A Blog Book, by Victor Grauer

. . . . . for Alan Lomax, who lives . . . . .

I felt that their music came from the back of time, but also, to a certain extent, from my own depths.

Simha Arom

For Table of Contents, see Blog Archive, below and to the right.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Chapter One: The Pygmy-Bushmen Nexus

A Musical Journey

What if I told you I had a time machine, enabling you to listen in on events from thousands of years in the past? Naturally, you’d smile and discreetly change the subject. “Humor me,” I’d insist, flashing a smile of my own. I’d then draw a small device out of my pocket to wave slowly and mysteriously before your eyes, like a magician’s wand. “But this is just an mp3 player,” you’d protest. “I don’t see any time machine.” I’d silently produce a small headset, plug it in to the device, press the “start” button, and hand it to you. You’d place it over your ears and listen. “Hmmm, what’s this?”

For Mickey Hart, drummer of the legendary rock band, The Grateful Dead, “these magnificent sounds . . . lit my imagination, suggested possibilities, and opened a strange new world to a kid growing up in the city. . . I was sort of listening to the roots of the roots. Deeper than the blues. What the blues was formed from” (From interview with Brian Handwerk, for National Geographic News, June 6, 2003.) Marie Daulne, founder of the innovative vocal group Zap Mama, expressed her feelings in simpler terms: “it was like an illumination, like a light” (from article on Zap Mama, in Wikipedia -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zap_Mama). 

For ethnomusicologist Simha Arom, “It was a shock . . . It made my spine tingle. How could these people play such complex music without a conductor?” in The Independent, Oct. 6, 2003 -- http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/no-small-triumph-582413.html). According to composer Marc-André Dalbavie, “this is currently one of the richest musics in existence. The complexity of the polyphony and polyrhythms is absolutely marvelous.”

“OK,” you say, “I get it. There is definitely something special about this music. But I have no idea what you mean about the 'time machine' part. How are these recordings a time machine? And what, exactly, am I listening to?”
Sorry, but the first part of your question won’t be fully answered until you’ve read the entire chapter, right up to the last sentence. As for the second part . . .
From the Back of Time
What you’ve been listening to is Diye (from Musical Anthology of the Aka Pygmies, Ocora Records 560171/72, CD2, Track 9), a divining song of the Aka (also known as the BaAka or Biaka), a group of African Pygmies, as recorded by a man who has spent much of his life studying their music, ethnomusicologist Simha Arom. “Right from the beginning,” he wrote, “I sensed that this music existed in us all, like some Jungian archetype.” Of his first experience of hearing Pygmy music, from a hotel room in the capital of the Central African Republic, Arom wrote:

I felt that their music came from the back of time, but also, to a certain extent, from my own depths. Yet I could never have known it, never having heard anything like it before. It was insane. How did the musicians achieve this? I was dumbfounded. (as quoted in “No Small Triumph,” in The Independent, Oct. 6, 2003 -- http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/no-small-triumph-582413.html).

Music “from the back of time.” Music from “my own depths.” Music that already “existed in us all.” Music that functioned “like some Jungian archetype.” Bold words. But what can they mean?  

Linguists would love to reconstruct the very first language, based on what is known about the nature of all the various language families in existence today. There's not much hope that any such effort could be successful, as there are very few (or perhaps too many) clues to work with and the whole process of reconstruction would have to be based on a long series of untestable assumptions and speculations. However, music would seem to operate in a very different manner than verbal language and as a result there may be no need to reconstruct the “archetypal” music of our ancestors. If it is still being performed today, we can simply listen to it! But how can that be? If languages have changed so much over time, wouldn't musical styles also have changed? One would think so, certainly. But the evidence would seem to tell a different story. What is that evidence?
If all we had were some recordings of Aka Pygmies, the music itself would tell us nothing about the tradition behind these intricately interwoven musical counterpoints. But there is more to the story, much more. Many other groups of Pygmies also sing in a strikingly similar manner, including populations thought to have been isolated from one another for many thousands of years. Even more remarkable, essentially the same, almost identical, style of vocalizing can be found among certain “Bushmen” groups, based in a completely different region of Africa.
Rouget’s Discovery

The first to take note of this unlikely association was a remarkable Frenchman by the name of  Gilbert Rouget, who, after a long and distinguished career as a tireless documenter and interpreter of world music and dance, is still active at age 94, hard at work (as of 2010) on a new book. While Rouget is probably best known today for his path breaking research on the relation between music and trance, he is also a formidable master of the art of field recording and a pioneer of documentary film. In 1946, Rouget took part in a Musée de l'Homme- sponsored expedition to the Oessa region of the Congo, home of the Babinga (aka Babenzélé) and Bagombé Pygmies. 

