Neptune: Tales of a Wandering Mouth Harpist
“How about if we meet on top of the hill before the sun goes down?” says Neptune.
Scheduling an interview in Anjuna, Goa isn’t quite the same as in a city, I realize at that moment. But that’s part of the charm of this sultry paradise by the sea — an epicenter of all things creative.
The interviewee in focus this morning is Mouth Harp virtuoso and collector/artist/unicyclist/performer/festival organizer/world traveler Neptune Chapotin. Born of French/American parents amidst the tropical beauty that is Anjuna beach, Neptune picked up the curious little instrument before he became a teenager, not realizing then that this would one day become his life’s calling. “I was hooked”, he laughs, reminiscing about the first time he made a sound on the instrument. Since that moment, Neptune has traveled to different countries in search of Mouth Harp makers, performed at Mouth Harp conferences around the world (watch the videos here), organizes the annual World Mouth Harp Festival of India in Arambol, Goa, and continues to teach and sell the uniquely designed instruments he gathers along his travels in a collection he calls World Harps – Mouth Harps around the World.
These are the stories of a wandering mouth harpist.
“My mom was hitchhiking in ’69 from Paris to India, and somewhere in Afghanistan in a bazaar she picked up this little thing as a travel instrument”, he begins, “I got interested in the mouth harp because when you play it, you are in essence half the instrument. Your music is controlled by your mouth, your throat, your breath. You become part of the music – it’s this tangible intangibility”.
Nirupama: Can you tell me more about the historical origins of the instrument?
Neptune: It’s tough to say – this is one of the oldest instruments in the world; the oldest record of a Mouth Harp is in a Chinese painting, from 3000 BC! The instrument is generally believed to have originated in Central Asia, or even different parts of Asia. There are several different types of Mouth Harps. Many Southeast Asian harps are made of bamboo and look nothing like the standard horseshoe shape of other Asian, European, or American Jew’s Harps. And it’s impossible to date bamboo Mouth Harps – they certainly don’t last six thousand years! It is a very simple instrument with a basic concept, therefore it most probably originated in several different parts of the world independently of each other. In New Zealand, the Maori people had their own kind of Mouth Harp – the Roria – which is now extinct. The natives of Hawaii also have an instrument made from a palm leaf folded in half – they pluck the stem of the leaf in front of their mouth to modulate the sound. The most common type of Mouth Harps likely made their way from Central Asia into Europe along the Silk Road, and from Europe to both North and South America, where they were used as currency to barter with the natives for valuables like fur pelts or precious metals.
Nirupama: How did you first begin this lifelong quest of yours to collect Mouth Harps from around the world, and what is the significance for you of ‘finding the makers’ of these Mouth Harps?
Neptune: My mom first picked up this little thing in a bazaar in Afghanistan. I found it in a little basket in her room one day when I was 12 or 13, and I asked her to show me what it was. From that point onwards, I discovered a passion, and I taught myself how to play. Years later in 2003 I found another one for myself and kept playing, and I slowly started collecting a few from different countries and even started buying some to sell.
In 2010, I headed to Europe with my backpack and my unicycle for the 6th International Mouth Harp Festival in Hungary. On my way, I stopped in Bali where I met a Mouth Harp maker who made a type of harp from palm branches called the Genggong, which you yank with a string. I met makers in Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia, and I understood that it’s not just about buying and selling harps. Each master who makes the Mouth Harp has their own style and personal story of making; every Mouth Harp has an individual soul that is passed on from the hands of the maker, through the traditions and culture of each country or region. It’s about passing on the story of each maker to whoever wants to buy a harp from me – if they want to take the time to listen.
Nirupama: Tell me more about your travels for Mouth Harps?
Neptune: So far I’ve found makers in South-east Asia, the Indian Sub-continent – in both Nepal and India – in Central Europe, Asia and Eastern Europe – last summer I traveled from Russia down through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, all to find Mouth Harp makers of every place. In India I met two Morsing-making – brothers in Tamil Nadu, whose father – the old master maker – could still play the Mouth Harp on his few remaining teeth with his arthritic knuckles. In Rajasthan, it was a trade passed down from generation to generation through migrant blacksmiths traveling through the deserts of Rajasthan who made tools, and also Mouth Harps – Morchangs – for the nomadic musicians.
In 2011, I went to Yakutsk in the Republic of Sakha, in northeastern Siberia, for the 7th International Mouth Harp Congress Festival. That was a real trip down the rabbit hole! The traditional costumes, the people, the dancing, the singing! I met many makers, got a few amazing Khomus – I like to call these the ‘Samurai Swords of Mouth Harps’ – they are so precise, so perfect, and they have such an incredible sound. There was also a ‘world virtuoso’ competition which I played in, and I ended up winning a medal too.
The Mouth Harp is the national instrument of the Republic of Sakha – every child learns how to play it in school. It is believed that there’s a spirit in each harp, and if you have a cold you don’t dare play because you’d be disrespecting the spirit within the instrument. These instruments are one of the things that keep them going during the long dark cold winters, and the instrument is also very deeply rooted in shamanism.
Nirupama: Can you elaborate about that connection – between the mouth harp and shamanism?
Neptune: In their practices, shamans use a drum, or a Mouth Harp, or a gong – something very repetitive to help induce a state of trance. And within that state, they can then work with understanding the spirits and interacting with other realms. Even in other parts of the world – in Mongolia and in different regions of Asia – the Mouth Harp is extremely deep rooted in a spiritual sense, not in an entertainment sense. It’s a very sacred instrument.