Tuesday, August 18, 2009

188. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 7

I'd like to return to Michelle Kisliuk at this point, because it is now necessary to focus our attention on an aspect of her research that I've passed over too quickly. Toward the beginning of her essay, Performance and Modernity Among BaAka Pygmies, Kisliuk both acknowledges and questions "a seductive vision of pygmy song as an 'emblem' for utopian human potentials . . ." that she sees in much of the literature on pygmy music. What especially intrigues her in this respect, and what she is determined to test, is the notion that the way in which their music is organized might indeed, as her quotation from Simha Arom suggests, reflect the organization of pygmy society generally. Thus, "[p]art of what attracted me to study among pygmies was the very suggestion that the structure and performance style of their singing might be consistent with an overall egalitarian lifestyle" [my emphasis]. As I've already noted, this is an issue that becomes especially problematic for Kisliuk, who seems eager to establish "revisionist" credentials, yet time after time, in spite of herself, bears witness to events and behavior consistent with the "seductive vision" of pygmy music and culture she is trying so earnestly to resist.

I've already pointed to Kisliuk's almost grudging assertion, made in passing, that the BaAka are, in fact, egalitarian, despite her earlier skepticism in this regard. What interests me now is an even more significant, though also somewhat offhand, observation that takes things one step further:
Like other BaAka songs, the texture of interlocked voices and rhythms in "Dumana" might also be seen as a performed example of BaAka egalitarianism [my emphasis] -- or at least nonauthoritarianism -- wherein each voice and body acts in semiautonomous interrelationship with the others ("Performance and Modernity . . .," p. 35).
If such songs are indeed performances of egalitarianism, then one of the principal questions motivating her research, ("Part of what attracted me to study among pygmies was the very suggestion that the structure and performance style of their singing might be consistent with an overall egalitarian lifestyle") has been answered. But this matter, apparently so important at the outset of her investigation, no longer seems to interest her, and she does not pursue it.

Let's return, at this point, to the extremely interesting statement by Simha Arom quoted at the outset of both her book and her essay:
the beauty of the songs, the characteristic timbre of pygmy voices, at once rough and warm. . . . this music is collective and everyone participates; there is no apparent hierarchy in the distribution of parts; each person seems to enjoy complete liberty; the voices swell out in all directions; solo lines alternate in the same piece without any preset order, while overall the piece remains in strict precision! It is this which is perhaps the most striking thing about this music, if one had to sum it up in a few words: a simultaneous dialectic between rigor and freedom, between a musical framework and a margin within which individuals can maneuver. This moreover reflects perfectly the social organization of the pygmies -- if only mentioned in passing -- and it does so perhaps not by chance [my emphases] (as quoted in "Performance and Modernity," p. 25).
Permit me to dwell on the passages I've highlighted, which I find particularly telling. In each case we find terminology that can equally be applied to both music and culture. "The music is collective," i.e., it is an expression of a group consciousness, which appears also to be the case with BaAka culture generally, where important decisions are made collectively. "Everyone participates" requires a bit of clarification, because this is true only of certain songs but not all. Some songs (and dances) are for women only, some for men, some for young boys or girls, etc., but there are, indeed, many cases where everyone, male and female, young and old, participates. And in all cases, there are no social distinctions, so every woman is equally welcome to participate in any women's performance, etc. Similarly, during the hunt, and in many other socially important occasions, the men may perform one function, the women another, but everyone has a role to play, including the children.

"There is no apparent hierarchy in the distribution of parts." This is an extremely important aspect of P/B style that is often overlooked. Whereas much Bantu music is based on solo-chorus interaction ("call and response") with the soloist choosing the song, setting the tempo, improvising, and generally playing a leadership role, solo-chorus antiphony among pygmies is relatively rare (and probably the result of Bantu influence). Most pygmy music is built around the interlocking or interweaving of essentially equal parts, and anyone can choose to sing any part at will, entering or dropping out as he or she pleases. While much Bantu singing is accompanied (and often dominated) by drumming, a highly specialized skill mastered by a relatively small number of specialists, pygmy music is traditionally* accompanied by an especially intricate type of polyrhythmic handclapping, with everyone participating according to his or her degree of skill. Non-hierarchical organization, both vocal and percussive, is the aspect of pygmy music most consistent with the egalitarian nature of pygmy society generally.

"Each person seems to enjoy complete liberty." In other words, there do not appear to be explicit rules that anyone has to follow when participating in any song (though dancing is another matter). While there are certainly implicit rules, these are so ingrained from childhood that they don't have the psychological effect of rules, just as the rules of grammar are not felt as conscious restraints when we speak. And, as I've already mentioned, anyone may choose to join in or drop out of the singing at will. From what we've already learned about pygmy society (see especially the remarks by Hewlett in post 184), this atmosphere of complete individual autonomy is instilled in BaAka children from an early age: "Seldom does one hear a parent tell an infant not to touch this or that or not to do something" (Hewlett, op. cit.).

"a simultaneous dialectic between rigor and freedom, between a musical framework and a margin within which individuals can maneuver." While such a dialectic can be found in many types of music, P/B style music-making tends to be simultaneously more highly organized, in a more intricate manner, than just about any other traditional music anywhere in the world, yet, almost paradoxically, far less regimented, with an astonishing degree of individual autonomy. Combining intricately coordinated group interaction and synchronization with a remarkably fluid social context, within which anyone can improvise his or her own part at will, at any time, pygmy music does indeed appear to reflect a social situation characterized on the one hand by "sharing and cooperation" and on the other by individual "autonomy" (see also Hewlett, op. cit.). Little wonder Arom can conclude that such music "reflects perfectly the social organization of the pygmies."

But he seems a bit uncertain: ". . . and it does so perhaps not by chance."

Are such striking parallels indeed meaningful? Could they be coincidental?

To learn more, please stay tuned.

(to be continued . . . )

*Drumming is now often heard in pygmy performances, with instruments introduced from farmer groups with whom the pygmies interact, but the drum is not generally considered a native pygmy instrument.

No comments: