Article MT207


another approach to the Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors thesis
by Victor A Grauer

Thanks so much for making my project your latest 'enthusiasm', that's a really nice piece and very much appreciated.  I'm sorry I never got back to you with an essay for Musical Traditions, but maybe I can make that up to you now.  The following has been hanging around for a while in my computer after having been turned down by the Ethnomusicology Journal last year - a briefer version was read at the ethno meetings in 2005 and it's oriented toward their 50th anniversary celebration that took place that year.  My attempt to set them straight on the matter of their own roots apparently didn't set well with the editor.  But it might work for you!

I would like to dedicate this essay to two remarkable individuals who had a profound impact on my life: David McAllester, who introduced me to ethnomusicology and ethnography and a great deal more of tremendous value, which changed my life forever; Alan Lomax, not only a mentor but almost a second father.  Much of what I have to say in the following presentation stems from his insights, his ideas, and the research we did based on them, both together and apart.


Ethnomusicology is rooted in the question of roots, the roots of music, its deepest and most perennially elusive mystery.  The pioneers were rooted in the search for roots but may have stumbled over them.  Currently, however, the field seems to have lost touch both with its roots in the search for roots and the roots at the root of that search.  Is postmodern skepticism of 'grand metanarratives' at the root of the current rootlessness?  But postmodernism is no longer (post)modern.  Fashions change, roots remain entrenched.

While this conference commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the Society for Ethnomusicology, there is another anniversary to be considered, for it is now one hundred years since the publication, in 1905, of Erich von Hornbostel's pivotal essay, Die Probleme der vergleichenden Musikwissenschaft.  Noting at the outset that '[a] new, specialized area of study faces the need to justify its existence', Hornbostel declares his intention to demonstrate 'just how the problems of comparative musicology lead directly to the most general questions, namely, the origin and growth of music and the nature of the musically beautiful.'  For Hornbostel, 'systematization and theory depend on comparison.  In this sense, all learning is comparative, and comparison is a general, and not a special method.'  Knowledge gained from comparative studies, 'yields new principles of classification and at the same time stimulates new and specialized investigations' (von Hornbostel 1975:249, 250).  So far so good, perhaps.

But the impetuous 28 year old had greater ambitions: 'we would like to uncover the remotest, darkest past and unveil, in the wealth of the present, the ageless universal in music ...'  To such an end, '[w]e may draw parallels - if with some caution - between the condition of 'primitive' peoples and earlier stages of our own culture.  We would then have to seek analogies in primitive music to the music of our ancestors' (von Hornbostel 1975:269).

For almost all ethnomusicologists (and anthropologists) today such ambitions have become anathema.  For one thing, they would appear to smack of colonialist attitudes toward tribal peoples, too often either dismissed as 'primitives', or offensively pigeonholed as 'living fossils' or 'stone-age relics.' For another, they seem hopelessly unattainable.  Unlike stone tools, burials, pottery, cave paintings, etc., music has a way of vanishing into thin air.  Some instruments have been preserved from various periods, but no one can say for sure what they played or how.  Considering the many methodological problems entailed, not to mention the relative scarcity of data, such grandiose notions came to seem quite hopeless.

In contrast to the old comparative musicology, which so often adopted a broad-based theoretical perspective immersed in 'Western' values and interests, modern ethnomusicologists seek instead, in the words of Jonathan Stock, 'to understand the topic from the perspective of the native 'informant'' (Stock 2002).  Consequently, they are 'as interested in the people making the music as in the sounds of music they are making, and we try to consider the whole process and contexts through and within which music is imagined, discussed and made, not just the musical sound structures themselves' (Stock date unknown).

Ironically, it was one of the early pioneers of this very approach, a tireless collector and interviewer whose attention had been focused almost exclusively on his informants and their immediate social and political context, who ultimately felt the need for an extension of such contexts into more broadly defined historical, geographical and social areas, therefore initiating broad-based comparative studies of precisely the sort that had so recently been consigned to the dustbin of musicology.  I can't elaborate here on the methodological and ideological clashes that ensued or the many controversies that arose from and eventually thwarted the Cantometrics project and its perennially embattled founder, Alan Lomax.

When I worked as Lomax's assistant, back in the early '60s, we felt confident we could overcome at least some of the difficulties faced by our hoary comparativist forbears.  For one thing, far more recorded music was available, from almost every corner of the world, which meant we could fill in many of the blanks over which they could only speculate.  For another, as was becoming increasingly evident, the research strategies of our predecessors, focusing on scales, modes, tunings, melody types, etc, while useful for the analysis of particular compositions and regional repertoires, hadn't proven particularly helpful for broad-based comparative purposes.  Lomax pioneered a very different strategy, scrapping the old notation oriented approach for an innovative, statistically oriented methodology, based on parameters easily observable from recorded performances, which enabled us to meaningfully isolate and compare various patterns of musical style on a worldwide basis.1

It should be noted that Cantometrics was by no means intended as an extension of the idealist search for universals and origins proposed by Hornbostel.  On the contrary, Lomax was always more interested in the social and cultural meaning of music than its history, per se.  Hardly had we begun our research, however, when we became, willy-nilly, tantalized by some of the same possibilities that had lured so many pioneers of vergleichenden Musikwissenschaft so many years ago.  Over and over we found ourselves especially fascinated by the music of two hunter-gatherer populations in Africa: the many bands of so-called 'Pygmies' and 'Bushmen', all of whom shared a remarkably similar musical practice.2  Not only was there an uncanny similarity between them, both stylistically and structurally, but 'Pygmy-Bushmen style' seemed prototypical in many ways for sub-Saharan Africa generally.

In Cantometric terms we can describe the vocalizing of both groups as interlocked, with maximal vocal blend, contrapuntal polyphony, precisely coordinated rhythms, yodeling, with open, relaxed throats, no embellishment, short, repetitive phrases, meaningless vocables, etc.3  Particularly interesting is the continuous flow of sound, based on the dovetailing of repeated or slightly varied, short motives, a highly distinctive technique of vocal interplay closely related to medieval hocket.

Gilbert Rouget had already, in 1956, zeroed in on this style in a remarkable publication with musicologist Yvette Grimaud, comparing recordings of Bushmen from the Nyae Nyae region of the Kalahari desert with his own recordings of Babinga Pygmies living in a totally different tropical forest environment, far to the north (Rouget 1956).  Rouget stated the problem succinctly: '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?' (Rouget 1956:3).

While our Cantometrics findings strongly suggested both a functional and historical link, it was, for a great many years, not possible to answer Rouget's question with any degree of certainty.  While many anthropologists tended to believe that the Pygmies and Bushmen could be regarded as the aboriginals of Africa, there was no solid evidence of this.  Nor was it an easy matter to determine what if anything the presence of more or less similar modes of musical organization in certain other parts of the world might mean - or whether, in fact, this style had its origins in Africa or elsewhere.

Recently, however, the picture has radically changed.  Thanks to exciting new developments in the fields of anthropological genetics and archaeology, it has been possible to draw scientifically defensible inferences regarding both the origins of modern humans and their earliest paths of migration.  And lo and behold, in study after study we find references to various Pygmy and/or Bushmen groups as representative of mankind's oldest ancestry.

For example, in a frequently quoted study from the year 2000, by Yu-Sheng Chen et al., we read: 'these data showed that the Biaka Pygmies have one of the most ancient ... sublineages observed in African mtDNA [mitochondrial DNA] and, thus, that they could represent one of the oldest human populations.  In addition, the Kung [Bushmen] exhibited a set of related haplotypes that were positioned closest to the root of the human mtDNA phylogeny, suggesting that they, too, represent one of the most ancient African populations' (Chen 2000:1362).  In a more recent publication, based on more comprehensive research using 'autosomal' (i.e., nuclear rather than mitochondrial) DNA, authors Zhivotovsky, Rosenberg and Feldman identify two of the hunter-gatherer groups they studied (in this case, Mbuti Pygmies and 'San' Bushmen) 'as descendants of the root of the [phylogenetic] tree, indicating that they descend from the most ancient of the sub-Saharan African populations' (Zhivotovsky 2003:1182).  While certain aspects of such research remain both problematic and controversial, we find African Pygmy and Bushmen groups singled out over and over again in study after study as genetically representative of mankind's earliest ancestry.

In the light of both our musical findings and the overall tenor of the genetic research, one might well ask: if the vocalizations of just about all extant Pygmy and Bushmen bands, distributed over such vast regions of Africa, resemble one another so closely, despite the highly distinctive and complex nature of this style, and, at the same time, the preponderance of genetic evidence tends to link these same groups with the ancestors of all homo sapiens now living, would it not then be logical to conclude that when we listen to the vocalizing of such groups today we could be hearing a very distinct and compelling echo of the music of our most ancient homo sapiens ancestors?  All the available evidence would indeed seem to indicate that Pygmy/Bushmen style might lie at or near the long sought, now long forgotten, goal at the root of ethnomusicology itself: the origins of music.

There's more, a great deal more, which I can touch on only briefly here.4  According to the now well-known 'Out of Africa' theory, which developed from essentially the same body of genetic research I've been discussing, the earliest ancestors of all non-African peoples consisted of a relatively small band of Africans who seem to have crossed the Red Sea into southwestern Asia anywhere from 60,000 to 90,000 years ago.  While this theory remains controversial, especially among certain archaeologists favoring the so-called 'multi-regional' model, the preponderance of genetic evidence would seem to support it quite strongly.  Most investigators tend to agree that the most likely route for the original migrants and their immediate descendants would have been along the southern coast of Asia, from Yemen across the coast of the Indian subcontinent, to Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia and beyond, to Melanesia and Australia.  This would have been the first great wave of migration beyond Africa for homo sapiens sapiens.  Remarkably, there is a mounting body of evidence, genetic and otherwise, indicating that certain indigenous peoples living in isolation in some of these areas today could be directly related to that first 'Out of Africa' group.5  If that's the case, then we might well wonder whether there is any musical evidence of that archaic connection.

Evidence of that sort did indeed suggest itself in some of the earliest Cantometric research, but was, at that time, very difficult to interpret.6  Since then much more evidence of a similar nature has become available.  We do in fact find a great many aboriginal groups along the early migration path, notably in Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, New Guinea and Island Melanesia, who vocalize in an interlocked, hocketed and/or canonic manner, often with yodel, remarkably close in many respects to Pygmy/Bushmen style.

Here are some examples:

We find, also, along more or less the same route, certain types of instrumental music organized in a very similar manner - for example, slit drum ensembles, stamping tubes, gong sets, trumpet or horn ensembles and, perhaps most interesting of all, panpipes.  This instrument, with its widespread but puzzling distribution,7 is played in hocket-based, usually interlocked, ensembles practically everywhere it is found.  Such ensembles seem clearly related to the interlocked, hocketed, pipe, whistle, horn and trumpet ensembles so common in so many parts of Africa, a practice both structurally and stylistically related to Pygmy/Bushmen vocal style.  The notion that the very widespread distribution of such a distinctively designed instrument could somehow be due to independent invention might possibly seem reasonable to some.  When we add the strong association with hocketing and other elements of Pygmy/Bushmen style, such a theory becomes exceptionally difficult to maintain.

Here are some examples of hocketed performance involving wind instruments:

And finally, one more comparison, most remarkable of all, at least to my ears, between two strikingly similar hocketed vocal performances, from two completely different parts of the world: It is all but impossible to account for the distribution of Pygmy/Bushmen style vocalizing, panpipe ensembles and the many other types of instrumental, interlocked hocket on any other basis but that old and much maligned notion: diffusion.  (It's important, however, to recognize the difference between the traditional concept of diffusion, based on cultural influence or domination, and the newer demic diffusion, based on migration patterns as revealed by archaeological and/or genetic evidence.)  Until recently, however, this idea seemed just as far fetched as independent invention.  Now, with the advent of genetic anthropology and the strong evidence for an 'Out of Africa' migration passing through so many regions congruent with the distribution of this highly distinctive set of musical practices, the remarkable conjunction of genetic, archaeological and musical evidence would all seem to point in the same truly astonishing direction.

If a group of Africans did emerge from that continent tens of thousands of years ago, destined to populate the rest of the world, could they have sung and played as they went in the hocketed, interlocked, continuous, yodeled, polyphonic style of today's Pygmies and Bushmen?  Was that same style then passed on from generation to generation as this lineage left colonies along its epic journey, perpetuating traditions that have persisted to this day?  When listening to such music today could we indeed be hearing our own musical roots, echoes of 'the remotest, darkest past', as prophesied by Hornbostel at a time when Ethnomusicology was itself taking root?

Was that hoary, grizzled old forefather of 28 on the right track after all?  And must Ethnomusicologists now steel themselves to tolerate such long dismissed notions as 'diffusion', 'survivals', 'origins', 'roots', etc.?  Indeed such terms can now be found with some regularity in the literature of genetic anthropology - but with more precise - and circumscribed - meanings.  Clearly we can no longer regard any of the tribal peoples of our own day as 'living fossils', throwbacks to the archaic, 'Paleolithic', past of our earliest fully human ancestors.  Each group, including the Pygmy and Bushmen hunter-gatherers, who are in fact quite different from one another in many respects, has adapted in its own way, as have we, to very different environments, both physically and culturally, and each has developed, as have we, its own characteristic customs, rituals and value systems.  If, therefore, a very distinctive and remarkable musical style has survived over such a vast period of time while so much else has changed, then this may be telling us more about music than anything else.  Because, as now seems evident, certain musical roots can go very deep indeed.

Ethnomusicology, in rejecting the concern with roots at its own root, may thereby have denied one of its most potent claims to relevance.  It is only when we are able to recognize that the roots of music may well go deeper than those of just about any other cultural practice that the special importance of this magical art - and the study of its traditions - becomes apparent.

Victor A Grauer - 26.6.07



Article MT207

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