Location: Taripa, Central Sulawesi
Of the myriad musical instruments strewn so generously across the Indonesian archipelago, none have stolen my heart quite like the humble mouth harp. Whereas some see it as nothing more than a twangy toy, I’ve found there to be much more to it then that. With a sound that’s generally too small for performance (save for some exceptions, like Lombok’s remarkable genggong ensembles), the mouth harp has often been played for the purest of reasons: for the unmediated joy of playing, to soak in those meditative moments when you bring the instrument to your mouth and let the overtones dance. It’s a truly intimate thing to play - the instrument’s use of the mouth as a resonator makes it almost like a second voice, with the sound literally coming from within.
The Kaili people who live in the fertile, hilly area around Palu in Central Sulawesi have taken this voice-like quality in a delightful direction. Their iteration of the mouth harp is called a yori - made from the wood of the aren palm, the yori is placed between the lips and its narrow “tongue’ is set to buzzing with the skillful pull of an attached string.
Any mouth harp player surely knows the party trick (what, you don’t party with mouth harp enthusiasts?): set the tongue a-buzzing and move your own tongue, lips, and throat in imitation of speech, and what emerges is an uncanny, voice box-like effect. In other words, the instrument speaks. Combine this with the instrument’s inherent sex appeal (is it just me?) and you’ve got the makings for some musical flirtation.
“In the old days, if we wanted to talk to a girl, the yori would speak for us” explained Pak Lagum Puyuh, the leader of a small musical community in Taripa, one of the last remaining villages where yori is found. “If we saw a pretty girl walking by, we’d run and grab our yori.”
What’s fascinating is that this story, of mouth harps acting as a voice box in teenage courtship rituals, is found in remarkably disparate cultures, from West Java to Vietnam. How is this possible? Maybe its the mouth harp’s near-magical ability to become a second voice - for those who are too shy, or for messages that can be taboo, the mouth harp allows words to somehow be spoken and not spoken at all.
While it’s a neat and romantic story, this flirting-by-yori is in the past - these days, young kids in Taripa just text each other like any other teenager around the world. However, the yori is still played as an optional addition to the dadendate ensemble I’ve written about before, its rhythmic and harmonic potential harnessed to mimic the twangy rhythms of the kecapi, the two-stringed lute used in dadendate.
For this post, I’m sharing three variations: one, with yori alone, so you can clearly hear the rich overtones of the instrument; another, with the yori playing a duet with kecapi; and finally one featuring a trio of yori, kecapi, and mbasi-mbasi, a bamboo flute.
To get a feel for the context and setting of these recordings, check out my previous post on dadendate music in Taripa, which includes my friend Greg Ruben’s awesome video that really captures the vibe in Taripa. The yori music was recorded immediately after that performance, with the same musicians but in a different location - the blazingly pink living room of one of the artists, all bathed in birdsong and the light of late afternoon. Pak Lafante first played solo yori, after which he was joined on the couch by on kecapi and finally Pak Usman Ladjaja on mbasi-mbasi. Not featured is this improbable sofa jam with me on kalimba and Pak Lafante on kecapi: