Sunday, June 24, 2007

39. Blow Ye Winds Ay-oooooo

When I first came across the essay on African music by Roger Blench (see previous post), I was delighted to learn how much his views corresponded with my own, as for example, in the following passage, from p. 3:

Obviously, no amount of archaeology or other types of
reconstruction are going to recover the music in Africa’s past. However, this is not really the point; the structures of African music in the present can teach us a great deal about the way cultural patterns become distributed over large areas. Indeed one intriguing aspect of broader categories of musical forms is their relative conservatism over extensive regions of the world.

Or this passage, from the following page, which deserves to be quoted at length:

Reconstructing African cultural history through the distribution of material culture or related practices such as musical forms is of course deeply unfashionable. Its real exponents were the German ethnologists of the Kulturkreislehre school . . . and their Swedish successors, notably Lagercrantz. Detailed and painstaking as much of this work was, it made little real impression on scholars from other disciplines, largely because of their lack of an interpretative framework. . . This paper proposes that this tradition is worth reinventing in the light of a much better grounding in the prehistory of Africa and in particular a more comprehensive framework of language distribution to which it can be affixed. It will assume that sometimes diffusion does occur and that this is not necessarily an affront to the dignity of a people who borrow an instrument from their neighbours. . . Polyphonic wind ensembles resemble an underlying pattern [that] surfaces in different forms across the continent but which is sufficiently specific musically to suppose that it is very ancient and is perhaps associated with the language phyla of Africa.

I was excited to learn that Blench, influenced by the work of the distinguished Africanist and musicologist, Klaus Wachsmann, had independently taken a comparative approach so similar in spirit to mine. (I was also pleased to see the remarkable photo of a horn and flute ensemble from Chad on p. 9 -- the one I appropriated from Blench's essay to place at the top of this blog. There's another great photo of a similar ensemble on the next page.) The list he provides of the "main musicological characteristics of such ensembles" is especially valuable, particularly what he has to say in sections d and f:

d) The tuning of such ensembles is almost invariably pentatonic or heptatonic. In most cases, instruments produce a single note. One instrument is assigned to each degree of the scale, even where
the instruments are capable of producing a wide variety of notes, for example, notch-flutes.

f) Each musical part is of approximately equal importance; canon or hocket-like structures are usual.

The observations that follow regarding social context seem also to be both relevant and useful, as is the map he provides on the following page, to which I drew attention in my previous post. I had no serious problems with any of his observations and interpretations until I came to the following passage:

San speakers also have polyphonic music but it is
essentially vocal. Structurally, it appears quite unlike
the wind polyphony recorded from elsewhere in
Africa, although it has been argued that it resembles
the vocal polyphony of the Pygmies. There are important structural differences between this type of two- and three-part polyphony and the multi-octave ensembles characterised here. Nonetheless, the link may be found in southwest Ethiopia. Omotic and Nilo-Saharan speakers in this area retain polyphonic styles reminiscent of the Pygmies as well as more complex styles and it seems likely enough that from this centre of diversity emerged the characteristic one-note-to-a-part wind polyphony.
Blench continues, drawing some very interesting historical inferences from the special qualities he finds in the polyphony of southwest Ethopia, ultimately proposing a diffusionist expansion of wind ensemble polphony from this area, based at least in part on his interpretation of certain linguistic evidence.

I agree that there is a difference between the polyphonic vocalizing of the San (i.e., Bushmen) and Pygmies on the one hand and the "one-note-to-a-part" hocketed polyphony of the wind ensembles. A leading authority on both Pygmy vocalizing and African instrumental polyphony, Simha Arom, is of essentially the same opinion. In fact, Arom has stated that he has never observed any form of hocketing among the Pygmy groups he's studied (personal correspondence). In addition, I find Blench's remarks regarding the possible importance of certain polyphonic traditions in southwest Ethiopia to be remarkably apt, as I too find these traditions significant.

Where I have problems with Blench, and also Arom, is in the way certain (admittedly very real) differences are interpreted, how we are to understand them, and how much weight they should be given when considering certain basic issues pertaining to historical and cultural relevance. There is, as we all know, a long history of "academic disputes" over all sorts of evidence, but I would prefer not to think in such terms here, especially since there is so much in the thinking of both Blench and Arom that appeals to me -- and with which I agree. There is even more along these lines to be dealt with, since two of Arom's former students, Susanne Furniss and Emmanuelle Olivier, have, after very careful studies of both the Aka Pygmies and Ju'hoansi Bushmen, concluded that the fundamental concepts underlying the music of these two groups are "radically opposite." Here again, despite my great respect for both of these very diligent and insightful researchers, I believe there to be an important difference of interpretation that needs to be resolved.

So! What I'd like to do in the following posts is delve more deeply into the relationship between Pygmy/Bushmen "hocketed interlock" and the structure of the wind ensembles discussed by Blench, with an eye to 1. explaining why I believe the latter to be a development from the former; 2. examining the possibilty that both practices may have developed in tandem; 3. offering a historical interpretation somewhat different from that of Blench, though it's by no means my intention to dismiss the very impressive insights behind his thinking, especially his views on the key role played by the southwest Ethiopian groups.

I'll need to wait a bit before fully airing my differences with Furniss and Olivier on this blog (though a refutation has already been published, in the current issue of The World of Music, as part of my reply to Jonathan Stock), since I am currently preparing a detailed paper on their extremely interesting and important, though ultimately misleading, research.

In any case, look for me back here soon, hopefully tomorrow, with some specific examples to listen to -- and ponder.

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