Sunday, March 30, 2008

140. Music of the Great Tradition -- 40:Hocket

In his essay on African hocket, Nketia goes out of his way to make the sort of point that, for almost all the musicologists of his day, both "ethno" and "historical," amounted to a creed: thou shalt not equate musical traditions from different places (or times) simply because they happen to sound (or look) alike. Thus, Nketia feels compelled to write that he has "been guided merely by a resemblance between this procedure in African music and a practice in Medieval European music to which the term originally referred. It is not implied that there is any direct historical connection between them" (ibid., p. 51). He then continues (see last post), giving several reasons why African and Medieval hocket must be regarded as fundamentally separate and distinct, with little to no possible historical connection.

The basic injunction is sound. One must certainly avoid making too much of what might well be superficial similarities. But the methodology necessary for critically examining such similarities to determine whether they are, indeed, superficial -- or not -- has for a great many years been actively discouraged. I'm talking, of course, about comparative musicology (not to mention Cantometrics). Nketia was already going way out on a limb, even in 1962, in claiming that essentially the same procedure could be "commonly found in African musical practice" generally. To go on to even consider the possibility that African and Medieval European hocket could have common roots would have been entirely too much.

As far as Ethnomusicology is concerned, the situation has only worsened over the years, to the point that all but the most narrowly focused comparative research is rarely seen anymore. However, the situation with respect to the rest of the world has changed. Dramatically! Thanks largely to important breakthroughs in anthropological genetics, all sorts of possibilities for considering and reconsidering various similarities and patterns -- of social structure, archaeology, culture, language, etc. -- have arisen and are being enthusiastically explored. Only musicology is lagging behind, saddled with dogmas that have become hopelessly outdated and clearly irrelevant.


Stirling Laszlo the 1st said...

Comparison is just one tool of analysis. I think it's quite valid to compare culturally distinct genres as much for the purposes of finding differences, because then you might have some deeper reasons for looking beyond the music into the culture. And of course, who knows, there might be such a thing as parallel evolution to account for any similarities if indeed there are some (and for sure there will be....)

DocG said...

Yes, of course, direct comparison is only one tool, which must be combined with others if our research is to be convincing. And yes, there is such a thing as parallel evolution, and even a technical term for it: "convergent evolution."

When assessing musical (or other) similarities, one must always take the possibility of convergent evolution into account, and there are many factors that must be weighed while doing that -- not only direct comparison, but equally important, research into, and evaluation of, context. But this is where so many ethnomusicologists (and anthropologists also) go wrong, because context is not only a matter of how any given practice relates to its immediate cultural situation, but also where it is situated in terms of a host of much broader geographical and historical considerations.

Since Subsaharan Africa and Western Europe are so geographically remote, and since there was, at the time Nketia formulated his evaluation, no known or even inferred historical link between contemporary Africa and Medieval Europe, his rejection of any possible connection appears sound.

In the light of recent developments in the fields of both archaeology and genetics, however, a whole new set of never before considered possibilities has emerged, and this provides us with a whole new context that must be taken into account.

What is important in any case, is not to jump to conclusions about what actually happened, but the formulation of meaningful hypotheses that can be tested.