Tuesday, October 30, 2007

101. Music of the Great Tradition -- 3

The narrative I'm about to relate is admittedly speculative. However, it is rooted in a premise that, as far as I'm concerned, is rock solid. If you can accept the premise, which will sound fantastic to some, and totally unacceptable to others, but is in fact supported by an impressive body of evidence as well as considerable expert opinion, then all the even more astonishing things that follow will make much more sense than one might otherwise think.

The essentials of my premise have already been discussed at some length on this blog, but I'll go over them briefly now. In Central Africa we have various groups of so-called Pygmies, for example the Mbuti, in the Ituri Forest of the Republic of Congo and the Aka, living in another tropical forest far to the west, in the Central African Republic. In southern Africa, we have various groups of so-called Bushmen, for example the Ju'hoansi, now living in and around the border between Namibia and Botswana.

According to widely accepted (though nevertheless controversial) genetic evidence, all three groups represent some of the most ancient lineages that have yet been identified anywhere in the world. The genetic evidence strongly suggests that the ancestors of both the Pygmies and the Bushmen were once part of a founder band that lived anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Estimates vary, but the two groups are thought by some to have diverged at least 76,000 to over 100,000 years ago. Others have posited a somewhat more recent divergence time, but nevertheless at least tens of thousands of years BP (before the present time).

Despite the fact that the Bushmen and Pygmies are believed to have had no contact with one another for all that time, their very distinctive and intricate musical traditions are remarkably close in a great many ways, as many musicologists have noted. I've already posted several links to their music, but for the benefit of those who may be new to all this, here once again is an example of Aka Pygmy vocalizing: Divining Song. For comparison here is an example from the Ju'hoansi Bushmen: The Eland. Here is another Ju'hoansi example, from the village of Dobe. Compare with this, from the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest: Elephant Hunting Song.

In several previous posts (especially posts 5-7 and 79-80), I've gone over many of the arguments and evidence that have led me to conclude with a high degree of confidence that the two traditions must stem from a common cultural root, dating from some time prior to their mutual divergence, tens of thousands of years ago. None of this will be new to the regulars reading here.

But for the great majority of ethnomusicologists and anthropologists such a conclusion is nothing less than heresy. (For an extended discussion of the ideological basis for such skepticism, see my posts on the Great Kalahari Debate.) Musical styles and traditions aren't supposed to last anywhere near that long. The general assumption has been that various factors, such as outside influence, creativity, information loss or stylistic "drift" over many generations, would inevitably lead to significant changes over such a long period of time. This is known to be the case with language.

Nevertheless, the musical evidence for the paleolithic origin of what I've called "Pygmy/Bushmen style," coupled with the genetic evidence, is truly overwhelming. Which might tell us something very important about musical traditions -- and culture history -- in general. Because, if the musical practice of the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa has endured essentially unchanged for tens of thousands of years, then there could be many other musical traditions in other parts of the world that also go back much farther than had previously been supposed. And if we go back far enough, then many of the varied stylistic roots might well converge, to stem from the same root as that of Pygmy/Bushmen style. It is this tradition, going so far back, possibly all the way to the "beginning," that I like to call: "The Great Tradition." I think I can hear it. But I'll let you judge for yourself.

100. Music of the Great Tradition -- 2

If my last post was a bit over-exuberant, it's because I am truly excited about the possibilities opened up by all the revolutionary new research in population genetics and the implications it has for our understanding of human culture and history. Also, because I am so eager to jump start the new era of social science, cultural studies, historiography, anthropology, musicology, etc. I see emerging just over the horizon. (So far things have been much too quiet in all these realms.)

I promise to tone down the hyperbole from now on, however, because I do not want to be perceived as "unprofessional." Actually, while I do have professional credentials, I am not an unqualified admirer of the "professional" attitude, which is why I sometimes seem to be going overboard. I can assure you that any signs I might give that I could actually be some sort of nut case are strictly a hallucination on YOUR part. :-) I am only a harmless composer/poet/artist/musicologist cum philosopher. Artaud was the nut case, not me.