The recordings he and his colleagues made on this expedition seem to have been among the first examples of Pygmy music ever published. A few years later, Laurence Marshall, a successful businessman and adventurer, took his family to live among the !Kung Bushmen, in the Kalahari desert. For eleven years, beginning in 1950, the Marshall family, Laurence, his wife, Lorna, and their children, Elizabeth and John, lived with, studied, filmed and recorded many aspects of their lives, producing some of the first recordings of Bushmen music ever made.

When Rouget heard the Marshall’s recordings, he was startled at the striking resemblances between the musical style of these hunter-gatherers of the southwest African desert and the Pygmies he’d recently recorded, based in the tropical forest region of the Congo, in Central Africa, many thousands of miles to the north. When he played his own recordings for the Marshalls, they agreed that “the resemblance of the Bushmen and Pygmy music was so striking that it deserved to be underlined.” (Rouget 1956, p.2)

Out of their mutual effort, a now-historic LP disc was published, under the title Bushman Music and Pygmy Music, designed as a direct comparison between the musical styles of the two groups. In an accompanying booklet, Rouget expresses his puzzlement over the “troubling relationship” between the music and dances of peoples “belonging to races entirely distinct” and separated by such great distances, “as much geographic as climatic.”  Pointing to “resemblances constituting a system too complex and too coherent” to be explained on the basis of “convergence,” i.e., independent invention, he wondered whether it was “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)

To get a better idea of what Rouget found so interesting, let’s do some listening of our own. We’ve already heard an example of Aka Pygmy music, the divining song Diye, as recorded by Simha Arom (see reference above): Audio Example One:Diye. Compare with the following recording of two Ju/’hoansi Bushmen women singing a “Giraffe Dance Song” (from Healing Dance Music of the Kalahari San, recorded by Richard Katz, Megan Beisele and Marjorie Shostak, Folkways 4316, side 1, track 2): Audio Example Two:Giraffe Dance Version One.

While Diye begins with a solo voice, interwoven with one or two others, more voices join in as the performance continues, to form a complex web of sound: Audio Example Three:Diye Part Two. Compare this with another version of the Ju/’hoansi Giraffe Song, as sung by a large group of approximately 35 males and females (Op. Cit., side 1, track 3): Audio Example Four:Giraffe Dance Version Two. Here is another Aka Pygmy song, from Michelle Kisliuk’s book, Seize the Dance, CD2, track 9: Audio Example Five:Elanda Dance. Compare with this Ju/’hoansi Bushmen performance, from the CD Mongongo, recorded by John Brearly, track 3: Audio Example Six: //Kaa.

The Aka, living in the Central African Republic, represent the Pygmies of west central Africa. The Mbuti Pygmies, made famous by Colin Turnbull’s popular book, The Forest People, are located far to the East, in the Ituri Forest of the Congo. Yet their music shares essentially all the most distinctive characteristics of both the western Pygmies and the Bushmen. Here is an Mbuti “Elephant Hunting Song,” as recorded by Turnbull (from Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest, Smithsonian Folkways SFW40401, track 3): Audio Example Seven:Elephant Hunting Song.

Compare with the following Ju/’hoansi Bushmen performance, from Rouget’s original LP, Bushman Music and Pygmy Music, Peabody Museum and Musee de l’Homme, side 1, track 3: Audio Example Eight:Giraffe Medicine Song. Finally, I’ll add one more example, from a different Bushmen group, the Qwii (from Bushmen: Qwii - the First People, track 10): Audio Example Nine:The Ostrich.

In all these examples, we can hear many of the striking points of stylistic similarity shared by the three populations, western Pygmies, eastern Pygmies and Bushmen: delicate, extremely relaxed and fluid vocalizing, often highlighted with yodels; interlocking parts; a frequent tendency for one part to be completed by another part, with the effect of a melody tossed back and forth between two or more voices, a practice similar to what, in Medieval Europe, was called "hocket" (or "hiccup"); the extraordinarily well matched and fluent blending of the voices; intricate, precisely executed, polyrhythms; the predominance of meaningless vocables, usually open vowels, such as "oh" or "ah"; highly repetitive, but also varied, melodic structures, based on short motives (but with an underlying melodic phrase as an implied, but often unheard basis); frequent imitation of parts, as in a canon or round; wide melodic leaps; a continuous flow of interwoven sound with no pauses. In most cases, singing is accompanied by complex, often polyrhythmic clapping, stick beating, or rattle patterns, and, among Pygmies especially, we sometimes hear drumming, though the drum is not a traditional Pygmy or Bushmen instrument.

