Wednesday, August 5, 2009

180. Music and Cultural Evolution -- Part 7

There are important differences, both stylistic and cultural, between highly communal, relatively static, hunter-gatherer bands and more dynamic, individualized societies, such as the Bantu farmers, where a premium is placed on the mastery of specialized skills and creativity. Since literally all modern humans apparently lived as communal hunters and gatherers from roughly 150,000 to 10,000 years ago (closer to 3,000 years ago in Africa), the "principle of sociocultural inertia"* I asserted in my "Echoes" paper can serve as an effective guide through most of human history. However, this principle does, I must admit, break down when one is forced to explain the remarkable proliferation of highly specialized, sometimes virtuoso vocal and instrumental styles that appear to have arisen with the development of agriculture.

It would seem that the appearance of the specialist set in motion a new type of cultural dynamic that permitted and indeed encouraged developmental forms of cultural evolution that would have been fiercely opposed by the more tradition-oriented societies of the past, for whom the perpetuation of ancestral links was all important. A Darwinian component enters society at this juncture, since specialists are often forced to compete with one another in a process that can richly reward the most creative, innovative and skillful at the expense of those less "fit" to compete. While music has been characterized as evolutionarily irrelevant since it confers no adaptive advantage to the community as a whole (Steven Pinker notoriously dismissed it as "aural cheesecake"), musical creativity and skill can certainly play a role in the success or failure of individual musicians, among whom a process akin to "survival of the fittest" is clearly at work.

Thus, with the advent of the specialist a new kind of cultural (and musical) evolution is set in motion, very different from what had previously been the norm, in which a gifted individual may succeed at the expense of others through the assertion of unusual, yet socially desirable, skills. It is in this atmosphere that we find the extraordinary development of virtuoso drumming among highly gifted individuals among the Bantu. Polyrhythmic percussion effects of great complexity can be found among all Pygmy and Bushmen groups, but they have traditionally been limited to handclaps, and mastered by all members of the community. While some Pygmies have gained renown as drummers, their drumming traditions have been borrowed from neighboring farming groups.

The very interesting question of exactly how and why the drum appears in Africa and how it eventually becomes so important as to stand almost as an emblem for African music generally, remains a fascinating mystery. The earliest African drums were probably slit drums and since the slit drum is almost universally used for signalling as well as music, it may indeed have begun as a signalling tool. And may, in fact, have played a role in the development of language -- even today, African drums often "speak" as they are played, through imitation of speech tones and rhythms. It's not clear when or where membranophones (drums with skin heads) were introduced, but they are now pervasive throughout Africa and play an essential role in both dance and ritual, though the slit drum has certainly not disappeared. Since drums of either kind appear to be absent from the most fundamental musical traditions of both Pygmies and Bushmen, and they are now commonly found almost everywhere among Bantu farmers, we can only conclude that their development must have begun some time after the proto-Bantu and proto-Pygmy groups diverged (see the splits from the clades labeled L1c and L1c1 in the Phylogenetic Tree from the previous post). And since African drumming comes most spectacularly into its own in the hands of the great virtuoso master drummers, the drumming tradition can certainly be associated with the advent of the specialist, signalling one of the most significant revolutions in human history, the introduction of competition and innovation, two very impressive though also dangerous aspects of culture that trouble us to this very day.

*A tendency on the part of any human group to retain the most deeply ingrained and highly valued elements of its lifestyle until acted upon by some outside force.

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