More on the Great Tradition next time, I promise.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

99. Music of the Great Tradition

No not THAT tradition.

If you're into classical music you've heard all about the "Great Tradition," starting I suppose with Bach and working its way up through Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Wagner, all the way to Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and beyond. That's the European "high culture" Great Tradition and I have to admit, it's a pretty good one. But it can't compare with the Great Tradition I have in mind, the GREAT Great Tradition, starting at the year 000,001 in Africa, then heading east with the great migration out of Africa, circa 80,000 BC, all the way to SE Asia and Melanesia, then veering west to the Caucasus and paleolithic Europe, while at the same time continuing north along the east Asiatic coast to China, Japan, Siberia, and the Americas.

Many nineteenth and twentieth century folkorists had some inkling of an idea of what I'm talking about, conjuring up "old" traditions, mostly in Europe. But their idea of "old" was way too conservative, usually going back no farther than the Middle Ages or possibly "ancient" Greece and Rome. You call THAT "ancient"? Give me a break!

Meanwhile, a whole raft of academics with nothing better to do, decided to go the skeptic route, pooh-poohing all these nutty ideas about "old" traditions. After all, how did we know they were really old, maybe they were new, who could say? Isn't it true that the most natural thing in the world is change? And isn't the most "wonderful" thing about the human spirit its "creativity." (As though they knew anything about creativity - give me a BREAK.) But they were caught with egg on their face when the geneticists hit the fan -- and began working their way systematically through history with some really nifty tools the old academics never dreamed were possible. Many of these old farts still have no idea what hit them and how so many of their most cherished ideas are headed for the toilet. Don't disturb them, they are peacefully asleep in their dogmatic slumber.

As is now becoming apparent, at least to me (but what do I know?), the Great Tradition survived in a great many places, even Europe, for far longer than anyone could have imagined. Amazingly enough, we find traces of the Great Tradition all over Europe even well into the Twentieth Century. But only a very few really knew what to make of them, what they might mean or what they were saying. One of the most interesting, and least known, things about the Great Tradition was the influence it had on that other Great Tradition, the "high art" one and how it has left it's mark on so much of the music we currently regard as "classic" or even modern.

I'll be exploring this tradition in coming posts, so if you're ready for the ride, say tuned.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

98. Did the Pygmies Ever Have a Language of Their Own?

Sorry for the sudden change of pace, but a thought occurred to me the other day that won't let me alone. I've been thinking a lot about African pygmy music, as anyone who's been following this blog knows. But now I'm thinking about their language. Their music is certainly special, but their language is also special -- that is, their lack of language, the odd fact that every African pygmy group I know of speaks a language related to that of neighboring Bantu, Sudanic, or Nilotic tribes. It's been assumed that they lost their original language through some process of assimilation with the farming groups they've developed symbiotic relationships with. But this hypothesis runs into a big problem no one seems to have noticed. It is in violation of one of the great principles of science, Occam's Razor, which demands that any scientific model provide the simplest solution that accounts for all the evidence. (This should not be confused with the principle of "parsimony," by the way. Parsimony is one of many possible ways of organizing data, but even the most parsimonious solution, in order to be regarded as valid, must conform nevertheless to Occam's Razor -- i.e, it must still be the simplest solution possible that accounts for all the evidence.)

To assume that each and every pygmy group in various parts of Africa went through the same linguistic "evolution," relinquishing an original language to replace it with that of their neighbors, goes counter to both Occam and common sense, because we would have to assume that in each and every individual and unrelated case more or less the same process occurred.

It's true of course that certain groups in various parts of the world have lost their language when they were conquered and assimilated by more powerful groups. But the pygmies were neither conquered nor assimilated. Though often regarded as vassals, they have apparently always been able to retreat into the forest, where they can practice their own rituals, hunting methods, music, dance, etc. So why not their own original speech?

I find it intriguing that other hunter-gatherer groups didn't lose their original languages in the same way. The Bushmen have their own language, possibly the oldest, as do the Hadza and Sandawe, yet all these groups have also developed symbiotic relations with neighboring farmers and pastoralists.

