Tuesday, June 5, 2007

23. The Missing Link?

(I've added some more examples to the previous post, so you might want to check them out first, before continuing here.)

In my essay, "Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors," I focus on Pygmy/Bushmen style, the interlocked, intricately contrapuntal, often yodeled, mainstream vocal practice of the African Pygmies and Bushmen, a style with echoes to be found among a great many indigenous peoples in various parts of the world roughly along the hypothesized "Out of Africa" path. Since the style would seem to be so similar among so many widely separated Pygmy and Bushmen groups throughout Africa, it seems logical to conclude that all these traditions stem from a common root. And since the genetic findings, admittedly incomplete and controversial, place this root at somewhere roughly 72,000 to 100,000 years ago, it's possible to speculate, with some degree of confidence, that P/B style might well go back at least that far. The question that arises next is: does P/B represent humankind's earliest music, or did it evolve from some musical practice that preceded it, possibly something much simpler?

This is the problem that now confronts us. Can we understand what I've called Shouted Hocket (which includes not only unpitched shouting, but also pitched hooted and yodeled "shouts" as well) as a kind of "missing link" between pre-homosapien vocalizing, represented by the duetting and chorusing of certain of today's primates, and what seems likely to have come next, i.e. "mainstream" P/B style, characterized by more complexly interlocked parts, with more notes, in counterpoint and/or canon. In other words, was there some sort of passage, perhaps 100,000 or 150,000 years ago, from unpitched duetting/chorusing to unpitched shouted hocket to pitched shouted hocket to interlocked contrapuntal hocket or, more simply, from something resembling the coordinated vocalizing of today's primates to what most people would agree is music?

The Pygmy "Esime" from the previous post is a typically shouted interlude of the sort often found between more complexly organized interlocked songs. Could it be a survival of an original, unpitched, pre-musical type of vocal interchange? Or is the resemblance to primate chorusing simply a co-incidence? The following example, from the Bisorio of New Guinea also resembles primate chorusing, but with more of a "hooting" sound, resembling yodel. The Dani example, also from New Guinea, combines a very rhythmic shouted interchange with some softer yodeling heard in the background. The Huli example is very similar but this time clearly yodeled and also pitched, alternating tones a major third apart.

The Mehinacu example is shouted, but the Mikea example that follows is both yodeled and pitched. The example of "throat singing" from Kamchatka is clearly pitched, on three different tones, but the Inuit example is all on one note, more closely resembling primate duetting. Note also the audible breathing in these examples, which involve a kind of hyperventilation we hear in certain types of P/B and also primate vocalizing.

Both the Ainu and Hupa songs involve both singing and shouted hocket, both with heavy breathing and suggestions of hyperventilation as well. Hyperventilation is clearly present in the Bushmen Tcoqma initiation ceremony, where it is associated with shamanism and trance. The Balinese Ketchak, or "Monkey Chant" is most astonishing of all. Though today it is performed largely for tourists, it is thought to have originated in shamanic trance practices that predate Hinduism. While the title, derived from an episode in the Ramayana, suggests that animal imitation is behind this particular type of primate-like "chorusing," the astonishing synchronization of the hocketed interchange at such a rapid tempo suggests something far deeper than simply animal imitation.

So, what can we make of all these examples, could they simply be animal imitations? Or might they have some very different function in each group? Are the resemblances coincidental? Does it make sense to think in terms of a common ancestry for all these examples? Or does that seem unlikely? More on such questions next time.

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