Monday, August 24, 2009

192. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 11

“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

So, finally. On the basis of all the genetic and cultural evidence covered since post 163, plus all the musical evidence I've already covered, throughout this blog and in various publications, it would seem reasonable to conclude that both a musical style and a nexus of sociocultural attributes strongly associated with that style can be traced, as astonishing as that may seem, to the common ancestors, not only of the pygmies and bushmen, but the entire human race -- at a time prior to that of the split we see in the following phylogenetic map, between the two earliest branches of the homo sapiens mtDNA tree, Lo and L1:

And the most compelling version, for me personally, of the "overwhelming question" I've been returning to so tediously can be stated thus: is this actually possible -- can we actually know something that specific, not only about the music, but also the culture of our earliest ancestors?

My answer: I don't really know, but I believe that I have clearly formulated a reasonably convincing hypothesis that can -- and should -- be more fully explored and, of course, subject to rigorous testing.

With this in mind, I think it important to deal as soon as possible with two very different interpretations of the evidence, one musical and the other cultural, since both come from authoritative sources and either one, if taken at face value, might well cause many to reject my hypothesis out of hand.

I've already referred on this blog to an interpretation by two leading authorities, on pygmy and bushmen music respectively, Susanne Fürniss and Emmanuelle Olivier, which has unfortunately been widely quoted: “although many musical and extramusical features converge and though the acoustic results are very close, the conception that the Ju|’hoansi [a bushmen group] have of their music is radically opposite to the Aka’s [a pygmy group].” In other words, the strong similarities that so many have found between the music of certain pygmy and bushmen groups are, in their view, some sort of illusion based on a misunderstanding of the "basic concepts" behind two completely different traditions.

The gist of their thinking is that Aka pygmy music is basically polyphonic while that of the Ju|’hoansi bushmen is basically melodic. As far as I've been able to determine, however, they never actually present an argument in support of this theory, which is simply stated as a fact; nor do they ever, anywhere in the course of their treatment of the subject, present the comparative musical analysis promised at the outset of their essay. The distinction they raise is based on a genuine insight, but one that is, in my view, misapplied -- because, as can easily be demonstrated through the analysis of specific examples, both polyphonic and linear characteristics are conflated, and in very similar ways, in the music of both groups.

I cannot, of course, formulate a fully adequate response in a necessarily brief blog post. But I can refer you to my upcoming paper, written, at least in part, as a response to the challenge posed by their ideas, and scheduled for publication in the forthcoming issue of the journal, Ethnomusicology: "Concept, Style and Structure in the Music of the African Pygmies and Bushmen: A Study in Cross-Cultural Analysis." Since so many have been influenced by Fürniss and Olivier on this matter (I recently, to my horror, noticed their views quoted uncritically in the new Grove's Dictionary of Music), I am hoping my paper is not appearing too late to serve as a necessary corrective.

A research report that might appear to challenge my view of the cultural evidence has been presented by Professor Barry Hewlett, of the University of Washington in Vancouver, in the form of an essay titled Cultural Diversity Among African Pygmies. I am especially interested in Hewlett's views, first, because I have already quoted him on the Aka pygmies, and secondly because he's done research on the topic of cultural transmission that I find quite sensible and interesting. I've been corresponding with him on these matters recently, and am hoping he'll be reading here and offering his comments on what I'll be saying about his work. Unfortunately, I'm running out of time, so will have to continue with my discussion of his essay in the following post.

(to be continued . . .)

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