Roots, Shallow and Deep

For many it might seem strange to make so much of a musical affinity between any two African populations, regardless of how far apart they might be living. Aren’t all Africans “of common stock”? And doesn’t all African music sound more or less “the same”? A great many Africans do, in fact, have much in common, biologically, culturally and musically, due to an important historical development called the “Bantu expansion,” thought to have taken place relatively recently by archaeological standards: roughly 2,000 to 4,000 years ago. To simplify a complex history: Bantu speaking farmers seem to have originally been confined to a relatively small region of West Africa, at a time when much of the vast central African rainforest was occupied by Pygmies, speaking a language now lost, and most of southern Africa dominated by Bushmen, speaking a “click” language thought by many to be the oldest in existence: Khoisan.

When the Bantus expanded, roughly three or four thousand years ago, most likely in search of fresh farmland, those Bushmen unwilling to alter their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle were either killed off or marginalized to the Kalahari desert, a dry, harsh environment for which farmers had little use. For a long time, the Pygmy hunter-gatherers were safe within their forest retreat, far to the north, since most Bantus feared forest spirits.

But as the expansion progressed, some of the less powerful Bantu groups were forced into the margins of the forest, where they managed to develop symbiotic relationships with neighboring Pygmies. Eventually most of sub-Saharan Africa became dominated by Bantus, their languages, their culture and their music. I’ve presented a simplified overview of a complicated history, and there were other groups involved, speaking languages from other families, such as Nilotic and Cushitic, but suffice it to say that the Bantus appear to have been the most successful, widespread, and dominant, group.

What is now understood by most non-Africans as “African music,” is actually based on certain typical features of Bantu music: call and response choral singing; relatively simple vocal harmonies; many types of plucked string instruments, often performed by gifted musician-poets known, in West Africa, as “Griots”; various wind instruments, such as flutes, pipes, horns, trumpets, etc.; a wide array of percussion instruments, from simple “bells” to sticks, rattles, xylophones, etc.; and, of course, an elaborate sub-culture built around the drum, featuring an incredibly complex array of drumming techniques and traditions.

(Here is a fairly typical example of Bantu “call and response,” from the Kamba people of Kenya, as recorded by Hugh Tracey (Dance songs of the Kamba people from Machakos district, Kenya, ILAM, track 1): Audio Example 10: Nthambi wa Mutwana.)

In this sense, music from one part of Africa can, crudely speaking, be said to resemble music from many other parts of Africa -- all indeed stemming from a common root, based in the West African Bantu homeland of two to four thousand years ago. While of enormous significance in the history of Africa and indeed the world, that root is relatively shallow – and fairly well understood. No mystery there.

The Pygmies and Bushmen on the other hand, occupy a very different musical universe, far more complex vocally, and far simpler instrumentally, with no indigenous string instruments other than the mouth bow, no percussion other than hand clapping and stick beating, and no drums, at least traditionally (as we can hear, some Pygmies and Bushmen have become expert performers on drums borrowed from neighboring Bantu groups). Both peoples have long been thought to occupy a much older historical layer, with far deeper roots – though until recently no one had any idea how deep. More significantly, they are based in completely different parts of Africa, within totally different environments, and are thought to have remained isolated throughout most of their history from all other humans – and certainly from one another – for many thousands of years. 

[Added 4-10-11: For an update on the genetic evidence, suggesting that these populations may not have been completely isolated, see Sidebar 4.] 

Their isolation is reflected in both their genetic makeup (see Chapter Two) and their completely different physiognomies (though both are unusually short in stature), to the extent that each group has been considered a unique “race” unto itself. Under such circumstances, assuming -- as most anthropologists do -- that all cultures inevitably change over time, one would not expect their musical traditions, or in fact any of their traditions, to have much in common. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Rouget, an experienced Africanist, would be astonished by the striking resemblances he discovered.

The Lomax Code

Rouget’s prophetic words landed on deaf ears as far as the majority of anthropologists and ethnomusicologists were concerned. Both fields were in the process of moving away from comparative studies, in response to a general trend in academia toward ever more narrowly focused specialization. Perhaps because he was neither an academic nor, strictly speaking, an ethnomusicologist, a notable exception to this trend was the American folklorist Alan Lomax, for whom Rouget’s juxtaposition of Pygmy and Bushman music came as a revelation.

