Tuesday, October 30, 2007

101. Music of the Great Tradition -- 3

The narrative I'm about to relate is admittedly speculative. However, it is rooted in a premise that, as far as I'm concerned, is rock solid. If you can accept the premise, which will sound fantastic to some, and totally unacceptable to others, but is in fact supported by an impressive body of evidence as well as considerable expert opinion, then all the even more astonishing things that follow will make much more sense than one might otherwise think.

The essentials of my premise have already been discussed at some length on this blog, but I'll go over them briefly now. In Central Africa we have various groups of so-called Pygmies, for example the Mbuti, in the Ituri Forest of the Republic of Congo and the Aka, living in another tropical forest far to the west, in the Central African Republic. In southern Africa, we have various groups of so-called Bushmen, for example the Ju'hoansi, now living in and around the border between Namibia and Botswana.

According to widely accepted (though nevertheless controversial) genetic evidence, all three groups represent some of the most ancient lineages that have yet been identified anywhere in the world. The genetic evidence strongly suggests that the ancestors of both the Pygmies and the Bushmen were once part of a founder band that lived anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Estimates vary, but the two groups are thought by some to have diverged at least 76,000 to over 100,000 years ago. Others have posited a somewhat more recent divergence time, but nevertheless at least tens of thousands of years BP (before the present time).

Despite the fact that the Bushmen and Pygmies are believed to have had no contact with one another for all that time, their very distinctive and intricate musical traditions are remarkably close in a great many ways, as many musicologists have noted. I've already posted several links to their music, but for the benefit of those who may be new to all this, here once again is an example of Aka Pygmy vocalizing: Divining Song. For comparison here is an example from the Ju'hoansi Bushmen: The Eland. Here is another Ju'hoansi example, from the village of Dobe. Compare with this, from the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest: Elephant Hunting Song.

In several previous posts (especially posts 5-7 and 79-80), I've gone over many of the arguments and evidence that have led me to conclude with a high degree of confidence that the two traditions must stem from a common cultural root, dating from some time prior to their mutual divergence, tens of thousands of years ago. None of this will be new to the regulars reading here.

But for the great majority of ethnomusicologists and anthropologists such a conclusion is nothing less than heresy. (For an extended discussion of the ideological basis for such skepticism, see my posts on the Great Kalahari Debate.) Musical styles and traditions aren't supposed to last anywhere near that long. The general assumption has been that various factors, such as outside influence, creativity, information loss or stylistic "drift" over many generations, would inevitably lead to significant changes over such a long period of time. This is known to be the case with language.

Nevertheless, the musical evidence for the paleolithic origin of what I've called "Pygmy/Bushmen style," coupled with the genetic evidence, is truly overwhelming. Which might tell us something very important about musical traditions -- and culture history -- in general. Because, if the musical practice of the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa has endured essentially unchanged for tens of thousands of years, then there could be many other musical traditions in other parts of the world that also go back much farther than had previously been supposed. And if we go back far enough, then many of the varied stylistic roots might well converge, to stem from the same root as that of Pygmy/Bushmen style. It is this tradition, going so far back, possibly all the way to the "beginning," that I like to call: "The Great Tradition." I think I can hear it. But I'll let you judge for yourself.

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