Monday, July 2, 2007

45. Speaking -- In, Of, and Out of, Africa

There are three directions I want to go from here, and I want to go in all three at once. Let's see if I'll be able to do that. :-\

First I want to continue the discussion of vocal and instrumental hocket by examining the meaning of this practice in the context of subsaharan African music generally. Second, I want to follow the (hypothetical) progress of this same tradition as it (hypothetically) made its way out of Africa, in the care of the original (hypothetical) "Out of Africa" migration band and its descendants. (Pardon the "hypothetical"s, but I do want to make it clear I'm exploring possibilities, not enforcing a doctrine.) Third, I want to explore the possible significance of this tradition for human culture; specifically, how the musical practices of our most ancient ancestors could have prepared the way for the development of language -- and possibly mathematics as well.

I'll take the first direction first, drawing upon an essay by noted Africanist Kwabena Nketia, "The Hocket Technique in African Music." Nketia observes that, despite the great variety of different types of instrument in Africa,
there appears to be a widespread tendency to use these instruments not in large heterogeneous ensembles, but in homogeneous ensembles, or in limited combinations in which one type of instrument predominates. There are, for example, ensembles of drums or xylophones, ensembles of flutes or trumpets, or ensembles in which these are combined with 'secondary' instruments-usually of a percussive nature. (Journal of the International Folk Music Council, Vol. 14. (1962), p. 44)

I find his comments on the homogeneity of these ensembles particularly interesting. And I wonder whether the tendency toward homogeneity could have something to do with a development from polyphonic vocal models.

He continues a bit later:

A limited number of contrapuntal techniques are employed, some of which are directed mainly to the organization of rhythm. The use of polyrhythm and polymetre in drumming has been stressed by many observers. Another technique is the use of the ostinato: a simple rhythmic figure is repeated over and over again in support of changing instrumental parts, or of the voice.

Closely allied to these procedures is the hocket-technique-the
technique whereby the constituent notes of a tune, a rhythm or a tone-pattern, or the constituent notes of a supporting ground-accompaniment, are played at the exactly appropriate point
in time by those particular instruments that include them within their compass, or by those particular instruments that provide the required contrasts. (Ibid., p. 44.)

He continues with descriptions of the workings of hocket in specific flute and trumpet ensembles in Ghana and concludes with a brief, but significant, reference to hocket as the basis for both drum and xylophone ensembles in Africa generally. The following passage begins with a quotation from Gerhard Kubik, on Kiganda xylophone music:

"The essential thing about the combination of both parts is that they have to fall between themselves to interlock like the fingers of a folded hand."' This appears to be nothing more than a controlled procedure based on the general principle of the
hocket, but which can be greatly obscured by the speed at
which the xylophones are played (Ibid., p. 51).

If Nketia is correct, then the hocket principle must be understood as fundamental for a great many musical traditions throughout Africa. And if we can agree that the type of vocal hocket found today among the Pygmies and Bushmen can be regarded as a survival from the period when both groups were part of the same ancestral population, then it's not difficult to see -- with the aid of the maps I've been presenting -- how this style could be considered prototypical for many of the musical practices now found throughout subsaharan Africa, especially those associated with what has been called the "Bantu expansion."

In this regard I would like to reference a recently published paper on African genetics, entitled "Phylogeography of the human mitochondrial L1c haplogroup: Genetic signatures of the prehistory of Central Africa," by Chiara Batini et al. But I'll leave discussion of this mouthful to a future post.

Now, briefly, a word on my second direction. As is argued at some length in my essay, it looks very much like the original "Out of Africa" migrants were not only singing, but also playing, in what I've been calling "Pygmy/Bushmen" style. In other words, there is good reason to believe that both the vocal and the instrumental hocketing, interlocking tradition I've been discussing in the last several posts was a part of humankind's first migration into Asia, the Pacific, and also, as astonishing as that may seem, both the Americas and Europe. I plan, in future posts, to provide some examples of the survival of the same sort of hocketed wind ensembles, as described by Blench and Nketia, in all these regions.

Finally, I want to look into the very intriguing possibility that the emergence of style families A1 and A2, along with their instrumental counterparts, could have laid the foundations of both speech and possibly mathematics as well. For now, I'll give you a hint in the form of a puzzler: what was the earliest music notation, and what did the notes look like?

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