Tuesday, February 9, 2010

309. Aftermath 24: Australia and New Guinea

To get a better handle on the problem posed by the music of the Australian Aboriginals, let's take another look at the phylogenetic tree I presented all the way back in Post number 12:

While the thinking behind this tree was, and still is, subjective, speculative and tentative, it remains useful, in my opinion, as a means of helping us visualize certain possibilities. (It's important, also, to understand that this is primarily a representation of vocal style -- instrumental music is represented only to the extent that it serves as an accompaniment to vocalizing. While instrumental music can be equally important, it is much more difficult to assess on a comparative basis.) While it might look at first glance like a conventional phylogeny, in which each new branch represents a progressively more complex or "creative" developmental stage, it actually represents something very different. Because, at heart, my approach to musical "evolution," and, to some degree, cultural evolution generally, is based on the following principle, as expressed in my essay, "Echoes of our Forgotten Ancestors" -- what I call the "principle of sociocultural inertia": 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 (10).

If I could ever be accused of having a "pet theory" that I would go to great lengths to defend, it just might be encapsulated in this principle. And it should go without saying that I regard music, or at least musical style (for want of a better word), as among the most "deeply ingrained and highly valued elements" of human culture, especially so among those peoples who have not yet reduced it to a specialized form of entertainment ("Pop" or "Rock") or enlightenment ("Classical" or "Sacred" or, again, "Rock") given over to the hands of professionals.

In accord with this principle, most (though probably not all) the branchings in this tree can be understood, not as stages in a developmental process, but as the result of some sort of breakdown, due to an encounter with some "outside force," such as the encroachment of a more powerful and aggressive society, or a natural catastrophe (such as the Toba explosion, but also a Tsunami, earthquake, famine, drought, etc.) of the sort that can decimate a population and turn life upside down for the survivors. By analogy with the genetic concept of a "population bottleneck," such encounters can result in "cultural bottlenecks," where certain traditions may be lost and replaced by something different, due to resulting "founder effects" -- either somewhat different or completely different, depending on factors that are in many cases impossible to predict. I'll add that very often population bottlenecks, of the sort studied by population geneticists, can easily result in cultural bottlenecks, so cultural (and of course musical) "founder effects" can often be correlated with genetic ones. For more on the phylogenetic tree generally, see Post 12 et seq.

If we look for the word "Australia" on this tree, we will find it in only one place, just above the musical "clade" (branch) labeled B3a2. This clade stems from a deeper one, B3a, labeled "Unison/ Iterative/ One-beat." B3a, in turn, stems from B3, "Social Unison." You'll note that there is nothing beneath B3, no deeper clade which might have given rise to it. Instead, we see a thick horizontal line linking it with its sister clades, B1 and B2. If you now look all the way to the left, you'll see, in the margin, the word "Bottleneck." And if you look directly above the thick horizontal line, you'll see "Affected by Bottleneck." What we see in superhaplogroups B1, B2 and B3 is an attempt on my part to perform an educated guess as to what the musical effects of a major bottleneck event, such as the Toba eruption, or a Tsunami, etc., might have been. And since such an event would have been both devastating and relatively abrupt, it's not difficult to conclude that the effects would also have been both devastating and abrupt -- or in the words of the evolutionists, "saltational" (i.e., involving a sudden leap rather than a gradual transformation).

I placed nothing beneath B3 because there is little or nothing in SubSaharan African music that could be seen as a supporting "branch" for this particular style. Most SSAfrican music, both vocal and instrumental, is interactive, based either on closely interlocking, "contrapuntal" parts, as with P/B and its variants, or the well known "call & response" so characteristic of Bantu and African-American music. Much is also polyphonic, ranging from free counterpoint, to canon, to singing in parallel harmonies in either 4ths and 5ths or 3rds. We do find unison singing among certain African groups, but this practice appears to have developed relatively late.

As I've already argued, many posts ago, the type of vocalizing most likely to have been practiced by the original Out of Africa migrants (HMP) would have been P/B or some near variant, in other words music that is highly interactive, closely interlocked and polyphonic. B3, on the other hand, is called "Social Unison" because all the singers sing together more or less in lock step rhythmically throughout, with little or no leader-chorus interchange, a practice almost unheard of in SSAfrica. There are two B3 branches, one unison (B3a), the other polyphonic (B3b), and since polyphony is so common in Africa it's possible that B3b preceded B3a, which may have lost its polyphony as the result of a subsequent bottleneck event. It's also possible, as implied by the diagram, that both branches represent independent responses to the major bottleneck, by at least two different groups.

(to be continued . . . )

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