Monday, July 27, 2009

176. Music & Cultural Evolution -- part 3

I've been thinking lately of two very different books, both by the same remarkable author, Colin Turnbull. In his now classic study of the Mbuti Pygmies, The Forest People, Turnbull has a lot to say about the music of the people he's studying, in fact he can hardly contain his enthusiasm. However, in a lesser known book, The Mountain People, he has hardly anything to say about music at all.

For Turnbull, the music of the Mbuti cannot be separated from their life in the forest and their culture generally, and indeed there is much in P/B that reflects their lifestyle to a remarkable degree. Music among the Mbuti is an expression of a society at once highly communal, yet at the same time remarkably free of regimentation in any form; highly organized, yet without formally determined leaders; an egalitarian society in which everyone is expected to share equally with everyone else, with no expectation of reciprocity; where women have an equal say to men; and warfare is all but unheard of. The most fundamental values of this society are mirrored in a musical style based on the tightly knit interweaving of equal parts, usually combining both male and female voices, each improvising in his or her own way, freely entering or dropping out at will. Everyone is expected to contribute his or her own unique part, in such a way as to produce a perfectly blended resultant of maximal harmoniousness and resonance.

The picture painted in The Mountain People is radically different. When Turnbull encountered them, the so-called Ik (an alias -- their actual tribal name is not provided) had been displaced from their traditional lands to make room for a nature preserve, victims of "fatuous rules that were designed to preserve animals while humans, in consequence, starved and died" (p. 93). As a result, theirs was a society radically altered from what it had been only shortly before. Turnbull has been criticized, in fact, for presenting a distorted picture of a people whose traditional culture had been very different from the picture he presented in his book. But it wasn't Turnbull's style to dig too deeply into the past. He was more interested in assessing what was going on around him in real time, and how things were changing, which they certainly were.

Ik society was, at that time, undergoing severe stress, and the stress had very definite and very dire effects on a people who had become increasingly desperate with hunger and other forms of deprivation, to the point that their cultural values were disappearing into a mode of existence based, as one might expect, on the philosophy of "every man for himself" aka "dog eat dog." Turnbull very honestly makes no secret of his disgust when confronted with many acts of cruelty and neglect, while at the same time expressing his sympathy for people with no other viable options.

While the Ik may be seen as victims of a characteristically modern, "post-colonial" situation, the radical changes recorded by Turnbull can give us an insight into what could have happened at certain times in the past, when a particular population is suddenly placed under tremendous stress to the point that the most basic cultural norms begin to break down. Of special significance for us is the relative scarcity of musical references in the book. Whenever singing is mentioned, it's almost always solo singing, not surprising in an atmosphere where social cohesion is breaking down and "every man for himself" has become the norm. The only group singing noted by Turnbull among the Ik is the singing of Christian hymns, and that takes place only when a group is expecting a consignment of food from some missionaries (who never show up). He has nothing to say about what their music might have been like in the past, but if the Ik were a typical African tribe, we can be almost 100% sure that group singing would have been common. In the context described in the book, however, occasions for group singing, either for pleasure or for traditional ritual purposes, no longer exist.

Is there anything we can learn from the above contrast, between a (then) thriving band of forest Pygmies, for whom singing is an everday expression of joy and solidarity and the starving remnant of a once viable group of hunter-gatherers turned farmers, who hardly ever sing at all? I think there is, because the sort of radical, sudden and disastrous change we see among the Mountain People might well give us some insights into at least one way in which culture may have changed in the past -- though "evolution" might not be exactly the right word for it.

(to be continued . . . )

I may not have time to be posting much if at all in the next week or so, but I'll be back soon, I promise . . .


Maju said...

This seems a particularly insightful post. Very interesting to read how collective song vanishes when the community disintegrates (sadly enough).

Anonymous said...

You are the most narcissistic pseudo-scientist ever.

Anonymous said...

This seems a particularly insightful post. Very interesting to read how collective song vanishes when the community disintegrates (sadly enough).

Insightful? Can you think of a more obvious truism than "communities stop functioning when they die?"

Maju said...

(IMO people posting criticisms as anonymous are cowards - anyhow).

Maybe it's obvious to you but is it so obvious that some communities appear to have stayed alive for maybe 200 or 150,000 years in spite of all?

The question for me is whether this loss of cohesion is really because of a catastrophe like Toba, as Victor claims or some other process.

And also, if the P/B tyle is so innate why was it not recovered spontaneously when communities gained their cohesion again. Obviously pople were not scattered and scared forever: soon they regrouped and looked forward again. And the resulting social organization should have been more or less the same as with P/B peoples.

But instead of singing P/B, they started playing the dijiridoo, it seems. Why? What does it imply of the new social organization?

DocG said...

"You are the most narcissistic pseudo-scientist ever."

Undoubtedly. So -- what do YOU make of all this, Mr. Anonymous?

DocG said...

Maju, I don't see P/B as innate. As I see it, once such a tradition is lost, it is lost forever. Of course, the Ik represent an extreme case, and it's not difficult to imagine such a disaster leading to a culture dying out completely. But what if it doesn't die out? What if there are survivors who manage to begin anew at some point, what will they be teaching their children? What aspects of their old culture are likely to survive, what are likely to be lost and what new elements are likely to be introduced?

Maju said...

Maju, I don't see P/B as innate.

This clarifies my misconception. I thought you argued in some of your early posts that the P/B style was somehow innate to Humankind and related to apes' "musical" expression. But probably I missed some important details.