Monday, July 30, 2007

74. Finally -- Part Four

Like the "purloined letter" of Poe's edifying detective story, the musical evidence has been sitting in full view all along, so readily available as to be effectively invisible. While music is not really a "universal language" as once claimed, many different kinds of music are enthusiastically appreciated and even cultivated in our society, to the point that recordings of some of the most esoteric musical practices from the most remote corners of the world have been widely available for many years. In the words of Alan Lomax,

So far as we know, every branch of the human species has its songs. Indeed, singing is a universal human trait found in all known cultures as a specialized and easily identifiable kind of vocal behavior. During this century, especially in the past twenty years, recordings of song have been made in every quarter of the globe in all sorts of cultural settings. Probably singing is the only human behavior which has been documented so generally and in a form so adaptable for laboratory research. A recording can be played again and again for judges, and their observations can be compared to those obtained from repeated auditions of other recordings. Thus a modern library of musical tapes provides ideal material for a comparative study of social communication (from "The Stylistic Method," in Lomax et al., Folk Song Style and Culture, AAAS #88, 1968, p. 3).

Because of its unique properties and extraordinarily important social role, as Lomax observes, music has been widely documented in a manner that is special, totally unlike any other type of cultural behavior. His Cantometric method was designed to take advantage of this cultural treasure trove. But you needn't be a Cantometrics expert to listen and judge for yourself regarding any sort of claim anyone might want to make with respect to this very special sort of evidence. Indeed, Cantometrics was designed to reflect the sort of judgements untrained listeners make when listening to music, regarding things like the social interaction of the performers, the roles they play, how smoothly and precisely they blend, how fast the music is going, how repetitive it is, the degree of loudness, ornamentation, vocal tension, rasp, accent, etc. Such judgements are usually made unconsciously, but they can readily be brought into consciousness and put to use when comparing different performers, compositions, styles, genres, etc., something most music lovers often find themselves doing when discussing their favorites with friends.

Naturally, there is a difference between comparing styles with which one is familiar and evaluating recordings of music from other cultures, with traditions very different from ones own. I've devoted an entire post (no. 27) to this problem, and as I wrote "A lot would depend on ones familiarity with all the other major traditions of world music, as a basis for comparison." Nevertheless, as I also wrote, "with the aid of my comments I do hope it's possible for most here to listen with enough sympathy and understanding to follow the gist of my argument."

While there is no substitute for the sort of systematic comparative study afforded by a methodology such as Cantometrics, the characteristics of Pygmy and Bushmen music are so distinctive and striking that even the most inexperienced and untrained listener ought to be able to recognize what is essential -- and appreciate why so many have found, to quote Charlotte Frisbie, "overwhelming similarities" between the two. Here are some of the most important things to listen for, as I described them back in post 7:

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.

And now, finally, so you can judge for yourself, I'll provide examples, some of which you've already heard, though others will be new. By the way, try to ignore the drumming you'll hear from time to time, because drums are not indigenous to either Pygmy or Bushmen music, but introduced through the influence of neighboring Bantu peoples. Let's begin with an Aka Pygmy Divining Song, as recorded in the Central African Republic by Simha Arom. The opening gives you a good opportunity to hear the characteristically open throated, relaxed and fluid sound of a typical Pygmy voice. Note the unusually wide melodic intervals between each note and the next, produced largely through alternation between mid-range "chest" tones and high, hooted "head tones," so characteristic of Pygmy yodelling. Listen carefully as a second voice enters, interlocking quite elegantly with the first.

For comparison sake, the next example is from the Ju'hoansi Bushmen, (also known as !Kung), living near the border between Namibia and Botswana, as recorded by Emannuelle Olivier: The Eland. This time the voices are female, but the basic effect sounds, to me at least, remarkably similar, with wide intervals, prominent use of yodel, open-throated, fluid voices and equally elegant interlocking "counterpoint."

For the benefit of the trained musicians among you, I'll mention that, according to Olivier, Bushmen music is not conceived polyphonically, but as a set of simultaneously sung variants of a fundamental "master" melody, realized in different "tessituras." In other words, Bushmen music appears to be based on a highly idiosyncratic mix of polyphony and heterophony -- as will be borne out in most cases by careful listening. This is an observation of great significance, as I see it, because, according to both Michelle Kisliuk and Susanne Furniss, Pygmy polyphony is similarly based on "master" melodies, organized in an almost identical manner as in Bushmen music. And, as is apparent from many transcriptions, by Kisliuk, Furniss and others, as well as careful listening, Pygmy "counterpoint" tends also to be a very similar mix of polyphony and heterophony, with many parts closely based on the "master" melody, in a manner remarkably similar, it would seem, to what happens in Bushmen music. Strangely, both Olivier and her associate Furniss, have come to a very different conclusion, an issue I've already mentioned here and that I am planning to address in an upcoming essay.

Now for some more examples. Here is an Elephant Hunting Song, by Mbuti Pygmies, living hundreds of miles away from the Aka, in the Republic of Congo, recorded by anthropologist Colin Turnbull. Next, from another Ju'hoansi Bushmen group, living some distance from the first, in the village of Dobe, in northern Botswana: //Kaa (from the CD Mongongo, recorded by John Brearly). Hocketing is particularly apparent here, with each singer contributing only one or two notes to produce an intricately interlocked resultant. Here's yet another Bushmen group, the Qwii, also from Botswana, but considerably farther south: Mantshwe. Compare with this, from yet another Pygmy group, the BaBenzele, Song After Returning from a Hunt -- note the hocketing between voice and two one-note pipes at the beginning.

I plan to wind up our discussion of the Kalahari Debate in the next post, discussing the significance of the musical evidence generally, which as I see it, and as in the very similar case of the Mikea, is decisive.


Anonymous said...

Long ago I had an Archive Folk Music recording set (I think there were something like four LPs, yes, records on black vinyl with a little hole in the center). It had authentic in situe recordings of Pygmy yodeling. I was charmed and hypnotized. I treasured those recordings. I have no idea whether such systematic delvings and recordings into ethnomusicological verities is still going on now. I haven't seen evidence. Those recordings all burned up in the 1991 Berkeley/Oakland hills "firestorm" along with all my classical music, my strange and bizarre musical ventures and all my global folk music. Where can I find all this today? Listening to your examples of pygmy yodeling brought back transcendent joy for me. Thank you! Tobie Shapiro

DocG said...

Thanks for posting here, Tobie. I'm so sorry you lost so many precious things in that fire. Yes, Pygmy (and Bushmen) music is both charming and hypnotic, and by now widely appreciated, at least among a select number of music lovers "in the know" -- including some of the most interesting pop, rock and also classical, musicians, such as Mickey Hart, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Gyorgy Ligeti, etc.

You can still find wonderful recordings of this music if you look hard enough. One of the most exciting collections is the 2 CD anthology of Aka Pygmy music, put together by Simha Arom, which you can find here, at

More excellent recordings of Pygmy music can also be found at Amazon. Here's a list of several, including the pioneering recordings of Colin Turnbull:!301668%2Ck%3Apygmy%20music&page=1

One of the best recordings of Bushmen music was made in Namibia by Emmanuelle Olivier -- also available at Amazon:

Hope the above info is helpful.