If the pygmies never had a language of their own, what could that mean? what light might that shed on the question of the origins of both "modern" humans and language?

Most of the evidence appears to point to both pygmies and bushmen as representative, genetically, of our oldest fully human ancestors. Chen et al., in a well known paper, estimated the age of separation of the Biaka pygmies from the founding group to be anwhere from 76,000 to over 100,000 years ago (on the basis of their mtDNA). Let us suppose, then, that the group of "modern" humans destined to be the ancestors of everyone now alive on this planet, spoke some language, say, 120,000 years ago. We would be almost forced to assume that, when the Pygmies diverged from this group, they would have spoken some derivative of that language. But if they did, then we must also assume, following the path of the mighty Occam, that at least some of these pygmy groups would have retained some form of that language -- as did the Bushmen, Hadza, etc.

Let us now go back to 120,000 ya, and make the opposite assumption, that the founding group had not yet developed language. So when the Pgymies diverged from the main group they too would have been without language. Continuing with the same line of thought, we can speculate that language may have been invented after the period when the Pygmies broke off, sometime between 76,000 and 100,000 ya (assuming Chen et al are on the right track). So by the time the other groups, ancestral to the Bushmen, Hadza, etc., diverged, they would have been in possession of language, while the pygmies were not. And at this point we can allow many thousands, indeed tens of thousand of years to pass.

Another clue pointing in the same direction: we have a very rich tradition of symbolic rock art in Africa, dating back at least 40,000 years, which most archaeologists have associated with Bushmen history (though such art is not being produced today). No such art has been, to my knowledge, ever attributed to the ancient pygmies. There is thus, apparently, no real evidence that they were in possession of language during the paleolithic period.

Continuing to speculate, in an equally rigorous Occamian fashion: in order for the above to make sense, the pygmies could not have had language at all until after the Bantu expansion, of 2,000 to 4,000 years ago. If they had developed or borrowed any language prior to that time, that would be the language that at least some of them would now be speaking. It would seem then, that in order for the present pattern to have manifested itself, the first language spoken by any pygmy people must have been a language borrowed from the neighbors with whom they currently interact. Each time a pygmy group encountered Bantu, Sudanic, or Nilotic speaking people, they would have learned what language is from them.

If the above can be taken seriously, it could give us a clue as to when language originated -- i.e., some time between the divergence of the pygmies and the divergence of the Bushmen.

Am I going to hate myself in the morning? We'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

97. Is Money the Problem?

In the last installment I briefly described three very different examples of what can happen when dedicated people work together to support vulnerable traditions that are important to them. I could list many more examples, but unfortunately there is not nearly enough of this sort of thing going on and too many important traditions are either dying out or being hopelessly watered down and even degraded. Sure, you can get the media people to accept tribal music from just about anywhere if you slap a rhythm section over it, add a didgeridoo riff and a sitar solo and call it "world beat" or whatever. Or concoct some sort of phony "Celtic" music by slapping a rhythm section over hoked up versions of Gaelic folk songs. That's not what I'm talking about.

It's hard for me to believe people just don't care or that they have really managed to convince themselves that all is hopeless. It is very sadly true that many can no longer tell the difference between the authentic and the phony. And it's no help when solemn, self-righteous voices from the academy continually remind us that "authenticity" itself can be dismissed as some sort of "essentialization," or social construct (it can't). The United Nations has a Commission on Human Rights and has also issued a (imo seriously flawed) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But what about indigenous traditions, what is happening to them?

Sure, there are all sorts of festivals going on in various places and traditional artists can even apply for grants to do their thing. But too many of these festivals and too many of the artists getting grants are forced to water down what they do in order to reach the large audiences required to justify the pitifully small amounts they are able to get -- when lucky.

I'm told all the time that the "young people" are no longer interested in their traditions, that they are regarded as "old hat" and irrelevant. But how about putting some of the older people on television on a regular basis, giving them an opportunity to discuss their traditions and perform their own dances and music in an authentic and respectful setting, produced by media professionals working with a professional budget, to put something together in such a way that it has a real impact. And how about paying the traditional performers for what they do, not just some token payment but something substantial, an amount that reflects their true value to their community and also the world as a whole?

