Monday, September 10, 2007

88. Are Indigenous Cultures Frozen in Time?--Part 2

So, to answer the question as succinctly as possible: no, indigenous cultures are not frozen in time -- at least not any more than "our own." Which means that, in order to protect such cultures, we need not attempt to freeze them in time, because being frozen has nothing to do with what makes them what they are. Notice that I wrote "protect" rather than "preserve."

On the other hand: yes, the music of these cultures is in fact bounded by certain constraints, stylistic and other, that must be respected -- just as the need for strophic forms, regular meters, diatonic melodies, standard chords, rhythm sections, etc., etc., etc. in "our" popular music must be respected. I've tried on several occasions, by the way, to convince students and other young musicians of my acquaintance that they don't really need to have the drums or the bass go on continuously (as in "continuo"); that they can from time to time let one or both drop out; that they don't need to have either guitars or electric basses in their band at all; that they can really just do whatever they like, as long as they find a way to do it in an interesting and convincing manner -- and they look at me as though I'm from Mars, or worse, that I'm trying to convince them to do something "far out," the sort of thing that would mean losing their audience (what audience?) and wrecking their chances for "rock stardom" (right, lots of luck guys). All I'm doing is trying to help you be creative and original, folks. Isn't that what it's all about? Give me a break! (Oops, I forgot: it's really all about being "free," fighting "conformity," bucking "the system," dissing "the man," protesting whatever, and promoting "The Revolution.")

Sorry if I managed to get just a bit carried away, folks. To get back on task: yes, indigenous cultures and their music can be complex, creative and innovative -- within certain boundaries -- just as with us "moderns." Back in the early 20th Century, the Balinese gamelan tradition was shaken by a "completely new" style of performance called "Kebyar," in which the stately pace of the traditional court ensembles was replaced by rapid tempi, stunning virtuosity and a whole "new" sound. If you've ever heard the remarkable composition "Golden Rain," you'll know what I mean. Traditionalists complained, but Kebyar eventually took its place as part of that tradition, to the point that many fans of Balinese music consider it typical of the tradition as a whole. It isn't, but who cares? Its authenticity is based on a continuity with the older tradition that has remained unbroken, despite all the innovations.

I've made a special example of Pygmy and Bushmen style as the survival of a musical tradition that might well be as old as humankind itself. Yet, according to Michelle Kisliuk (in her book Seize the Dance), who spend a considerable amount of time living among and learning from the Aka Pygmies, new music, new dances and new types of music and dance are continually being created among them. She tells the story of how she wanted to learn one such dance and had to track down its originator in a neighboring village -- and pay a fee -- in order to receive the proper instruction. Aka music and dance are by no means ossified, "frozen in time" or in some sort of rut. All aspects of their culture fit into the norms of their tradition, just as ours do. Within those norms, they are just as creative and innovative (probably moreso, actually) as any other indigenous -- or non-indigenous -- people.

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