* For photos of this journey, please check out my facebook album!! https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.431726570173103.109400.256865144325914&type=1*
May 6, 2012
I’m off on another expedition for Mouth Harps!
After a crazy last-minute packing up of my life in Goa and a flight straight to Delhi, I’m now on an eighteen hour indian train out to the middle of the Rajasthani desert, right over near the border of Pakistan. I came here last year in march, and I spent four incredible days meeting four Rajasthani Morchang Masters. Now I’m on my way back for another round of four days, to test and pick up a whole new stock that they’ve been making especially for me.
Stay tuned for more Morchang updates!!
I’ve arrived. It’s the desert. It’s hot.
I’ve bought a 20 liter bottle of drinking water and checked into a little room, with the fan on full power, before I venture out to meet the Rajasthani Morchang makers.
On the train I sat all morning slicing up a motorcycle inner tube into heavy-duty rubber bands, to bundle all the Morchang Mouth Harps I’m going to get…I’m soon going to start individually testing several hundred of them!!
May 7, 2012
Instead of getting straight to work yesterday afternoon testing Mouth Harps, I went around this little colony of Artists and Craftsmen – from blacksmiths to musicians to painters to puppet makers – to simply greet three of the four Morchang makers in this place, and just share some time with them one year later. It was like meeting old friends, and speaking only in Hindi, I let the entire evening slip by.
First Master Gorkharam, with his trademark mustard-yellow turban, and his son Viraram, in their squat hut workshop beside their house perched high at the top of a little street leading down a hill. Bits of metal and tools lay everywhere, here and there in the smoky-grey dust well mixed with black soot from the fire pit in the center. Gorkharam, with cheery cheeks and a full wispy grey beard and mustache, sat in the dust himself with a round tray of Morchang at his feet. Examining one at a time, holding each to the light, then tapping light adjustments to the frames on the heavy anvil before testing every sound, he was perfecting the final touches to a batch made especially for me. Two wrinkled friends sat with him, and his two small grandchildren hung about, while random goats stumbled in and out. A gunsmith by trade, his wife is the sister of the next two makers.
Master Rekharam, in cotton whites well past their days, and with a relatively small yet still oversized greying mustache, lives in a single-room stone-slab house right next to Gorkharam’s workshop. He greeted me wonderfully with a veritable joy to see me, and I sat with him and his son Jagdish and several of Jagdish’s friends on the floor chatting about all things past. He was the only maker whom I was not able to contact prior to my arrival, so luckily he said he does have a large stock of Morchang already made, ready for me to pick through as soon as I can. After chai out of steel bowls and promises to return for an evening meal before I leave, I wandered down the hill along the little flagstone street past more wrinkled old men sitting around in the evening respite, between lazy goats and oblivious cows, to meet Rekharam’s brother Mohanlal.
Master Mohanlal, with hair still black yet streaked with grey, and a fantastic salt-and-pepper mustache, was standing as tall as I am out at the crossroads in long whites and pointed shoes. We entered into his compound as the evening light began to fail, and we sat with his two sons in his dim workshop along with his little grandson Raju, a budding ace Mouth Harp player in his own right, who enthusiastically began fishing in a can of his grandfather’s Morchang for a miniature one of just his size. I pulled out once again my bag of Mouth Harps, just like the year before, and presented each one to Mohanlal for him to try: Yakutsk, Vietnam, Hungary, Esthonia, Austria…and he played each one in the same Rajasthani style.
Food was ready, made by his wife, and together we sat cross-legged on a tarp over the cow-dung floor with large steel plates in front of us, sharing thick whole wheat chapatis drenched in ghee with potato subji followed by thin gruel mixed with yoghurt lassi.
Food…so simple, yet so good.
What a wonderful place I am in.
I just went back to Mohanlal’s workshop, and after lunch with him on the floor of the same menu as last night, I started testing my order of beautiful Brass Morchungas. Round ones, Round with a peacock standing on the top, and the most ornate ‘Mucch’ or Mustache design, comprising of swooping curls and crests. Mohanlal is possibly the most skilled of all four makers here, and the Mouth Harps that he produces are phenomenal. I checked every one of them, handing ones back to him that needed minute adjustments, and with the same precise taps on various sides of the frame against the anvil he made each one of them perfect. He even magically managed to actually increase the volume of one Morchang by tapping it in some specific way.
He’s the best, but also the most expensive: 80 Mouth Harps down, and over half of my cash already blown. But wow, was it worth it!
Master Khetaram lives in a little hamlet of small yellow stone houses a short rickshaw ride out of town, near a great field of faraway desert wind turbines. Younger than the other three, with a large black mustache, he had my entire order of Morchang in a dilpidated suitcase ready for me to test, and I sat once again cross-legged on the floor for the job. One, after another, after another, Iron Round, Half Round, Straight Afghan, Mini Round, each different design following suit, with Khetaram making the occasional minor adjustments on his anvil. His children danced around, his wife and mother worked on the family’s dinner in the front room, and I tested over 200 Morchang till it was nearly dark.
