Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

Cheeks, reed—and the sounds of space

Yakutia celebrates Khomus Day on 30 November

30 november 2022

The only Khomus Museum in the world was opened on 30 November 1990 in Yakutsk. The republic celebrated the first Khomus Day on 30 November 2011. Three years later, thanks to the support of the international khomus society, the event was recognised worldwide and has been celebrated annually ever since.

The instrument, which in Yakutia is called a khomus, mostly known as a Jew's harp, emerged more than 5,000 years ago and has since spread across the globe. Almost all peoples of the Earth have mastered playing this wonderful instrument and have given it their own names. Russians call it vargan, Chukchi—vanni yaar, Evens—kunkon, Khanty—tumra, Nenets—vyvko, Vietnamese—dan moi and Chinese—chang. The most ancient specimen, dating back to the 3rd to 1st century B.C., was found at the site of the extinct Xiongnu people.

The secret of its popularity is simple: despite its very compact size, khomus enables one to produce fascinating sounds imitating sounds of nature.

Vargans of different peoples differ in shape, size, material and, as a result, in sound. Thus, Evenki, Evens, Kets, Selkups, Yakuts, Chukchi and Itelmens have plated vargans in the form of an elongated plate with a carved reed in it. But Inuit, Yukaghirs, Nganasans, Enets and Nenets use arc-shaped vargan, consisting of an arc-shaped frame with two decks and a reed with a hook.

Though vargans are popular in many countries, Yakutia has become the centre of khomus culture. After all, it has preserved its special meaning and has become a symbol of national culture of the Sakha people till nowadays. There are more khomus performers in Yakutia than anywhere else in the world, and local masters have carried the secrets of khomus making through the centuries and multiplied them into true works of art.

In ancient times, khomuses in Yakutia were carved from wood or bone to give them the shape of a tree shattered by lightning. Such trees were considered sacred because they were purified by divine fire. When the wind swayed their trunks, they produced mysterious cosmic sounds and people tried to make an instrument that could repeat them. This is how the Yakut khomus was born.

Modern Yakut khomus are, in most cases, made of iron, and they resemble a horseshoe because they consist of a rim and two elongated sticks, the so-called 'cheeks.' From the middle of the rim, a steel reed begins that runs between the cheeks. Where the cheeks end, the reed curves to form a knee and a bent tip. It is this vibrating plate—and, of course, a person's breath—that creates the unusual sound.

Yakut khomus can have from one to four reeds. An instrument with one reed sounds on a single note. The more reeds, the richer the sound.

The sound of the khomus is in many ways similar to the throat singing of the peoples of the North. Music becomes especially captivating when the khomus player begins to weave speech into the sound. It is as if singing through a vargan, intensifying the sound.

To play the khomus one needs total concentration as one has to perceive music not only with the ears but with the whole body. When the frequency of air vibrations coincides with the vibrations of the body, one becomes fully at one with the khomus. Having merged with a vargan, the khomus player itself becomes a musical instrument for a while.


It was believed that at that moment, a man can see into the 'upper world,' and so the khomus has long been an attribute of shamans to help them enter a trance. Yakut shamans used khomus to exorcise evil spirits and to treat people. They decorated their khomus with sacred patterns, and the meanings of some of them are still unresolved. Khomus cases were often made in the form of a totemic animal, or they painted an image of a spirit that was to play the role of an instrument's guardian.

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