Why do I have the feeling the young people might change their minds in such an environment and suddenly begin to develop more of an interest in their own traditions? Just as young people in western society become motivated to study classical music when they have opportunities to see it performed on television and are impressed by the enormous prestige of certain classical musicians, not to mention their enormous incomes.

Is it unrealistic to expect that comparable efforts and sums of money could be devoted to the support of authentic indigenous (and also ethnic and "folk") traditions? Most people would probably agree that such an idea is totally UNrealistic. But most people nowadays have very little idea of what is going on in the world of the arts generally and the vast sums of money that are being literally thrown at the most prestigious arts institutions and art world stars -- not only artists but curators, museum directors, collectors, administrators, etc.

I recently came across this article in the NY Times, The Patron Gets a Divorce, centered around the Dia Foundation, a story that gives you some idea of the truly obscene amounts of money now being lavished to purchase prestige and panache in the art world of today, dominated by the super-wealthy and the super-manipulative -- those who are now calling the shots and defining what is considered "art" and what is not -- and how much it is worth.

Leonard Riggio is the rich person who made Dia:Beacon possible. A demanding, emotional, self-made man — a Brooklyn cabbie’s son who built Barnes & Noble into the dominant bookseller in America — Riggio was the chairman of
the Dia board during the years Dia:Beacon was being built. He believed in it with every fiber of his being. When Dia needed a piece of art to round out its permanent collection, he bought it. When cost overruns occurred, he covered them. When design decisions arose that entailed additional expenses, Riggio
wrote the check. Of the $50 million it cost to create Dia:Beacon, Riggio gave at least $35 million. The second-biggest donor, the Lannan Foundation, gave $10 million. Ann Tenenbaum, the vice chairman of the board, and her husband Thomas
H. Lee, the Wall Street financier, contributed $2.5 million.

At the time Dia/Beacon was being built with obscene amounts of money taken from profits earned by Barnes and Noble, starting pay at their bookstores was $7 an hour. A friend who had been working there for a few years and had more responsibilities than the beginners was earning more: $8 an hour! Here are some more edifying quotes:

For years, the Guggenheim’s biggest individual patron was Peter B. Lewis, the chairman of the Cleveland-based Progressive Corporation, who donated $77 million to the museum over 11 years. . .

“I think Michael is a person who, among other things, likes to build museums,” he said. “He likes to build, build, build.” This is a notion with which Govan himself takes umbrage — even though part of the reason he took the job in Los Angeles was to take charge of an ambitious three-phase building project; the first phase alone will cost $156 million. . .

On his way out the door, Govan had taken $1.8 million from Dia’s general fund and used it to make a grant to help underwrite an enormous Western land project called “City,” by Michael Heizer, to which both he and Dia had long been committed. (Govan sits on the Heizer Foundation’s board.) ...

For his part, although Riggio walked away from Dia, he remains committed to the art. He now spends some of his money backing Donald Judd’s foundation in Marfa, Tex. ...

I find those last two bits particularly revealing. We now live in a world where superstar artists not only command huge sums but have foundations of their own, complete with boards of directors.

So -- the answer is:
Yes, Virginia, there IS a whole lot of money out there, more than enough to get all sorts of meaningful things accomplished. Once we can find a way to divert all that spending from all the meaningless things greedy, vacuous and vulgar people, manipulated by conniving, shallow, self-imporant people, are being conned into supporting.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

96. The Lesson for Today -- Carried Over from Last Week

I see that it's almost a week since my last post. Sorry, but I've been really busy for some time now, with various responsibilities and projects and also people, all of which -- and whom -- are important to me. I was planning on launching a discussion of certain noteworthy and commendable examples of how certain indigenous traditions were successfully protected and promoted, but it seems I don't have the time to do full justice to the full scope of what's at stake here. So I'll have to rest content with some brief mentions.

