Saturday, May 19, 2007

7. Some Examples

Here's a brief example of Ju'hoansi (!Kung) Bushmen music, in the form of an mp3 file (from the CD "Chants de Bushmen Ju'hoansi," recorded by Emannuelle Olivier): The Eland -- Girl's Initiation

For comparison, here is an example of the music of the Aka (Biaka) Pygmies of the Central African Republic (from the CD set "Musical Anthology of the Aka Pygmies," recorded by Simha Arom): Divining Music

There are several things to be said about these recordings, which are, by the way, only brief, digitally compressed excerpts (both CDs are available online, at and elsewhere). First of all, in both Bushmen and Pygmy traditions vocal music predominates, often with the accompaniment of handclaps only, as in the first example. While certain Pygmies have become excellent drummers, as is evident from the second example, drums are not considered a part of their native traditions, but were borrowed from neighboring Bantu peoples.

In both examples we can hear many of the striking points of similarity between the two traditions: the use of yodel; the interlocking of voices, to produce an intricate counterpoint; a frequent tendency for one part to be completed by another part, with the effect of a melody tossed back and forth between two or more voices, a practice similar to what, in Medieval Europe, was called "hocket" (or "hiccup"); the extraordinarily well matched and fluent blending of the voices; intricate, precisely executed, polyrhythms; the predominance of meaningless vocables, usually open vowels, such as "oh" or "ah"; highly repetitive, but also varied, melodic structures, based on short motives (but with an underlying melodic phrase as an implied, but often unheard basis); frequent wide melodic leaps; almost complete lack of embellishment; a continuous flow of interwoven sound with no pauses. Most of the above characteristics are part of the Cantometric coding system, by the way, a methodology I'll have more to say about in future posts.

Here are two more clips, from two other sources, first a !Kung Bushmen Giraffe Medicine Song, from Gilbert Rouget's LP, "Bushmen Music and Pygmy Music." Next, an Elephant Hunting Song from the Mbuti Pygmies, located in a completely different part of Africa from either the Bushmen or the Aka Pygmies -- the Ituri Forest, in the northeastern region of the Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), as recorded by the noted anthropologist Colin Turnbull (now available as "Music of the Ituri Pygmies").

The following example, from a completely different part of the world, but along the theoretical "Out of Africa" migration path, will give you a sense of what is at stake. Does this style of vocalization, from the Bosavi region of Papua New Guinea, a recording of a Men's Work Group, represent a survival of the same Pygmy/Bushmen tradition, an echo from 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, or are the striking resemblances simply a coincidence? (From the CD "Bosavi Rainforest Music of Papua New Guinea," recorded by Steven Feld.)

Here's another one to think about, a beautifully yodeled Women's Song from Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands (from the CD set "Voices of the World," recorded and edited by Gilles Leothaud, Bernard Lortat-Jacob and Hugo Zemp).


Murat said...

I read somewhere that both pygmies and the khoisan used to be spread out all over southern Africe before the Bantu expansion from west Africa. Isn't it possible that these similarities are a result of cultural contact a couple thousand years ago, not 76000 years ago?

Victor said...

Murat -- Your excellent, and very reasonable, question is especially appreciated, as it deals with an important basic issue that I've largely neglected, at least in this blog. I've been focusing almost exclusively on the musical evidence but, as your comment reminds me, have had relatively little to say here about the archaeological, ethnographic, linguistic and genetic evidence. (I have covered at least some of these issues elsewhere, by the way, in certain publications, but not so much in this blog.)

Your question is especially apt because all sorts of assumptions regarding the early history of Africa are now being challenged and debated -- based especially on the all-important genetic evidence, which is still very much a matter of controversy.

I don't have the time to present as thorough an argument as I'd like, but will try to explain, as best I can for now, why I feel that what I've called Pygmy/Bushmen style (P/B) most likely originated prior to the time the ancestors of the two groups originally diverged -- a time that's been estimated variously as from 90,000–150,000 (see Behar et al, "The Dawn of Human Matrilineal Diversity,") to from 77,600 to 102,000 years before present (see Chen et al, “Mitochondrial DNA Variation in the South African Kung and Khwe—and Their Genetic Relationships to Other African Populations") -- rather than as the result of more recent contact, as your question implies.

There are several reasons why I think the way I do and I'll summarize some of the most important here:

1. First of all, there is as far as I can tell no evidence that "both pygmies and the khoisan used to be spread out all over southern Africa before the Bantu expansion from west Africa." While both groups have often been described as the "original" indigenous inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Pygmies have usually been associated with the tropical forests of Central Africa and the Khoisan with southern Africa generally. Certain aspects of this neat picture have been challenged of late, but there does seem to be some very good evidence, archaeological, linguistic, genetic, reinforcing this view.