While primarily associated in the public mind with American folk music, Lomax’s boundless energy and enthusiasm eventually took him much farther afield, to produce what are now recognized as major collections of traditional music from the West Indies, Great Britain, Spain and Italy. His career took a decisive turn when he entered into an agreement with Columbia Records to produce an unprecedented collection of eighteen LP discs, representing traditional music from many obscure corners of the world: the Columbia World Library of Folk and Traditional Music.
As it happened, Gilbert Rouget was enlisted as co-editor of volume two of this series, devoted to the music of what was then called “French Equatorial Africa.” Meeting with him in Paris, Lomax was introduced to the remarkable music of the Pygmies and Bushmen, and infected with Rouget’s intense interest and curiosity regarding the “troubling relationship” between them. “Pygmy/Bushmen style,” highly distinctive, highly integrated, almost Utopian in its non-hierarchical, freely flowing counterpoint, in which every voice had an equal “say,” was to become a core component of his research from then on.
Ever since his experiences in Spain and Italy, Lomax had been contemplating a radically new approach to the comparative study of music, based largely on stylistic features immediately apparent from recordings, as opposed to the painstaking analysis of melodic patterns and scales based on music notation, which had dominated the research of folklorists and musicologists for many years. Rouget’s examples clearly demonstrated the power of recordings to vividly convey what was most essential, since both the highly distinctive qualities and striking resemblances of the two musical realms seemed clearly apparent, even on a first hearing.

But Lomax was keenly aware of the difference between subjective interpretation and scientific method. If recorded performances were to yield convincing results, a systematic approach to encoding and comparing them would need to be developed. Thus was born the methodology that Lomax was to call “Cantometrics,” at once the systematic “measure” of song and the use of song as a “measure” of culture.
While Lomax had always been deeply involved with music, he lacked a formal musical education and thus felt the need for a trained musician as collaborator in the development of the Cantometrics method. At the time, I was completing a Master’s Degree in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, under the supervision of David McAllester, a leading ethnomusicologist, outstanding teacher and kindred spirit. I still recall his words, informing me of Lomax’s search for a suitable collaborator, and his surprise at my enthusiastic response to his rather diffident question: “Do you think you might be interested in this sort of thing?” I jumped at the chance -- an interview with Lomax was arranged, and in short order I was informed that I got the job.

The following summer, I sublet a tiny basement apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, a few blocks from Lomax’s densely packed and somewhat chaotic combination office, studio and living quarters, on West Third Street. We spent the summer together, one of the most challenging and memorable periods of my life, intensely focused on our efforts to produce a coding system flexible enough to encompass the entire range of folk and traditional vocal music throughout the world.
Listening Cantometrically
Don’t panic. This book is not going to be about Cantometrics, though I’ll be referring to certain Cantometric findings from time to time. And I certainly won’t expect you to learn the system. However, the treatment of music throughout this book is deeply influenced by the innovative approach pioneered by Lomax, which represented a profound break with the methods then prevalent among students of both Western and non-Western music. 

Unlike those methods, focused on details of the various tonal and rhythmic components of a musical “composition,” Cantometrics represents a deliberate simplification, emphasizing certain very broad, clearly audible parameters of musical performance. Lomax’s innovation was to put aside traditional music notation, with its focus on the technical aspects of scale and structure, in favor of a more generally applicable, informal, behavior oriented, rating system which could do justice to the sort of large-scale stylistic patterns that seem to reflect the overall shape of the musical picture worldwide.
Since the strategy behind Cantometrics is to examine music more or less as a listener with no formal musical training would tend to hear it, we can use aspects of the coding system as tools in helping us hear all sorts of details we might ordinarily miss, without the need to know much about music theory or even read musical notes. Readers who want to hear for themselves what I’ve been running on about, and learn something about the way Cantometrics works should consult the “Evidence from Cantometrics” section of Appendix A, in which a Pygmy performance is systematically compared with a Bushmen performance, using Cantometrics as a guide. If you’d rather not get bogged down in such details, feel free to ignore the Appendix and read on. 

