Monday, September 10, 2007

87. Are Indigenous Cultures Frozen in Time?

Toward the end of his most recent post, Peter Jones cautions against seeing indigenous cultures as "frozen in time, locked in some romantic fiction that never existed." This is the sort of statement too often used as an argument against any and all attempts to protect, or even acknowledge, indigenous culture. But in this case Peter is simply, and very wisely, presenting it as a concern. It ought to be a concern, as it represents one of the most challenging issues one can confront when trying to understand, and come to terms with, indigeneity and indigenous peoples.

If by "cultural equity" we simply mean "fairness" to various and sundry remote and exotic cultures, each seen as both unique and also set apart, "frozen in time" in a world of its own, then one might feel a responsibility to preserve each of these separate worlds in its own pristine "authenticity." If, however, we see "cultural equity" as something in which we too hold a stake (i.e., equity), as a spiritual investment made by generations of ancestors, going all the way back to the beginnings of our species -- which, if we are to believe the geneticists, does appear to have a common source, and, therefore, a common cultural heritage -- then we cannot separate indigenous peoples off from ourselves in exotic and remote worlds of their own, but must see them as part of a dynamic ongoing process that concerns everyone now alive -- and our descendants after us. This is especially significant in view of the fact that it is the same so-called "indigenes" who have been most concerned, if not obsessed, with both the preservation and cultivation of tradition.

The need to understand and appreciate such interconnections is, I think, the point Peter is making by quoting the song by Jimmy Cliff. Not literally that "we are all one" in any ordinary sense, but that deep down at our core we all connected via our common heritage, both genetic and cultural.

All well and good, one might say, but when we get down to specifics we seem to be confronted with an enormous number of totally different traditions, each appearing to us as something rigid, indeed "'frozen in time," sometimes irrational, often fragile and even brittle, difficult to understand and even more difficult, therefore, to connect with. The problem is indeed immense, and there are many different ways of addressing it.

Lomax saw Cantometrics, Choreometrics and Parlametrics* as tools that could help us understand the many underlying connections between and among all these seemingly isolated islands of culture. By focusing on style, thus emphasizing the medium in which something is expressed, as opposed to the specific message of each individual utterance or tradition, it is indeed much easier to sort all the many types of cultural practice into a relatively small set of families. And what I am now trying to do is extend the Cantometrics approach to explore certain possible ways all these families might inter-relate, both with each other and with "us."

An important lesson to be learned from the Cantometric approach is that even the most dynamic and apparently ever-changing cultures are invariably constrained by underlying stylistic forces of which they may be only dimly aware, forces reminiscent of what political philosophers often refer to as "ideology." The global musical scene of today, in all its complexity, involving all sorts of genres, from classical to jazz, to every variety of "pop," from rock to country to reggae to hip-hop, from New Age to World-Beat, from Nashville to Hollywood to Bollywood, may well be among the most dynamic and bewilderingly complex cultural manifestations in history. When we step back, however, to survey this riot of apparently unrestrained creativity from the broad comparative perspective fostered by Cantometrics, only a very few basic performance models emerge. Basic to just about every popular medium is an array of musical practices combining European melodic and rhythmic models (such as strophic form; a standardized, unvarying metric (usually 4/4); "standard" bass-oriented harmonic progressions based on triads and seventh chords; diatonic melodies; emphasis on chorded, plucked string instruments, etc.) with certain expressive modes characteristic of Sub-Saharan Africa (such as call and response; vocal polyphony; tight rhythmic blend; anticipation of the beat; cross-rhythms and syncopation; continual drumming; pentatonic scale elements (producing so-called "blue notes" when overlaid with diatonic scales); open-throated vocalizing, etc.).

Absolutely fundamental to literally all forms and genres of both jazz and popular music (with the notable exception of Hip-Hop), in literally every variant in every part of the world, is the so-called "rhythm section," combining a bass instrument with at least one chording instrument (piano, guitar, banjo, cymbalom, accordian, etc.), and standard European drum set, playing standard triadic chord progressions in a manner strongly suggestive in many respects of the "continuo" section so important in European music of the "Baroque" period. (Whether or not this particular connection is meaningful or fortuitous is an extremely interesting question I can't pursue here.)

Given such extremely tight constraints, as imposed on just about any form of popular music in the world today, could we characterize our current global musical culture as rigidly circumscribed by tradition and, indeed, "frozen in time"? From the perspective of someone not caught up in the system, but observing from outside, that might certainly appear to be the case.

*Choreometrics is a system, based on the Cantometrics approach, for encoding certain aspects of movement and dance style. Parlametrics is a similarly stylistic approach to the study of speech and spoken interaction.

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