An Ainu woman is playing the Mukkuri (ムックリ), a traditional Ainu mouth harp played by women.
The Mukkuri is made of carefully cut bamboo with two strings, and measures about 10 by 1.5 cm (3.9 by 0.6 inches). The player vibrates the tongue cut out of the bamboo by pulling one of the strings, while holding the instrument in front of the mouth. Volume and tone colors are changed by changing the shape of the mouth. Although a simple instrument, and similar to mouth harps found all over the world, accomplished players can create truly amazing music with the Mukkuri.
Ainu music is almost always sacred, as are the instruments themselves which are believed to be imbued with souls. In traditional times, music played an important part in everyday Ainu life. Short simple songs centered on everyday activities and were accompanied by the Mukkuri and the Tonkori, a plucked string instrument. When used as work songs, the music was rhythmic and featured lyrics related to the work that was performed. The songs were not just meant to create a work rhythm, but also acted as prayers and warded off evil spirits.
In addition to the simple everyday songs, Ainu music features epic songs, called Yukar. They are mythic narratives, usually seen from the viewpoint of the gods. Performed without musical instruments, these epic songs consist of long monologues, with the voice of the singer fluctuating within words. They may be performed in front of the open hearth at a friend’s house, or as part of a religious ceremony. In this case the epic song is outlined by the ceremony’s activities, while at the same time reinforcing the ceremony itself. The one cannot exist without the other, showing the important and sacred role that music plays in Ainu culture and consciousness.
For many years, Ainu music was banned by the Japanese authorities. Since the 1960s however, Ainu music has been making a strong comeback as part of an Ainu cultural revival.
Ainu music was especially performed by women, whose vocal qualities were preferred. Although nowadays the casual observer will have much trouble distinguishing Ainu women from other Japanese women, they traditionally looked very different.
1 Bird, Isabella L. (1911). Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An account of travels in the interior including visits to the aborigines of Yezo and the shrine of Nikko. John Murray.
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). 1920s: Ainu Playing the Mukkuri, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on October 1, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/653/ainu-woman-playing-the-mukkuri
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