1. British folk traditions have had a long history of support on many levels and from many notable individuals, from Maud Karpeles, to Ralph Vaughn Williams, Percy Grainger, etc., etc., to Alan Lomax, Peter Kennedy, etc., etc. and most recently Rod Stradling and Fred McCormick, editors of the remarkable online journal, Musical Traditions. All sorts of traditions from all over the world are represented here, but it is the British traditions that get most of the action and rightly so, since both editors are highly committed advocates, determined to see that these extraordinarily powerful and meaningful traditions remain viable, even on the Internet. Have I explained that well? Probably not, so I hope they'll forgive me. My point is that no tradition can survive in the absence of attention and support -- but also that any tradition has a far better chance of survival when even just a small group of dedicated advocates, such as Stradling and McCormick, take the time and make the effort to get the message across regarding what is truly important to them and why it is also important to the rest of us. As indeed it is.

2. I'm thinking of the enormous impact that a single outsider, Colin McPhee, had on the music of Bali. When McPhee arrived on that amazing island during the 30's, its extraordinarily rich musical traditions were in danger of dying out. Thanks to McPhee and also some other dedicated individuals, such as Walter Spies, these traditions were revived -- to the point that today the remarkable gamelan music of both Bali and Java has spread -- in its most authentic forms -- all over the world, enriching the lives of music lovers, and students, everywhere. All it took was the interest and dedication of a few sensitive souls to re-ignite the powerful flame of traditional Indonesian gamelan music, dance, and art.

3. I'm thinking also of a truly Earth-shattering development in the realm of visual arts, where, again, the attention of a few outsiders, intelligent enough and sensitive enough to see the importance of what was dying out before their eyes, has made a world of difference. I'm speaking of the astonishing development, over the last 40 or 50 years, of a truly remarkable and unique "school" of Australian Aboriginal artists, like no artistic school that has ever come before, bar NONE. You might think of me simply as a musician and/or musicologist, but that's not true, I'm a visual artist as well and I've published a fair amount of critical and theoretical work in that area over the last several years. I do think I know what I'm talking about when it comes to visual art. And I must confess that the work of these Australian aboriginal artists has impressed me as NO other art of our time has. The great book to consult on this development is Aboriginal Art, by Wally Caruana. The best internet connection I've found is Nangara, with a dizzying array of truly great art by a remarkably large number of enormously gifted artists on display. Too often one reads of the pressures on artists from all sorts of backgrounds to conform to the accepted styles of either the western past or the "postmodern" present. Here we find artists of great talent and originality, drawing on the indigenous traditions of their forbears with an authenticity evident in every stroke and symbol, yet at the same time powerfully imaginative and original. It CAN be done, ladies and gentlemen, just spend some time at the Nangara website and you'll be convinced.

As a parting shot, I'll leave you with this fantastic description of Balinese dance by the great poet and visionary of the dramatic arts, Antonin Artaud -- if this be "orientalism," he certainly makes the most of it:

"What is in fact curious about all these gestures, these angular and abruptly abandoned attitudes, these syncopated modulations formed at the back of the throat, these musical phrases that break off short, these flights of elytra, these rustlings of branches, these sounds of hollow drums, these robot squeakings, these dances of animated manikins, is this: that through the labyrinth of their gestures, attitudes, and sudden cries, through the gyrations and turns which leave no portion of the stage space unutilized, the sense of a new physical language, based upon signs and no longer upon words, is liberated. These actors with their geometric robes seem to be animated hieroglyphs. It is not just the shape of their robes which, displacing the axis of the human figure, create beside the dress of these warriors in a state of trance and perpetual war a kind of second, symbolic dress and thus inspire an intellectual idea, or which merely connect, by all the intersections of their lines, with all the intersections of perspective in space. No, these spiritual signs have a precise meaning which strikes us only intuitively but with enough violence to make useless any translation into logical discursive langu'age. And for the lovers of realism at all costs, who might find exhausting these perpetual allusions to secret attitudes inaecessible to thought, there remains the eminently realistic play of the double who is terrified by the apparitions from beyond. In this double‑trembling, yelping childishly, these heels striking the ground in cadences that follow the very automatism of the liberated unconscious, this momentary concealment behind his own reality‑there is a description of fear valid in every latitude, an indication that in the human as well as the superhuman the Orientals are more than a match for us in matters of reality."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