Supporting Evidence
Very early on, during the course of our work together, I too became infected with Lomax’s enthusiasm for the music of the Pygmies and Bushmen, which became the topic of endless conversations speculating on what “Pygmy/Bushmen style” (P/B), as we called it, might mean. For Lomax, both their music and their "Utopian" social structure and values were to become the “baseline” from which the evolution of all human culture ultimately stemmed.
The close affinity subjectively noted by Rouget was, indeed, supported by some of our earliest results, as Lomax reported the following year, in the journal Ethnology:
Perhaps no two peoples, so far separated in space (3,000 miles), living in such different environments (desert and jungle), and belonging to different racial and linguistic groups, share so many stylistic traits . . . as far as Cantometric analysis is concerned, the styles are, indeed, identical. (Alan Lomax, “Song Structure and Social Structure.” Ethnology, (1)4, 1962, p. 261 -- as reproduced in Alan Lomax: Selected Writings).
Some years later, in 1971, ethnologist/ethnomusicologist Charlotte Frisbie conducted an independent analysis of the same traditions, with results “practically identical with those achieved by the Cantometrics system . . . Thus, at least in one instance, a Cantometric profile can be replicated by using a non-Cantometric, more traditional comparative approach.” Noting that “[t]he comparative analysis of Bushmen and Pygmy music shows overwhelming similarities . . .” she arrived at a conclusion in perfect accord with Rouget’s original insight: “in view of the attributes of music which make it a valid tool in reconstructing culture history, these findings would present a serious problem to anyone who tried to deny an earlier historical connection between the two groups” (Frisbie 1971:285,287 – my emphasis).
Our excitement over the possibilities opened by this line of research was enhanced by a string of related discoveries. Echoes of Pygmy/Bushmen style could be found among a wide variety of different indigenous and “peasant” peoples, also marginalized, for the most part, to various “refuge areas,” both in and out of Africa, reinforcing some of Lomax’s earliest suspicions that the style could be among the oldest on Earth. But many questions remained and, as far as I was concerned, we still had a long way to go before fully understanding the meaning of this remarkable musical style and its unexpected distribution in so many obscure corners of the world.


I left the Cantometrics project early in 1967, to enroll as a graduate student in music composition at the State University of New York at Buffalo. As the years went by, Lomax, his co-director Conrad Arensberg, and a remarkable group of musicologists, dance analysts, anthropologists, linguists, statisticians and computer programmers, enlarged the scope of the project to include equally innovative research in related areas, such as movement and dance (Choreometrics), popular music, speech (Phonotactics and Parlametrics) and the relation of performance style to cultural evolution.

Supported over a period of more than thirty years by substantial grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Science Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Apple Foundation, etc., Lomax’s research on Cantometrics and other aspects of performance style was very possibly the most heavily funded humanities-oriented project in history.

Nevertheless, despite his best efforts as both researcher and promoter, Cantometrics and its sister methodologies were ultimately rejected by Lomax’s colleagues in both ethnomusicology and anthropology, as both fields moved away from comparative studies toward new approaches inspired by developments in cultural studies and postmodernism, in which the principal focus moved from far ranging speculations regarding the evolution of timeworn traditions to more locally oriented, hands-on studies of adaptation and change.

I never lost interest in either world music or Cantometrics, and maintained a close friendship with Lomax over many years. But my personal goals had changed, and for a long time I did no research at all in any aspect of ethnomusicology. It was only within the last few years, after becoming aware of exciting new developments in the field of population genetics (see below), that the full significance of what we had been calling “Pygmy/Bushmen style” began to dawn on me. 

Delving once again into the ethnomusicological literature, I discovered, moreover, that considerable progress had been made in the understanding and analysis of both Pygmy and Bushmen music since the time Lomax and I had worked together, filling in many of the gaps needed to fully assess the relation between the two traditions. After careful study of remarkably thorough research on Bushmen music by Nicholas England, an important book on Pygmy music by Michelle Kisliuk, and pioneering research on Pygmy and Bushmen music by Simha Arom and his students, Susanne Fürniss and Emmanuelle Olivier, I felt ready to undertake a systematic comparative review of the two traditions.

A Shared Language

Several transcriptions of Pygmy and Bushmen polyphonic vocalizing are systematically analyzed and compared in the paper that grew out of my studies, “Concept, Style and Structure in the Music of the African Pygmies and Bushmen” (Grauer 2009). At the heart of this effort is a demonstration that the many similarities that seem so striking to the ear are not merely an auditory illusion, as some have asserted,1 but are based on deeply rooted conceptual and structural affinities. The research reported in my paper went beyond the limitations of Cantometrics to reveal an extensive list of highly distinctive shared features, some of which are unusually complex and even quite subtle. For a thorough examination of this, and other relevant musical evidence, see Appendix A.

In addition to the many purely musical affinities, there is also a compelling psychological association that cuts deep into the mindset of both groups. Among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen, as reported by both Emmanuelle Olivier (1998:366) and Nicholas England (1967:61), certain songs are given to healers during a dream or trance by the spirits of dead ancestors who join the dreamer in a multipart performance. Upon awaking, the healer teaches the basic melody to his or her spouse, who teaches the song to others in the group, who then reconstitute the song in its original multipart form, with multiple variations.

