The improved plucking-style
mouth harp developed by
Cheng is easier for beginners
Sometimes the reeds are
bronze, and one mouth harp
can have two, three or more
Only the arc-shaped planers
can make workable reeds.
Cheng Pao-hsiung is the only
full-time mouth harp maker in
As an Atayal tribesman, Cheng
hopes that the cultural legacy
of the mouth harp can be
transmitted for as long as
The flowing, echoing sound of the mouth harp
Cheng Pao-hsiung blows life into the Atayal tribe's songs
Words by Ye Jia-hui
Photography by You Jia-huan
Translated by Angel Pu
Cheng Pao-hsiung picks up the mouth harp on his desk and prepares to
perform a song. As he begins to play, beautiful, primitive melodies echo
with a lively energy. "The mouth harp is one of the tribe's legacies, and we
have to pass it down to our children," says the master musician.
Last year, the history-based film "Seediq Bale" not only became a national sensation, but also generated public curiosity about the culture of Taiwan's aboriginal tribes, including their languages, clothing, dances and, most of all, their music. The echoing, flowing music in the movie is actually produced by the mouth harp, and the person behind all of those beautiful melodies that touched audience members' hearts is an Atayal mouth harp master, Cheng Pao-hsiung.
Reminiscent hometown sounds
Cheng's workshop, located in Lileng village of Taichung city's Heping district, is constructed out of all patterns and shapes of glass, discarded building materials and scrap wood. "I don't see the point in throwing them away since they are all in good condition," explained the musician. It turns out that he used to live in Taoyuan. However, after a devastating flood in 1959 that completely destroyed his home, he and his family were forced to move to the current place, and its materials were actually picked from the ruins of his old house. His sentimental nature is one of the main reasons he has held onto his the Atayal tribal legacy and remains Taiwan's only mouth harp master.
Traditionally, the Atayal tribe included two other tribes--the Taroko and the Seediq. Today, the three tribes are no longer lumped together because each has its own strong cultural identity. However, the one thing that is still shared is mouth harp music. According to Cheng, in Atayal culture the mouth harp was not only a musical instrument, but also a tool for communication. Every Atayal boy between the ages of 12 and 16 had to learn how to make and play this instrument, get facial tattoos and hunt in the mountains.
Learning the mouth harp was not only a way to earn respect, but also a tool for telling fellow tribe members that you were safe while hunting in mountains. Even if they happened to lose their mouth harp, they could still make one and communicate with their families. After hunting was over and they were ready to come home, they would play their mouth harp to let their families know that it was time to welcome the hunter back and celebrate the abundant catch.
After the men learned how to make these instruments, they would also make one for their future partners. For men, every part of the mouth harp is made of bamboo, but the reeds for the women's instruments are usually made of bronze, which produces more resonance to express various feelings. Tribesmen with higher positions, such as chiefs and shamans, are the only ones allowed to use mouth harps with multiple reeds. Clearly, the mouth harp was a symbol of identity for the Atayal people.
A life's journey involves mouth harp melodies
Because every Atayal person has their own mouth harp, the sound of an individual harp is like a Morse code of sorts for tribe members, who use it to express their own feelings and signal family members, other tribe members and lovers. Unfortunately, it was its unique functionality that led to the disappearance of this tribal legacy. During the Japanese colonial era, government authorities were afraid that the mouth harp would be used as a tool for passing secret signals and communication, so they set laws that forbid playing it, with violators having their fingers cut off. In addition, the harps were usually mortuary objects for the Atayal. So, with no harps left, and tribal elders reluctant to teach younger generations how to make and play them because of the Japanese government, this cultural legacy slowly disappeared.
Leaving his hometown for work at 16, Cheng never thought that one day he would inherit the skill of mouth-harp playing. Once, as he was on his way home, he encountered an old Atayal man sitting on a side of the road playing the instrument. He was so touched by the melody that he begged the old man to teach him how to play. The man, however, did not agreed to do this. This incident caused him to reminisce with affection about his hometown and Atayal culture, and years later, he decided to study the mouth harp. First, he went to Yilan county to learn the skill of making and playing harp from an Atayal preacher. Then, seven years ago, he even developed a plucking-style mouth harp, making it easier for people to learn and play. This innovative version of the instrument is known as a "liu", which means "stay, preserve" in Chinese, as Cheng wished to preserve the mouth harp culture and keep it in people's minds.
Simplifying production makes it easier to transmit culture
The biggest task when making a high-quality mouth harp is finding the right bamboo materials, according to Cheng. The best material is wild bamboo over eight years old that gets plenty of sunshine, because it's tougher and free from woodworm. After the bamboo is selected, it is left to dry in the shade for a week before being used to make harps. One doesn't need many tools for the actual production, as a single box cutter will do, although this is more time-consuming. In order to promote mouth harps, Cheng has developed harp-producing machines that not only take less time, but also make it easier for his students and workshop visitors to make their own instruments, just like the Atayal people once did.
Next, Cheng demonstrates how to make a mouth harp. He puts a bamboo tube section on the table, uses a table saw to cut out a part where the reed goes, punches holes into both sides of the harp, threads a cotton string through the holes, and another traditional mouth harp is complete. To make the harps more "Atayal-style", Cheng brands patterns--a reference to Atayal facial tattoos--onto them.
Although the structure of a mouth harp is not very complex, it still requires some technique to play it. First, you need to grasp the thread on the left side of the mouth harp with your left hand, put the mouth harp close to you cheek, make sure the reed is right in front of your mouth, pull the thread on the right side with your right hand, and play various tones by blowing air into it or drawing air out, combining this with tongue movements. Cheng shows how to express feelings by blending in some simple phrases, such as "I love you" and "how are you", when playing mouth harps. If you listen carefully, you can definitely hear the words, which is very interesting. It certainly can be argued that it's much more romantic and sincere to express your affection to your loved one via a mouth harp, rather than texting.
Transmitting culture is Cheng's biggest hope
Cheng Pao-hsiung's innovative plucking-style Taiwan-shaped mouth harp, made of Chinese cypress, was selected as one of Taichung's Top 10 Aboriginal Gifts by the city government last year. According to Cheng, his plucking-style mouth harp is not only a instrument, but can also be used as a letter opener that can be placed on your desk at work. As an Atayal tribesman, it would be his ultimate pride and goal to promote indigenous culture by helping the sound of the mouth harp continue as long as possible.
Left: Mouth harps of different sizes have different tones.
Right: The patterns branded onto the instruments are a reference to Atayal facial tattoos.