Thursday, July 19, 2007

63. The Power of Music --1. The Case of the Mikea

As should be evident from just about every post on this blog, I like to think big, take the long view, and seek out all sorts of far reaching connections, however unlikely they might seem. As a result, my ideas may appear, at least to some of the more timid souls among us, just a bit far fetched, speculative -- or what is, in some circles, far worse: ambitious. So at this point I feel the need to pull back a bit from the sort of far reaching connections I've been exploring, to demonstrate how powerful methods drawn from comparative musicology can be when dealing with simpler, more locally defined issues.

I'll start with what could be called the "Mikea question." The Mikea are small statured hunter/gatherers living in the tropical forest region of southwest Madagascar, whose history has been a subject of debate for some time. The peoples of this large island, off the eastern coast of Africa, are all thought to have arrived via sea voyages from Indonesia, somewhere between the 7th and 8th Centuries, AD. All, including the Mikea, speak Malayo-Polynesian, not African, languages. However, there have always been legends regarding the so-called "Vazimba," popularly thought to have been the original inhabitants of central Madagascar, driven to the western coast when the first seafarers arrived from Indonesia centuries ago. Among the local tribespeople, the Mikea have been identified as the descendents of the Vazimba.

But certain investigators have called the local traditions into question. According to anthropologist Daniel Stiles, "Some have proposed that the Mikea are people who fled to the bush to escape domination and exploitation by the late 17th and 18th century Sakalava dynasties and the 20th century French colonialists . . . , and that there were no people living in the Mikea forest prior to the 17th century." ("The Mikea Hunter-Gatherers of Southwest Madagascar," in African Study Monographs, 19(3), November 1998, p. 131.) Taking various aspects of the Mikea's situation into account, including historical documents, archaeological remains, including "humanly worked hippopotamus bones" dating from ca 2000 years ago, cultural features, linguistics, and one small bit of musical evidence, the use of leg xylophones, Stiles arrives at the following rather tentative conclusion: ". . . I think it unlikely that the Mikea are direct descendants of the people who worked the dwarf hippo bones 2000 years ago. I do think, however, that some ancestors of the Mikea have been living in that area since well before the 17th century . . . " (p. 132).

In a more recent article, from the comprehensive and highly authoritative Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, the team of Robert Kelley, Jean-Fran Ois Rabedimy and Lin Poyer, are far less tentative. In their essay, "The Mikea of Madagascar," they state, in no uncertain terms, that "there is no evidence for any . . . claims" that the Mikea are aborigines or Vazimba. "The Mikea are not ancient hunter-gatherers, although we do not know when forest foragers appeared. . . . Today's Mikea may be descendents of Masikoro villagers who retreated into the forest to escape Merina and Sakalava, or who fled during the anti-French rebellion in 1947" (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999, p. 215).

More recent still is an as yet unpublished paper by Roger Blench, whose pathbreaking research we've already encountered: "New palaeozoogeographical evidence for the settlement of Madagascar" (courtesy of the author, dated June, 2007). Reviewing the bone evidence, along with evidence suggesting the early introduction of rodents and other fauna into the island, combined with various other signs of prehistoric settlement, in addition to some compelling linguistic clues, Blench points to the Mikea as the most likely descendants of an indigenous, pre-Indonesian, population, suggesting that their ancestors could have crossed the channel to Madagascar some 2300 years ago, which would indeed identify them as the fabled Vazimba.

In addition to being a linguist and archaeologist, Blench is, as we know, an ethnomusicologist, who, in passing from one type of "palaeozoogeographical evidence" to another, inserts the following brief statement:

Another intriguing piece of evidence will probably appeal only to musicologists, but the Mikea have very distinctive music, quite unlike their Malagasy neighbours. OCORA (1997) shows that the music is typified by vocal polyphony, hocket techniques and falsetto voicing. This type of musical structure is characteristic of the pygmy or Twa populations of Central Africa and to a certain extent, the Khoesan [Bushmen] and quite atypical of the Malagasy, whose Austronesian type music is monodic. The likelihood of such similar music evolving by chance is minimal, in world terms, and provides another pointer to an origin with mainland forager populations.

I hope Blench won't mind my quoting from his unpublished essay, still open to revision, but what he's written above is too important to simply paraphrase. First, I want to say that Blench's thoughts on Mikea music are, as the British would say, "spot on." Second, I must add that for me the musical evidence is so compelling as to be in itself the deciding factor. So Blench's downplaying of the musical aspect in a brief passing statement, as something that "will probably appeal only to musicologists," is seriously disheartening.

In a private email responding to my complaint, Blench explains as follows: "I think the musicological argument is a good one, but having presented this type of argument at prehistory conferences, people typically blank out on it and feel it is not the same sort of argument as one about pots or stone tools. Hence my comment." Clearly the world of archaeologists, prehistorians, anthropologists, etc. is not yet prepared for arguments based on musical evidence, probably because they are not used to hearing them. But also because ethnomusicology currently lacks a generally accepted comparative methodology capable of coordinating and analyzing such evidence with any degree of scientific rigor. As I see it, Cantometrics is capable of filling that role, as I hope certain materials I've presented both in my essay and this blog have demonstrated. Sadly, however, the current consensus among ethnomusicologists is in favor of neither Cantometrics nor any systematic approach to comparative research in the field of non-Western music, with the result being the all but total indifference to musical issues among social scientists, historians, etc. Thus Blench's dilemma is as understandable as it is regrettable.

To fully appreciate his comments on Mikea music and its meaning, let's listen to a pair of clips taken from the same CD to which Blench refers: first, another portion of the hocketed, yodeled vocal example I've already played: Koiky2. Compare with the Bushmen Giraffe Medicine Song we heard a while back. Next, let's hear once more an example of Mikea reed pipe hocket: Kiloloky. The combination of yodeling and playfully hocketed, interlocked polyphony, both vocal and instrumental, tells us beyond any doubt that this music and these people originate in mainland Africa, among other hunter-gatherers, such as the Pygmies and Bushmen, and not from among Austronesian speaking immigrants who arrived from Indonesia in the 7th or 8th century, who have a completely different culture and musical style.

A simple comparison of recordings would not, in itself, be sufficient, however. Only in the context of a truly comprehensive overview of the sort I've been trying to establish both in my essay and on this blog, combining the resources of Cantometrics with a variety of other methodologies and viewpoints, both "emic" and "etic," is such an argument likely to be convincing. Nevertheless, as should be clear to anyone who's been following these presentations with some degree of attention, the musical evidence ought to be all anyone needs to solve the riddle of the Mikea. Clearly they are what they have, for centuries, been thought to be: the indigenous inhabitants of Madagascar, the legendary Vazimba.

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