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Sounds of scacciapensieri
Jaw harp, Jew's harp, ozark harp, trump, khomus, kubyz, juice harp, kou xiang - the mouth harp, which can fit into a shirt pocket, has anything between 800 to a 1000 names. That's more names than most gods can claim to have. It is only fair then that this secular harp have its own festival in India.
The first World Mouth Harp Festival will be held in Arambol, Goa on February 6 and 7, next year. In India, the mouth harp is known as the morchang in Rajasthan, morsing in Tamil Nadu and gogona in Assam. Says Neptune Chapotin, the French American mouth harpist powering the festival: "In Assam, at the time of traditional dances and festivals, women wear the gogona like a hairpin and men tie it to their dhotis. My favourite name for the mouth harp comes from the Italians - they call it scacciapensieri, which means the thought chaser. "
Chapotin, who was born in Goa and moved back here in 1998, has a six-foot-long table at the Saturday night market in Arpora. Here he sells mouth harps he picked up on his travels. More importantly, at this weekly stall of sorts, he teaches people to play the mouth harp.
"In India, mouth harpists don't know where other mouth harpists are. At the stall, the sound of the instrument draws people in. I've encountered many fellow exponents of the instrument in this way, " explains Chapotin.
He hopes that the festival - created in the spirit of co-creation and improvisation - will lure in mouth harpists from across the country and world. "In addition to the traditional Indian styles of playing, the harp can easily work its way into different genres from around the world. " Chapotin can often be found playing the musical instrument and unicycling simultaneously.
The imminent World Mouth Harp Festival is not the only one of its kind. The instrument has other events dedicated to it across the world including Hungary, United States and France.
By all accounts, most mouth harpists get hooked to the instrument by chance. This happened with furniture designer Shahid Datawala who also uses the camera lens for a variety of art projects, and musician Kenroy Sequeira. Datawala first picked up the morchang when he encountered Kosmas, a Swiss mouth harpist, performing in Goa in 1994. He has since performed professionally, collected unique mouth harps vigorously and loved the instrument diligently.
"There was a time in the mid-nineties when I would perform at bars in Goa. Now it's mostly just a hobby but I can't help pulling out the morchang whenever there's an informal jam session, " says Datawala who bumped into Chapotin quite by chance.
Sequeira got introduced to the mouth harp six years ago. "I was walking down the road when I heard some dude playing the mouth harp and was immediately hooked, " he says. Sequeira plays the mouth harp with Tribal Flora, a five-piece psychedelic band of which he is a member. He also guest performs with bands like The Mavyns.
"It's not a look-at-me-I'm here-kind-of-instrument but surely there's more interest and awareness around it now, " says an optimistic Sequeira. While Sequeira is making inroads on the contemporary band circuit, theatre director Roysten Abel has, through Manganiyar Seduction, brought the morchang of folk music to urban audiences. For this act, Abel brings together over 40 Rajasthani folk musicians to present a performance highlighted by the drama of music and the theatricality of the iridescent set. Manganiyar Seduction last enthralled audiences at the NH7 Weekender, Pune.
"The morchang comes on for five minutes or thereabout and is woven into the structure of the performance. The feedback I get most often is that the morchang has a cooly distinct sound that has an almost electronic feel to it, " says Abel of his experience.
In the Carnatic music tradition, morsing is a key percussion instrument. Says Carnatic musician Bharadwaj R Sathavalli, who started playing it over 15 years ago: "Better acoustics and technology have swung things in morsing's favour. For instance, some years ago, playing the morsing fast would mean that you wouldn't reach out to your audience. But if you played it slow you would invariably leave out all the details that go into playing. "
According to Sathavalli's research, the Syrian Christians introduced the morsing via Kerala. "I'm constantly amazed at its reach. It is a rare thing for one instrument to be found in as many cultures across the world, " he says.
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