Black feng shui cat, £5.50
Length: 12.750 cm
Gift of Swinton C. Holland (1873)
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Bamboo mouth harp
Ainu, 19th century AD
From Hokkaidō, Japan
Often known in Emglish as a Jew's harp, the mouth harp is an instrument commonly found throughout the world. To play a mouth harp such as this, the instrument is placed in front of the mouth and the semi-detached reed in the centre is jerked with a string to make it vibrate. A variety of sounds are produced by widening and narrowing the opening of the mouth and controlling the passage of air. It could be used, for example, to imitate animal calls while hunting.
Among the Ainu the mouth harp is part of a larger musical tradition which includes other instruments, song and dance. Song in particular played an important role in Ainu life: impromptu songs and well-known tunes were sung during the course of the day, while ceremonies provided a focus for group performances. Links with animal spirits, such as the bear and the owl, are reinforced, for example, through the imitation of their movements by the dancers or of their calls in music.
Since the 1990s, Ainu culture is receiving increasing official recognition from the Japanese government. Groups of Ainu singers and dancers are now integrated within the national heritage system which works for the preservation of local performing arts by encouraging the learning and recording of living traditions.
W.W. Fitzhugh and C.O. Dubreuil, Ainu: spirit of a northern peo (Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., 1999)