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imported to Hudson Strait by Hudson’s Bay Company ships for trade from 1738 and onwards, they are rarely mentioned in historical documents.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.