Monday, July 6, 2009

163. The Pygmy/Bushmen Nexus -- Part 3

What if I told you I had a time machine, enabling you to listen in on events from thousands of years in the past? Naturally, you’d smile and discreetly change the subject. “Humor me,” I’d insist, flashing a smile of my own. I’d then draw a small device out of my pocket to wave slowly and mysteriously before your eyes, like a magician’s wand. “But this is just an mp3 player,” you’d protest. “I don’t see any time machine.” I’d silently produce an inexpensive headset, plug it in to the device, press the “start” button, and hand it to you. You’d place it over your ears and listen. “Hmmm, what’s this?”

For anthropologist Colin Turnbull, it was the most joyful of all the joyous sounds to be heard at “the heart of Stanley’s Dark Continent”: “the sound of the voices of the forest people as they sing a lusty chorus of praise to this wonderful world of theirs – a world that gives them everything they want. This cascade of sound echoes among the giant trees until it seems to come at you from all sides in sheer beauty and truth and goodness, full of the joy of living” (1961:13). For noted folklorist and author Alan Lomax, it was “a music that might have come from the Garden of Eden,” the virtual embodiment of an egalitarian, gender-equal, pacifist Utopia, where “men and women, old and young, are linked in close interdependence by preference and not by force” (1976:38 – Cantometrics: An Approach to the Anthropology of Music). For ethnographer Michelle Kisliuk, it was "the ultimate example of a melding of social life and aesthetic life." For ethnomusicologist Simha Arom, “It was a shock . . . It made my spine tingle. How could these people play such complex music without a conductor? For me, that was as deep a musical experience as first hearing the music of Bartok. Right from the beginning, I sensed that this music existed in us all, like some Jungian archetype” (as quoted in “No Small Triumph,” in The Independent, Oct. 6, 2003 --

Some of the most original musicians of our time have been deeply inspired by the same extraordinary sounds. For Mickey Hart, drummer of the legendary rock band, The Grateful Dead, “these magnificent sounds . . . lit my imagination, suggested possibilities, and opened a strange new world to a kid growing up in the city. . . I was sort of listening to the roots of the roots. Deeper than the blues. What the blues was formed from” (From interview with Brian Handwerk, for National Geographic News, June 6, 2003.) Marie Daulne, founder of the innovative vocal group Zap Mama, expressed her feelings in simpler terms: “it was like an illumination, like a light” (from article on Zap Mama, in Wikipedia -- According to composer Marc-André Dalbavie, “this is currently one of the richest musics in existence. The complexity of the polyphony and polyrhythms is absolutely marvelous. It's very removed from our traditional Renaissance polyphony. Many composers have been attracted to this sort of layered rhythmic writing recently, I think because it is so incredibly rich, fresh and has inspired a lot of people . . .”

The great Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, best known for his score for the film 2001, was among the first classical musicians to recognize the importance of this music and be directly inspired by it. For Ligeti, “What we witness in this music is a wonderful combination of order and disorder, which in turn... produces a sense of order on a higher level” (from “No Small Triumph,” in The Independent, Oct. 6, 2003.)

"OK," you say, "I get it. There is definitely something very special about this music. But, sorry, I don't know what you mean about the 'time machine' part. How are these recordings a time machine?"

(to be continued . . . )

1 comment:

kraig grady said...

This polyphony is possible because of the very nature of their scales, and vice versa. Such things fall apart if sustained for very long in western tuning with if preordained system of consonance and dissonance. Hence the very meaning is changed.
The Bartok is an interesting example seeing the tour between Musikas and the Takac Quartet where the former played the source material found in the quartets. Often they would sometimes play the two as a cross fade on stage even. One becomes aware that there is very little in the quartets not grounded in the music he spend so much time and effort collecting.