A remarkably similar process of dream transmission, also from the dead to the living, and across genders, has been noted among the Aka Pygmies by Michelle Kisliuk (1998:177-178). An “eboka” (a type of performance combining song and dance) was transmitted in a dream to an Aka woman by her deceased brother. The woman was then expected to teach it to her husband, who then taught it, in turn, to a group of young men from the same band. According to Kisliuk, “an eboka can emerge as a mystical, dreamed gift within a family, transferred across genders and across the threshold of death.”

In sum, I feel confident that careful examination of the relevant literature, from Rouget to Lomax to Frisbie to more recent studies of my own, based on additional research by England, Kisliuk, Arom, Fürniss and Olivier, will reveal that the musical affinities -- structural, conceptual and contextual -- are clear and decisive. All the evidence points quite strongly to the same surprising conclusion: despite the huge disparities, geographical, environmental and temporal, the various Pygmy and Bushmen groups covered in the research cited above clearly share essentially the same musical language. Consequently, if, as suggested by Rouget, their musical practices must therefore be understood as stemming from a common root, it is possible to conclude that all the many shared stylistic, structural, conceptual, and cultural attributes enumerated above may well have been present in the ancestral model.

A Fresh Perspective

When Rouget and Lomax originally asked themselves why the singing styles of so many Pygmy and Bushmen groups were so strikingly similar, despite the enormous geographical distances among the many populations involved, there was no easy answer. And despite all the evidence that’s accumulated since, musical research in itself can take us only so far. If Pygmy/Bushmen style originated among the common ancestors of both groups, we would still have no idea when they lived – or where. Although many anthropologists suspected that these African hunter-gatherers could be perpetuating the life style of some of our earliest homo-sapiens ancestors, their thinking was based largely on assumptions. There was little in the way of solid evidence to support such a notion and there were many skeptics.

It was only since the late Nineties, with the advent of the “Out of Africa” theory, based on new and very exciting genetic research, that the real significance of this remarkable musical affinity became evident. Over and over again it is the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa whose DNA is being referenced as representative of some of the oldest populations in the world. 

The book, Mapping Human History, by Steve Olson (2002), summarizes in a fascinating manner much of this research, including some very intriguing genetic findings regarding both groups. Based on such evidence, Olson concludes not only that “the ancestors of the Bushmen had to be one of the first groups to become established in Africa,” but “several tribes of Forest Dwellers [Pygmies], who today live in scattered remnants in central Africa, [also] have very old mitochondrial [female line] and Y [male line] lineages. And like the Bushmen, the Forest Dwellers seem to have been much more widely distributed at some time in the past.... (ibid.:50-51).

What Olson is saying is that both the Bushmen and Pygmies might well represent the original inhabitants of Africa. According to a widely quoted study led by geneticist Yu-Sheng Chen,

these data showed that the Biaka [Aka] 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” (2000:1362).

Chen et al. estimate that the ancestors of the Biaka diverged from a hypothetical founder population that lived in Africa between 76,200 and 102,000 years ago, with a divergence time for the Kung Bushmen between 41,000 and 54,100 years ago. A sampling of Senegalese Bantus is given a much more recent divergence time of between 17,900 and 23,200 (Chen et al. 2000:1371). 

In a more recent overview, published in African Archaeology, an important mainstream collection encapsulating some of the newest research in the field, Curtis Marean and Zelalem Assefa report that “both the fossil and genetic records target Africa as central to the origins of modern humans. A consistent result of these studies is that African people of Khoi [Bushman] and Pygmy ancestry represent some of the most ancient populations on this planet” (Stahl 2005:97). In the following chapter, we’ll learn more about the methodology of the population geneticists, and more closely evaluate the unique role played by Pygmies and Bushmen in the unveiling of our shared “deep history.”

As should now be clear, it is only in the light of genetic evidence that did not become available until many years after Lomax and I worked together, that the musical findings can now be tied to what is being discovered about the human family tree, strongly suggesting that “Pygmy/Bushmen style” could date all the way back to the time when the ancestors of every human now living were a single population. In other words, by listening to a recording of traditional Pygmy or Bushmen music in the style I’ve been describing, we are, in a sense, entering a kind of time warp, hearing the sort of sounds our African ancestors may well have been making anywhere from 76,000 to over 100,000 years ago.

1. For a discussion of a conflicting interpretation offered by two of Simha Arom’s students, Susanne Fürniss and Emmanuelle Olivier, and my response, see Appendix A.


  1. Victor, hello!
    I,m so glad that you are back after long period of silence in your Music000001.
    When I listen first sample (Pygmy) - I VERY wonder: it's fully same as Georgian
    folk song sample. I mean Georgian from Caucasus, not from USA. I hope it will
    help You in future works.