I walked back at dusk from Khetaram’s house past tiny stacked stone dwellings, wandering children and loitering goats, to Gorkharam’s house where his son Viraram was waiting for me with his trunk of Morchangs, and thick chapatis with potato and tomato subji. Another blanket on the floor, some food, and another round of testing, until I couldn’t take it anymore and told him I’d better finish tomorrow. My right cheek smudged black with iron, my knees stiff and my lips chapped, I called it a night. The moon was out, just past full, and with the desert air still warm, I headed back to my room.
May 8, 2012
Today I’ve taken it easy.
Khetaram came to meet me on his way out of town for a few days, and brought the whole stock of just over 200 Morchangs that I had tested to my room, after smearing them all with coconut oil. With the oil, they are less likely to get rusted or tarnished when I take them away from this desert environment. We went out and had chai together, and then after picking up a new 20 liter bottle of cold water, I hunkered down under the fan between tepid showers for the rest of the afternoon. Now, off to Rekharam’s house to test more stock!!
I returned to the little teashop that I had been to this morning with Khetaram, walking through a little market past withering fruit carts, round clay pots, square metal trunks, random plastic trinkets, four barber shops each with a single antique chair, and several blacksmiths sitting under small shade cloths in the dust.
I sat down for an evening snack and a lassi, and directly got the daily “Where are you from” three or four times in a row. As usual, I replied in Hindi, which began a full conversation, still in Hindi – always the same every time – where I’m from, where my parents are from, why I’m here, and what am I doing.
One young man seemed genuinely interested in why I am here, so I eventually started pulling out some of my Mouth Harps as examples from around the world as I described what I am doing. I in turn began to ask him about himself, and found that as a high school student his dream was to pursue higher studies.
Now 21, that hasn’t worked out for various reasons, and he’s hopped from one futile job to the next, finding nothing in the process that he really wants to do. I tried to get him to think of things in his life that he enjoys doing…anything, really, something that happens in his free time, as long as he loves doing it, to help him realize that perhaps something that he actually likes doing could be directed towards a way to earn a living.
His family, his society, and the pressure to get a money-earning job hasn’t even allowed him to pursue even simple things like learning to play the harmonium, which was the only thing that I could get out of him that he might have as a separate interest in his life.
Can he take harmonium playing or anything else he might be interested in, as simple pleasures and afford to pursue them, when all his family wants him to do is get a job? And if he could, alongside everything else, perhaps someday a sense of entrepreneurship might grant him with the power to turn this interest into a career that he would enjoy?
He wasn’t convinced.
I am blessed to have multiple things in my life that I am passionate about. Traveling the world to find Mouth Harp makers has proved to be one that has been able to support itself, and I thank every person who has ever shared this with me and helped me to make it a reality.
Meanwhile, the best I could do here was to give my new friend Bhomaram an understanding that things like this could be possible, even in his own life, and hope that he can begin to tell himself that he’s going to find something that he loves to do, that his family would be understanding, and that things in his life are only going to get better and better.
Rekharam was waiting for me at his house, where his sons have been digging a great square pit over the last few days in front of their door to construct an underground water tank. Water often comes here several days apart, and this way their family can have enough for the times in between. They talk of cementing the inside walls of their little house, and tiling the floor – just like in a hotel room – and perhaps even eventually getting an air-conditioner.
Rekharam, just forty years old, looks well over fifty, and I can tell that life for him must be more difficult than each of the other Morchang makers. They all live very simple lives, but Rekharam’s house is the smallest, his clothes are the oldest, and he gets the fewest orders for new Morchangs. He is one of the many blacksmiths who sit under small shade cloths in the market waiting for tasks, and when it comes to Morchangs, he is the least experienced of the four makers here. I do find his instruments having a more rough appearance and needing more minor adjustments than anyone else’s, but once I hand them back and he returns them perfected, they have a warm, wholesome sound, and can be played with a solidity unlike that of any other Morchang.
I’m certainly glad that even though I couldn’t order from him this time in advance, I’m still able to support him today and buy as many as I can.
Every Mouth Harp, regardless of where it is from, who made it, or what pitch it is in, is of it’s own, entirely different. Even if it is made by the same master, tuned to the same key, and has practically the same sound, it will have a different character, a different feel in the mouth when played, even if ever so slight. Keeping Mouth Harps in my World Harps collection from different countries is evident, but it is likewise important to me to carry, if possible, Mouth Harps from different makers within each country; not simply to have different designs, but to showcase the different characters specific to the Mouth Harps from each maker.
The Rajasthani Morchang from these four different makers certainly have their own specific traits.
Rekharam’s Morchangs have warm, wholesome sounds, with a solid playability.
Gorkharam’s Morchangs have soft, responsive sounds, with a congenial timbre.