2. We really need to see this issue in terms of three, not two, groups, because there are really two geographically -- and genetically -- distinct Pygmy groups: the Western Pygmies (BiAka, Baka, BaBenzele, etc.) and the Eastern Pygmies (Mbuti). While all three groups have, time and again, been described in the genetic literature as representative of the most ancient homo sapiens lineages of Africa (and therefore the whole world), some very important genetic distinctions between them have been noted, distinctions which suggest that all three were separated a very long time ago -- and remained isolated from one another for a very long time.

3. For example, most Khoisan speakers are associated with mtDNA haplogroups L0d or L0k (e.g., Behar et al, "The Dawn of Human Matrilineal Diversity"). The Western Pygmies on the other hand are primarily associated with mtDNA haplogroup L1c (Batini, "The Ancient Peopling of Central Africa", p. 55). However, "It is worth noting that L1c is completely absent in Eastern Pygmies, suggesting a possible ancient separation between the two groups" (ibid.). The clear distinction between the three mtDNA lineages strongly suggests that all three groups have been isolated from one another since the upper Paleolithic at least. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the Y chromosome and autosomal evidence is not so clear and may reflect a different history for men and women among all three groups.

4. Even if we assume that a certain amount of more recent cultural contact might have taken place between certain Pygmy and Bushmen groups, possibly as a result of the Bantu expansion (3 or 4 thousand years ago), it's very difficult to accept that such contact could have resulted in the present distribution of P/B style, which is found at an equal degree of importance and intensity not only among many Bushmen groups but almost all Pygmy groups, both Eastern and Western.

5. We must also take into consideration the distribution in Africa among certain farming and/or herding groups of musical styles closely related to P/B, not only instances of vocal interlock/hocket but also hocketed wind ensembles. As far as I have been able to determine so far, we find such practices almost exclusively among people now living in widely scattered "refuge" areas, such a mountains, forests, high plateaus, etc., also suggesting the survival of a truly archaic tradition among highly conservative peoples throuout the continent. I have recently applied for funding to do a much more extensive survey of this phenomenon to determine whether or not the distribution I think I've found is in fact real.

All I have time for now. I do want to add, however, that the genetic picture is not by any means complete and that there is room for different interpretations of the data. Geneticists Sarah Tishkoff and Floyd Reed, with whom I've been collaborating, are in the process of analyzing their extensive database of African autosomal DNA evidence. I've been patiently waiting for their results for some time now. When their work is completed, it will most likely provide us with a much more extensive and reliable source of information on the history of all three groups and their relation to one another.

David Quin said...

I have no expertise in this field, but find fascinating the connections outlined here. I have a notion (developed from various readings) of the Australian Aborigines and other scattered peoples in Asia as being descended from early migrations from Africa, and thus linked to the Pygmies and Bushmen, so the musical linkings seem to bear this out uncannily.
I read somewhere that Basque may be related to a language in the mountains of Pakistan. I imagine a language from which both derive once being spread across the area between, its speakers then being swamped by peoples moving in, and moving up into the highlands, giving rise to two mountain 'islands' of the earlier language. Totally fanciful, no doubt! But such speculations can provoke research of the kind that finds evidence to support them, if only in part.
Now I'm wondering if there is some resemblance between Basque music and that of some mountain people in Pakistan!
Which reminds me: There's an Australian people whose men's society used clicks resembling those of the Bushmen. And then I wonder if 'clicks' that fell out of use in certain languages survive in some form in their speakers' music, or if they have influenced their music.
Excuse my meanderings!

DocG said...

David Quin: "I have no expertise in this field, but find fascinating the connections outlined here. I have a notion (developed from various readings) of the Australian Aborigines and other scattered peoples in Asia as being descended from early migrations from Africa, and thus linked to the Pygmies and Bushmen, so the musical linkings seem to bear this out uncannily."

Welcome David. I'm glad you've been reading here and finding it interesting and hope you'll continue to comment. As far as the distribution of Pygmy/Bushmen style is concerned, however, it's important not to jump to conclusions. The music of the Australian Aborigines is in fact very different from that of the African Pygmies and Bushmen.

Over tens of thousands of years, there has been a lot of history and a great many events that could have had a drastic effect on many aspects of culture, including music. There are, nevertheless, a great many pockets of indigenous musical style that DO closely resemble P/B style. Some can be found in places such as New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, etc. and in almost every instance these are groups living in refuge areas, which is usually where we find some of the most conservative cultures. Australia is another story, however. I've written about this in my paper, "Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors," which you can download and read if this interests you. See Articles Available for Download in the Table of Contents at the top of the blog.

As far as the Basque are concerned, some linguists have argued for a connection of their language with some of the languages of Georgia, in the Caucasus. But I don't know of any connection with any language in Pakistan. However, Basque music, for the most part, is very similar to the music of Spain, not Africa.

If European music interests you, I suggest taking a look at Post 118 (Jan. 5, 2008) and what follows.

The issues I've been raising in this blog are complex and the connections far from obvious. I'm glad to see that you're curious about all this and hope you will continue to read and post comments.