taboes

Vele culturen hebben de waarde van muziek door de eeuwen heen verschillend geinterpreteerd. Van oudsher (Pythagoras, en verder terug in de tijd) is muziek verweven met wiskunde, sterrenkunde, filosofie, geneeskunde, religie en magie toen deze kennisgebieden nog niet afgebakend waren.

Bepaalde functionarissen, machtshebbers en groeperingen kennen taboes tegen vele vormen van muziek. Morele verboden zijn wellicht ontstaan door gedwongen vernieuwingen in samenhang met onderdrukking van voorgaande culturen, én ook door weerstand tegen vernieuwingen. Alleen al de recente geschiedenis kent legio voorbeelden, ook in ‘de’ westerse wereld, veelal gebagateliseerd als losbandig gedrag.

In islamitische culturen worden bepaalde categorieën met combinaties van georganiseerde geluiden niet als ‘muziek’ beschouwd zoals in Westerse context. Lokale talen in Perzië en omringende landen hadden vanuit historisch perspectief dan ook geen woord zoals het Nederlandse woord ‘muziek’ (of vergelijkbare varianten uit onze omringende taalgebieden). In Perzië wordt de term showq, of showqi, geassocieerd met muzikale expressie. Onder meer religieuze gezangen en slaapliedjes vallen daar buiten. Perzische woordenboeken definiëren het begrip showq, of showqi als ‘verlangen, liefde, genegenheid, plezier, sympathie’. Een breed spectrum van emoties dus. Activiteiten die showqi genoemd worden variëren van gevechten met dieren, decoraties van objecten, collecties, tot kansspelen en betrokkenheid in muziek als luisteraar of beoefenaar. Al deze activiteiten hebben te maken met sensatiebeleving en kennen sociale gevaren voor ‘ongepast gedrag’.