95. The Lesson For Today -- Continued

I think the most important recommendation I could offer with regard to the whole issue of cultural "equity" (assuming anyone with any degree of influence in such matters is listening) would be that the problems of endangered traditions be afforded at least as much importance as that of endangered animal species. In other words, the issue of cultural ecology should be added to that of environmental ecology as a prime concern of all peoples and all nations, as part of our growing awareness that certain vital aspects of life on this planet, both physical and spiritual (and I do NOT include religion in this formula, thank you), represent urgent concerns that must be addressed if coming generations are to have any sort of meaningful future at all.

Note that we cannot in all good conscience argue similarly on behalf of, say, "endangered peoples." Not because there are no people in the world who are endangered or that there should be no efforts to assist and support them -- on the contrary, this is a hugely important problem that must continually be addressed with the greatest urgency -- but because we find endangered peoples all over the globe, in every country, of every ethnic background, in the countryside, the cities, in factories, farms, mines, slums, ghettos, on the streets, in homeless shelters, etc. The problem of endangered peoples is a vast, worldwide social problem that includes, but cannot be limited to, the effort to support indigenous peoples.

If we want to support indigenous peoples as such, we must emphasize what it is that makes them special and important to humanity as a whole -- i.e., their culture, their traditions. Their "indigeneity" per se, in terms of whatever claims they may have to the prior or inherent ownership of certain lands, properties, etc., however important from a moral and legal standpoint, is not enough to set them apart from any other groups or individuals who might have been unjustly dispossessed and/or displaced in the past, indigenous or not.

I've looked through the recently adopted United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with mixed feelings. I won't comment on any of this in detail for now, but the sense I get is that there are far too many pronouncements and far too little discussion of all the many problems and pitfalls entailed in almost every article. For one thing, nowhere in the declaration is there any attempt to even define what is meant by "indigenous peoples." Nor is there any attempt to address the extremely complex questions and contradictions that will inevitably arise from many statements -- as in Article 3, for example, where it is declared that "Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination."

Peter Jones is going over the declaration very seriously and in some detail and he certainly has his work cut out for him. I think the essential problem is that the declaration attempts far too much, including a laundry list of often redundant and in many cases unreasonable demands obviously inserted by a wide range of different constituencies, in an attempt to please as many representatives of as many interested parties as possible, with little thought to the potentially divisive and even violent consequences -- in the highly unlikely event that everything in the document will be taken seriously by all the nations that signed it. Realistically, the declaration is likely to have no effect at all, because too many of the issues it addresses, where not hopelessly intractable on their face, are so complex as to be resolvable only in courts of law -- or, God forbid, armed conflicts.

What I'm trying to do here is emphasize the importance of the cultural side of this issue, because, as I see it, the battle for cultural equity on behalf of indigenous traditions is a battle that can be won, an eminently achievable goal. And, moreoever, a battle that can be "fought" peacefully without the need for either weapons or recriminations, which everyone can win and no one would necessarily lose. Whereas the more fundamental, life and death, moral and legal, battles that most concern Peter, as reflected in the well meaning but IMO naive UN declaration, are so complex and so fraught with the potential for violent confrontation, that they may never be fully or even partially resolved by anything more than a series of piecemeal compromises, appropriate to each local situation.

As I see it, efforts like Peter's blog afford a much better opportunity for addressing such issues, since each instance of exploitation, persecution or aggrandizement can be discussed and evaluated on its own merit, within its own parameters and context. In some cases, it might be appropriate to argue for self-determination, in others a simple compromise might offer a better solution. Of course, the UN declaration will be read by many more influential people than Peter's (or my) blog. But if Peter and I persist, we might ultimately reach more people in the long run and maybe change some minds.

Is it naive to assume that anything can be done to effectively and definitively stem the tide of global cultural "pollution"? Isn't it inevitable that native cultures will either vanish, be watered down, or simply assimilated into the mainstream "white"-out? In my next post, I want to discuss some exemplary instances where efforts to protect, promote and develop indigenous traditions have met with real success.