Khetaram’s Morchangs have clear, metallic sounds, with a puissant delivery.
Mohanlal’s Morchangs have sharp, professional sounds, with terrific overtones.
For this reason I am here: to pick out the best ones of all, among this comprehensive range of diversity!
May 9, 2012
I stayed up till past 4 am last night, writing, and then Mohanlal called me at 7:30 in the morning to come over to choose some Iron Morchangs, as he is also going out of town for the next few days. I wasn’t intending to buy any of these, as he asks for over twice the price of those made by the other makers, but I need to have them. I would like some for myself, first of all, and when professional Mouth Harpists come to me looking for quality instruments, I enjoy keeping a range of special harps for those who can really tell the difference.
So I hauled myself out of bed and into the earliest, coolest shower I’ve had since I got here, (it’s as hot as if it’s coming straight out of a water heater in the middle of the afternoon) and I got myself to Mohanlal’s without further ado.
Checking each one this time with my digital tuner, looking out for ones that were perfectly on any key, I went through the whole plate, and I picked out thirty. Ten to keep here in my stock in India, and twenty for this summer in the states, – and I had to pay him with a check…my pack of cash is already almost completely gone!!
One more plate of chapatis and subji at Mohanlal’s house before warm goodbyes, and a trip to the ATM, then I headed up to Rekharam’s for a final testing session to finish choosing the ones I wanted from him. By the end of all this, I was dead beat, so right after picking up my third 20 liter bottle of cold water I went straight back to my room for a hot shower and a sweaty desert afternoon nap.
In the evening, back up to Gorkharam’s for my second session there with Viraram, where I set aside another several hundred harps to be coconut-oiled by his family in the morning. Tonight is my last night, after a marathon four days here, tomorrow I head back to Delhi and onwards to Nepal…once again for more Mouth Harps!!
May 10, 2012
I was writing again last night, and sorting, bundling and packing Morchangs until way late, so although I tried to wake up by eight, it didn’t happen. I got out after packing up my room, by eleven under a busting sun, and I trotted back over to the ATM for a refill. People here just aren’t aware of the rule that you wait outside an ATM while someone is busy, instead of inside along with him…and everyone else. What’s the point of the air conditioning, if you have eight people standing in the door frame?
I waited for my turn, -Outside, if you please- with both hands holding each side of the door frame to keep out cutters, until the place was actually empty; then with a clear explanation in hindi, I pushed the door closed on everybody’s noses so that I could do what I came to do, albeit with two dozen eyes on my back. By the time I pulled out three wads of cash in a row, I had quite a crowd outside. No one was being pushy or impatient, but I had hardly put my card away before I had three guys inside with me ready to go. I tried rationalizing with the ones next in line that they should continue to wait outside while the guy after me was at the machine, but I got straight up blown off: “You got your money, now move out!” and then the void behind me was instantly and completely filled.
Viraram had promised that he would allow me, with his guidance, to attempt to make my first Mouth Harp.
As you can imagine, it’s something that I have been dreaming of doing for an incredibly long time. I had planned to do it on Wednesday, but I was still testing Morchangs. I could have still done it yesterday, but by the time I got up and out, along with packing and the overpopulated ATM, I had just enough time to go through my order with Viraram and pack them all ready to take. Iron, Copper, Brass, nearly 300 Morchangs, and no time left at all. At the last, last minute, I settled accounts, picked up my Morchangs, said my goodbyes, and ran back to my room where I threw the last things together as fast as I could. To a rickshaw with my heavy, heavy backpack, to the station, and onto the train just minutes before it left. Another eighteen hours back to Delhi!!
May 11, 2012
In five days, I just bought Seven Hundred Mouth Harps!
And I just invested more money than I’ve ever spent at once in my life.
More than half of all the money that I made selling Mouth Harps over this entire season, Gone. Like that.
But it’s good. I’m going to the States this sumer to amp up the wholesale, and start getting more quality Mouth Harps into musical instrument shops across the country. With this I’m getting prepared.
I got onto the train, pulled my brand-new, custom-built, zinc-coated steel Mouth Harp trunk out of my great big backpack, and much to the amusement of a friendly Hindi-speaking family from Nagpur, proceeded to open up a wholesale packing shop. Stock for this summer in the States to come with me on the plane, stock for Goa, stock for a package to be shipped to the States for later, stock for a friend in London…everything in packs of five, in little plastic bags, nestled neatly in rows in each of the compartments in my trunk. It took me all evening, but I finished, with a backpack that weighs an absolute ton, and then I stretched out on my upper bunk, typing away.
Thanks to everyone who’s been reading me all the way through. I’ve got a great album of photos to upload once I get to a fast enough internet connection with time on my hands, that will illustrate much of what I have been describing in these last few days. Now I’m in Delhi, and tomorrow I’m off to Nepal for another round of Mouth Harps. This time, it’ll be Morchungas! Stay tuned!!