Friday, July 24, 2009

174. Music & Cultural Evolution

If the common ancestors of the Pygmies and the Bushmen are indeed, as the genetic evidence so strongly suggests, the common ancestors of all homo sapiens who have survived to the present day; and if we indeed, as I have been arguing so vociferously, have a very good idea of what their music sounded like (as surprising as such a claim might seem); then their musical style, which I've been calling P/B (for Pygmy/Bushmen), can, as with their genes, be considered in some sense ancestral to at least some -- if not all -- of the many different modes of music making we find in the world today. Which is a basic point of my essay, Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors. More recently, after careful analysis of specific examples of this "ancestral" style, I've become increasingly aware of just how special it is; that it can in some sense be regarded as a "comprehensive" style, meaning that it already contains within it features that could be regarded as prototypical for a great many other styles that we might want to call its "descendents." Especially interesting is the way in which certain practices normally considered completely different from one another are conflated in P/B (see previous post).

We might naturally assume that certain types of African music would come particularly close in style to the ancestral type and that, as far as I've been able to determine, does seem to be the case -- though certainly not in all cases. This is a topic I've already covered, at least to some extent, earlier in this blog; first where I presented a map indicating the name and location of various African groups that vocalize using interlock and, in some cases, also yodel, the two most distinctive features of P/B; and second, in the following post, where I focus on "hocket," a type of closely interlocked vocalizing (and instrumental performance as well) especially characteristic of Pygmy and Bushmen music, but also of great importance in many parts of Africa.

What is of special interest with regard to the status of the Pygmies and Bushmen in this respect, is the way in which almost all instances of P/B, or P/B related music, in Africa or, indeed, elsewhere, represent the style in a more or less "watered down" fashion. And this "stylistic dilution" can take two forms: musical and cultural. Musically what we often find are styles in which interweaving parts are present, but in a relatively simpler form, sometimes combined with the typically "Bantu" call and response; or instances in which typical P/B features, such as interlock, occur only sporadically, rather than continuously. While most P/B performances are additive, i.e., open-ended with respect to the number of independent voices that can join in, similar performances among non-P/B groups often involve a restricted, pre-determined number of parts. Among many so-called "Bantu" groups, P/B style hocket-interlock is characteristic of instrumental performances, such as drumming, xylophone or flute playing, etc. but not vocalizing. And in the vast majority of cases where we find P/B-style interlocked vocalizing, it is not accompanied by yodeling, as it would be among almost all Pygmy and Bushmen groups (with one especially interesting exception: the Bedzan).

Culturally, among non-Pygmy-Bushmen groups, what we find is a tendency to vocalize in this style (when done at all) only on certain occasions, in contrast to Pygmy or Bushmen practice where the style is a daily feature of ordinary life. In certain cases vocalizing in this manner is restricted to certain rituals only, or limited to the performance of professionals or semi-professionals or other specialists, whereas among the Pygmies and Bushmen everyone, including small children, can join in. Among the Dorze of Ethiopia, one of the few such groups that both interlock and yodel, in a manner strikingly similar to Pygmies or Bushmen, P/B is only one genre of many, restricted to certain work situations or festivals. Among certain farming groups in the Mandara Mountains of Cameroon, vocalizing of this type is associated with pipe ensembles that perform only at certain points in the growing cycle. Similarly, among the Wagogo of Tanzania, interlocking polyphony is restricted to certain times of year, also coordinated with the growing cycle. Finally, we must also note the influence of P/B on the simpler "call and response" style of so many "mainstream" Bantu peoples, where the leader's part can often interlock quite closely with that of the chorus, to the extent that, as with hocket, a phrase in one part is completed by the other.

Why is this? How does it come about that among certain groups a musical style remains essentially intact over tens of thousands of years, while among others it morphs into something very similar but nevertheless different, and maybe also becomes associated with certain cultural functions only, such as certain types of work song or certain types of ritual? And why is it that in other cases, it either gradually evolves or suddenly changes into something quite different, as for example, call and response rather than continual interweaving of parts? And why are certain call and response traditions, in Africa and elsewhere, restricted to unison, while others remain polyphonic? And why do we find in certain parts of the world, music that is radically different from either P/B or call and response or anything resembling (apparently) any form of African music?

(to be continued . . . )

No comments: