The Music of Primitive Man

We’ve posted in the past about the theory some anthropologists have that music was our first form of artistic expression. In this way human language evolved from primitive songs. This is all of interest to us because it suggests the reason we establish such deep, often non-verbal responses to music.

At the same time, our connection to our primitive roots is tenuous at best. In many cases, the future of remaining primitive societies around the globe hang on a slender thread. Some are counting their remaining generations, an alarming reality made clear in National Geographic‘s November 2015 issue through a focus on climate change. One particularly moving piece focused on the island nation of Kiribati, whose capital is likely to be uninhabitable by the end of the century. The I-Kiribati people are hardly primitive and could be relocated to Australia, New Guinea or the Phillippines, but at what cost to their culture?

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Many other island societies, as well as those in places like Australia’s outback or the Orinoco River valley in South America, are likewise facing the future disappearance of their cultures. Consider that there are an about 6,000 spoken languages in the world, and UNESCO estimates that half of them will be dead by the year 2100.

This is all made ominously clear in the liner notes to this 1973 album produced by the British Broadcasting Company for Horizon. Program director Joseph Prostakoff writes:

Primitive man’s music provides us with an extraordinary window into his culture — all the more so because it is an integral part of every aspect of his life. This record presents more than fifty examples of exotic chants and instruments, as well as songs of work, war, love, and celebration. All were recorded on site in remote corners of the world and are brought together here in a unique collection — before the music fades forever.

The notes provide just a little bit of information for each of the forty-four tracks, which were recorded on location throughout the world. For instance, this first song is an Ainu folk song called Chkap Upopo (“Singing Birds”) and we are informed that “the sounds of birds and insects are interpreted as gods’ oracles about the weather, crops, and fortunes of the tribe.” The notes also tell us the Ainus are an aboriginal Caucasian tribe inhabiting the northernmost of the Japanese islands, but they do not mention their language is all but lost. The Endangered Language Project estimates there are only two native speakers of Ainu remaining.

This second song is performed by two Bambuti tribesmen, and they accompany themselves on an instrument identified in the notes as the lukembe. Fans of spiritual jazz artists such as Pharaoh Sanders or Chicago’s Kahil El’Zabar likely know this instrument as the African thumb piano. It is comprised of metal strips mounted to a sounding board. To play it one depresses and releases the ends of the strips, sort of like a a piano key.

The Bambuti are a largely isolated pygmy people who live in the Congo region of Africa. This recording was made in the Ituri forest.

This hauntingly beautiful recording was made at the King’s palace at Nukualofa, the capital of the Tonga Islands. From the liner notes: “The origin of the nose flute is associated with the primitive belief that nose breath contains the soul and had, therefore, more magical power than mouth breath.” This is another instrument which may be familiar to jazz fans, as it was often employed by Rahsaan Roland Kirk during his performances.

The sea level around Tonga has risen at about twice the global average since 1993, carving about 40 meters off the island, according to this Radio Australia program. A Tongan representative to the UN’s 2011 climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, sums up the situation faced by nations such as his, who are on the “frontline” of climate change but are essentially powerless.

Those living perilously close to sea level such as those on the Island of Tonga are not the only people whose way of life has already begun to be irreversibly altered by climate change. The fishing and hunting seasons for Inuit people are becoming shorter each year. As the water warms the fish stay deeper below the surface, and residents of the subarctic are seeing flora and fauna they have never seen before.

There are a number of languages in the Inuit family, but as the general culture is endangered so is the language. In Alaska, for instance, only about one quarter of the `13,000 Inupiat people speak the language, and most of them are over the age of forty (these are also divided into several dialects). The song on The Music of Primitive Man was recorded in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where Inuktitut is recognized as an official language. There is even a written form of Inuktitut, called Canadian Aboriginal syllabics.

This track contains two recordings. The first is a solo on the musical bow, which Prostakoff points out in the notes is maybe the earliest stringed instrument. The second recording is a Chicha song, sung by a group of women. Chicha is a fermented drink consumed during seasonal celebration. The third song is a lullaby.

The Motilon Indians live in the Catatumbo River basin, in Columbia and Venezuela. They speak a language called Barí, which is part of a larger group of indigenous languages called Chibchan.

French ethnologist Robert Jaulin wrote an influential book on the Motilon people in 1970 called White Peace: An Introduction to Ethnocide. In it he differentiates between genocide as the killing of a people and ethnocide as the killing of a culture. Jaulin went through a series of initiation rites to become part of the Motilon community, and witnessed firsthand the slow erasure of their culture through the removal of children (to be raised apart from their families), forced labor and compulsory abandonment of traditional customs. And also, of course, the introduction of religious propaganda. Jaulin’s observations are hardly limited to the Catatumbo River basin, as is clear from the future of the other societies featured on this album.

As we wrote earlier, there are forty-four tracks on this album, and in reading about each we could find a similar story. Presently, the transition team put in place by our President Elect implies that we are likely to fulfill his campaign promise to re-visit our treaties and agreements with other nations. Tragically, this may include last year’s historic Paris Agreement, which only went into effect earlier this month. Even with a very serious response to climate change, it seems unlikely that many of the cultures featured on The Music of Primitive Man are likely to survive this century.

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