  2. Well, there are many differences between Pygmy music and Georgian music. But there are also some striking similarities. For a good example of how close the two can be, see Audio Example 36 in Chapter Twelve.

  3. Responses to the reading in real time:

    - hearing clips right there in the reading stream of the text is great! it’s especially exciting as I ponder my own work on improvisation and nonidiomatic composition, which really challenges the wordsmith in me...really the ideal format for books about music;

    - your personal account of working for Lomax perked me up. Even if I weren’t familiar with him, his work, your part in it, Wesleyan, McAllester, etc., I would appreciate that, as it’s always nice to get the personal angles that lend authority and context to the more general scholarship, however engaging it is on its own. Since I am familiar, it takes me back to my own PhD years (1993-7), when I met McAllester, first read Lomax, Rouget, etc.

    - not to get too pedantic about it, I found myself recalling readings about music studies that drew on the work of phenomenologists when I read your description of Cantometrics. Was any of that on Lomax’s radar screen when he developed his system, and/or on yours since?

    - the whole P/B thing of two disparate groups with common ancestry traceable back through both genetics and musical style reminds me of Curt Sachs doing something similar with Northern Europe and Subsaharan Africa, in Wellsprings. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. Are Sachs and Rouget and Lomax the only scholars who have done that kind of family tree detective work through their comparative studies? I wonder how much more could be done, by people proactively looking for it now.

    - A counterintuitive thing about genetics is that the gene pools that have stayed in one place the longest (Africa) are more diverse than those that have split off into their new and shorter histories (more time to spawn mutations in one homogeneous place). Any analogy there to the slow-to-change musical field that is conserved in one place with little outside influence for so long?

    - finally, I wonder if your rigorous scholarship's results here have ever piqued your interest in other literature, less rigorous (even bordering on occult), about ancient prehistoric civilizations rising and falling throughout that same 100,000-year time window? theories and stories you'd have dismissed before, but that resonate in this or that detail with the findings you find compelling here?

  4. Hi Mike. I agree that the Internet is the ideal format for a book about music, which is one reason I decided to publish this way. The only problem is that some people prefer to print out first and then read, which means continually switching back and forth. I'm looking forward to the time when ebooks go multimedia. Unless they've already done that.

    I was close to both McAllester and Lomax, both of whom always treated me as though I was special -- and inspired me. I met Rouget in Paris many years ago. He took me to dinner at an amazing restaurant and as I recall we talked mostly about Pygmies and Bushmen. I've sent him copies of my current work and he's been very encouraging, as you might imagine. He's still going strong, in his 90's!

    Phenomenology is a field that's always intrigued but also puzzled and confused me. Lomax never mentioned it. He was coming off a period of study with Ray Birdwhistle, who was a kinesiologist, and he was also friendly with Roman Jakobson, the linguist. I'd say kinesiology and linguists and related fields were his biggest influence -- along with Freud, of course. And Margaret Mead, who was also a Freudian.

    Sachs was one of a remarkable group of comparative musicologists, along with von Hornbostle, Wiora, Stumpf, Kolinski, etc., who were very interested in digging deep into music's history and evolution. I've written about the "roots" of ethnomusicology in an essay called, appropriately enough, "Roots": http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/roots.htm

    The problem was that they lacked a baseline and thus had no idea where to begin, though they certainly had some interesting theories. These were really smart people, excellent and thorough scholars with good ideas, but as I see it they were rudderless.

    Imo it's not possible to trace the origins of music through the study of musical evidence alone. That can only take you so far. And there's just not enough useful archaeological or linguistic evidence to fill in the many gaps. It was only when the geneticists began focusing on human origins that the fog began to clear -- at least for me.

    Diversity is highly diagnostic for genetics because mutations accumulate over time and mutations become lost due to population bottlenecks. There is really no equivalent to that in music, I'm afraid.

    Also, it's really easy to measure genetic diversity, but how do you measure musical diversity? Is Pygmy music diverse or not? Well in certain ways it's extremely diverse, but in other ways it's not at all diverse. One thing it definitely is, however, is complex, so maybe complexity can be used in music where you'd look for diversity in genetics. With each cultural bottleneck there is the possibility of losing complexity, associated with the risk of losing some of your most gifted musicians. But the loss of polyphonic complexity has often been balanced by a gain in melodic complexity, and subtlety, so I'm not sure what to think on that score either.

