Wednesday, May 16, 2007

5. Music in Year One

So, what WAS music like in the year 000001, you ask? Astonishingly, there is more than enough evidence for us to speculate meaningfully on the nature of humankind's first musical style. Linguists would love to reconstruct the very first -- or "Ur" -- language, based on what is known about the nature of all the various language families in existence today. There's not much hope that any such effort could be successful, as there are very few (or perhaps too many) clues to work with and the whole process of reconstruction would have to be based on a long series of untestable assumptions and speculations. However, music would seem to operate in a very different manner than verbal language and as a result there may be no need to reconstruct humankind's earliest music, because it is still being performed today -- we can simply listen to it. But how can that be? If languages have changed so much over time, wouldn't musical styles also have changed? One would think so, certainly. But the evidence would seem to tell a different story.

What is that evidence? For the details, you will need to read my essay, "Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors" (I'll send you a copy if you request it), in which mountains of evidence are considered. For now, I'll simply say that there is one particular type of music, a very beautiful, distinctive and in every way remarkable style of vocalizing found among most Pygmy groups, and also certain groups of Bushmen, in Africa, that, for a variety of reasons, would seem the best candidate by far. For one thing, the two musical traditions are so close that even experienced musicologists with an intimate knowledge of African music have difficulty telling them apart. Yet the Pygmies are scattered over widely separated regions of tropical forest in various parts of central Africa while the home of the Bushmen is in a completely different area, the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa.
In 1956, Gilbert Rouget, then director of the Ethnomusicology program at the Musee de l'Homme, in Paris, wrote: "If, as it is traditional to do, one should consider the Pygmies and the Bushmen as belonging to two races entirely distinct, how can one explain the troubling relationship between their music and their dances? It cannot be a phenomenon of convergence, the resemblances constituting a system too complex and too coherent to allow for an explanation of this order. A reciprocal influence is also to be rejected, being given the distance as much geographic as climatic which separates the ones from the others. Is it necessary to believe, then, that the Pygmies and Bushmen are of common stock, and that their dance and music represent the remainder of a common cultural heritage?"

Alan Lomax, in the same year, also wrote about this remarkable musical tradition, calling it "Pygmoid Style," suggesting that it had a special significance that might well go beyond Africa. And when, some years later, I was working with Lomax, we often played some of the remarkable recordings of Rouget, Colin Turnbull and others, and discussed this music and its possible significance. One of the things we kept noticing was the similarities we found between Pygmy and Bushmen vocalizing and other vocal traditions among certain indigenous peoples in widely separated parts of the world. Lomax suspected that this was a truly ancient, or even archaic type of music making and I agreed. At the time, however, it was not yet possible to speculate as to how old it might actually be, or whether there were other styles that could be older. (to be continued . . .)

No comments: