Making Sound Waves

Neptune Chapotin plies a mouth harp like his mythical namesake wielded a trident and he’s determined that the unassuming instrument doesn’t get drowned out, says Ajachi Chakrabarti
NEPTUNE CHAPOTIN’s parents met, like so many others did in 1969, on a journey for self-discovery on a psychedelically painted bus from London to India. He got on at London, she at Paris, they fell in love in Turkey and got married in Varanasi. They made several trips to India, and in 1984, when Neptune was about to be born, his mother insisted that her third child would only be born in India. They flew to Goa for the birth, stayed for the season, and went back to California, where he would grow up and live, until 1999, when he and his mother bought a one-way ticket to India.
Growing up with counterculture parents — his mother insists she isn’t a hippie, calling it a label rather than a state of mind — Neptune and his two older sisters were home schooled and spent childhood summers at Camp Winnarainbow, a circus and performing arts camp run by Wavy Gravy, the 1960s icon who served as the official clown of the Grateful Dead. He learnt unicycling there, which he now teaches as a camp counsellor. He also teaches the mouth harp, the current passion of his life.
With a conspiratorial glint in his eye, Neptune, 28, digs into a bag and pulls out several keyhole shaped instruments with single metallic strips through them. He puts one of them to his mouth and strums the strip, producing a magical droning sound. The waiters and the people at the next table stop in their tracks to watch the crazy firang, who has interrupted their afternoon drinking with the soundtrack of bad Bollywood music. A waiter does a little jig, while the manager gives a beatific smile. “This one’s from Hungary, this is from Siberia, this is from Kyrgyzstan…” He shows his harps from all over the world, collected over his travels and performances. All of them sound different, a unique sound for each culture.

Harping on and on Neptune Chapotin performs
Photos: Artur Striker

The mouth harp, or Jew’s harp (“It has as much to do with Jews as it is a harp,” he says) is a part of traditional music all over the world. But did it evolve independently or travel? “Yes and no,” he says. “The question is: did it originate in one country and spread around the world, or is it such a simple concept that the same thing was invented around the world?” In India, the harp shows up in Assam as the gogona, where it is an integral part of Bihu, as well as in Rajasthan (morchang) and Tamil Nadu (morsing).
NEPTUNE’S OBSESSION with the instrument has led to a number of performances around the world, and journeys to find the makers. His collection sprouted a business called World Harps, which buys and sells harps from all over the world at the Saturday night market in Arpora, Goa. “I create my own market,” he says dramatically. “If someone is curious, I play it for them and teach them how to play in 30 seconds. The odds of someone wanting to take one home once they learn to play are high enough for me to continue selling.” He now wants to organise India’s first international mouth harp festival in Goa next year.
“My mother was very surprised when my two sisters went to university,” he says. “She couldn’t see the point of a degree and said we should choose what we want to do and do it.” Neptune never finished high school and decided he wanted to study art. He went to Kerala and studied temple mural painting for five years. “I don’t have any degree to my name. But I do more different things than I could have done with one. There’s always something to do,” he says, pulling out a leather mouth harp case he designed. “I’m always on the edge of running out of money. But I know that I have enough skill sets that if I’m not doing one thing, I can always do something else. Life will always move on.”
Ajachi Chakrabarti is a Correspondent with Tehelka.