Sunday, April 27, 2008

152. Music of the Great Tradition -- 52. Mysteries of D/D

The uncanny resemblance between the "drone dissonance" style duets of (mountainous) East Flores and the mountains of southwest Bulgaria and other enclaves in various regions of the Balkans have puzzled many musicologists for some time. The noted scholar Jaap Kunst was among the first to point to these striking similarities, in a 1954 study of the music of this Indonesian island, suggesting that they might have been due to a migration from the Balkans to Southern China that supposedly took place around 800 BC. According to Philip Yampolsky, who recorded and edited the Music of Indonesia series from which I took the Flores clip,

For decades, ethnomusicologists have laughted at Kunst's theory, but that may be because they've had so few opportunities to hear recordings from East Flores. In fact Kunst did not exaggerate: the resemblance is extraordinary [p. 8]. . .

[Nevertheless,] his theory requires us to accept that Balkan music came to Flores (but nowhere in between) and remained the same, both in substance and in some detail, in both places, with no subsequent contact between the cultures, for the next 2000 or 2500 years. But this is simply not plausible: in the absence of a method of notation or an elaborate pedagogical system . . . for transmitting the tradition, no music could stand still -- with no new ideas or gradual changes, no influences from outside -- for even a few centuries, let alone millennia [p. 9].

Yampolsky's reaction is especially interesting in that the bulk of his skepticism is not directed at the "nowhere in between" aspect, which for me is the crux of the problem -- but for him merely a parenthetical issue. For him, the real question is how a particular tradition could survive in an oral tradition virtually unchanged for "millennia." As I see it, there are a great many examples of musical traditions remaining virtually unchanged, not only for millennia, but tens of thousands of years. Anyone following this Blog with any degree of care should have no problem with that idea, which for me has been established beyond doubt.

For me, therefore, the really difficult, if not impossible, issue, is: by what means two such highly distinctive traditions, so incredibly close in so many respects, could have either 1. been conceived independently or 2. managed to transmit themselves over such vast distances without any trace of any similar survivals anywhere in between.

To be thorough it's necessary to add that the Flores D/D tradition is echoed, with varying degrees of similarity, by other musical practices elsewhere in the general vicinity -- specifically certain islands in Melanesia, such as coastal Manus (the "enrilank" chant), Fiji, and others as well, though at the moment I can't recall exactly where. There are also certain other similarities one could point to, involving other types of polyphonic and unison group performance styles between Eastern Europe -- particularly Russia -- and certain groups in Indonesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, etc. We find in both areas a very interesting practice, where different elements of a choral performance will interleave their breathing to produce a continuous stream of sound. And we also find, in many instances, melodic and harmonic passages that could be heard almost interchangeably in either part of the world.

I don't see much possibility of an ancient migration from anywhere in Europe to anywhere in Oceania, though there are some theories I've heard of that I might want to explore. It's conceivable, I suppose, that at some point during the "Out of Africa" migration, circa 90,000 to 60,000 years ago, a population bottleneck of some sort could have led to the development of this D/D style, perhaps somewhere in India, followed by a split between at least two elements of this population, one eventually finding its way to the Balkans, the other to Indonesia and Oceania. But, again, it's very difficult to understand how no other traces of the same style could have been left anywhere in between.

So, we have a true conundrum on our hands. The good news is that, thanks to advances in the genetic research, it's now possible, at least in principle, to test any theory we might want to come up with. And the very specifity of this D/D style, its presence in only very limited populations in certain very specific parts of the world, would make it relatively easy to do. One would have to arrange for teams of DNA collectors to make their way to various places in both the Balkans and Indonesia and/or Melanesia to collect samples -- but only from people known to represent precisely the musical traditions we are concerned with, preferably the singers themselves. It would then be a relatively simple matter to compare various haplotypes and haplogroups from the Balkans groups with others from the Flores groups (or elsewhere from similar traditions in that part of the world). One would then compare these genetic comparisons with comparisons drawn from various groups in the world selected randomly, as a control. If the D/D singers have significantly more haplotypes or haplogroups in common than the control groups, it might be possible to take seriously the notion of a historical connection of some sort. If not, then I suppose it would be necessary to accept that such a remarkable similarity could be due to simple coincidence -- independent invention. What interests me most about this situation is the as yet untapped power of music for pointing to certain potentially significant historical connections.

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