    The "other literature" you mention has always intrigued me. Right now I'm reading a book about the Nasca lines and I've always been fascinated with Stonehenge and similar sites. However, while I always enjoy speculating, there is a difference between speculation based on systematic, critical study and sheer imagination or "what seems reasonable to assume." While it might "seem reasonable" to assume that certain things are connected or stem from the same "roots" it's awfully easy to be deceived on that score.

    Which is why I try NEVER to assume anything when I do this sort of research, but work strictly with evidence plus inference.

  5. Victor,
    I haven’t clicked with the music scholarship that draws on phenomenology much in my published work, but in my dissertation I did do a literature scan of it and made a few connections to the spontaneously improvised and nonidiomatically composed music I was looking at. It seemed a promising methodology for theorizing music that springs immediately from the body in the moment, by design—which, again, is not to say music or body thereby divorced by definition from the various things it’s consciously trying to eschew, any more than phenomenology itself, as a practice, is divorced from the history of philosophy before it and the discourse it engages. The phenomenologist posture of consciously attending only to sensory input as it occurs and responses to it as they arise is too much like the practice of “freely” improvising and composing to ignore. However, in practice, it didn’t seduce me down its path. It just feels like too arcane an approach, so much so that it’s even less a match than others despite seeming like more, on paper, compared to the actual experience and feel of making improvised music, alone or with others.

    More of a match, I’ve gradually been finding, is to approach my own scholarship of such music as both a folklorist—ie, a collector of a wide range and variety of such musical events, and putting together my own explanations of them as a general phenomenon by connecting their many dots, much as Lomax and the others we’ve mentioned did—and a creative writer, like some of the more literary-styled ethnographers I’ve read, as well as some of the novelists. A work in progress...

    Listening to your samples in this chapter, I was struck by their resonance with some famous recordings of collective improvisation by the jazz-based players of my purview, including “Ascension” by John Coltrane and “Free Jazz” by Ornette Coleman, and by many sessions I’ve heard and played in by/with others. The aesthetic of taking a simple melodic/rhythmic motif and working it repetitively as a nonhierarchical group rather than soloist with layered levels of accompaniment is what’s similar. There’s the same propensity to trance, and the breakthrough from the collective complexity to a musical flow that takes on a life of its own and seems to start “speaking” things not orchestrated by the initial motif...similar, and different from your Bantu sample (10) for the same reasons.

    This is one reason I’m intrigued by your work, from my own standpoint. The African American music that branched off from jazz-as-part-of-Western-conventional entertainment into free jazz and beyond (the more current “improvised music” scene) is of interest to me for its suggestion that the musicking bodies, alone and together, tend to default and flow down some directions rather than others. The payoffs for the single and collective bodies in doing so must be rooted in their natural designs and needs, as well as their social and historical situations.

  6. (con't from last comment post; I ran into your character limit)

    This new development in genetics that got you back into this work is part of a larger picture of new developments in other scientific areas that prompted my question about the “other” less rigorous literature. I’m too lazy to go look up exact details, but I know that as the decades of my own life have unfolded, theories and speculations that were in the realm of occult fantasy books about Atlantis, the paranormal, biblical tales, other myths, forgotten advanced civilizations of old, etc. when I was a teenager have, here and there, slipped up a notch or two via new techniques of figuring the age of the sphinx and pyramids, for example, or new ideas about “morphic resonances” in biology (Rupert Sheldrake)—still squishy, but “hardening” enough to merit a Nova or other such presentation as possibly in the realm of responsible history or science. I’m always on the lookout for such gaps bridged.

    Your work is clearly in that category of speculation based on sound facts and reasoning. I got into Ethno as an academic discipline through the back door, as it were, as the way for me to work with Anthony Braxton (more as a musician than a scholar, at first). Over time, as I got into reading those pioneers you mention, and doing my own work as a scholar, I definitely gravitated toward the passé "grand narrative" side of things and away from the narrow specialisms. I see an interesting future of interesting pasts there...;>}

  7. The aspects of Phenomenology that support notions such as "direct bodily experience" came under severe criticism as structuralism and semiotics began to take over as the dominant paradigms of the 60's -- and structuralism, as I'm sure you know, was in turn "deconstructed" by the post-structuralists. Imo the most helpful text dealing with such issues is Derrida's "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," which I strongly recommend if you aren't already acquainted with it.

    My own response to the dilemma raised by Derrida is the notion of "negative syntax," or "antax," which I've associated with "aesthetic" in the original sense of that term, as a sensory "logic" (or anti-logic).

    Where the work of highly visceral artists, such as Coltrane and Coleman, fits into all this is hard to say. Their work does seem to spring "immediately from the body," as you say, but imo they are also extraordinarily intelligent musicians, who are always thinking as they play. It's just that they were able to think more quickly on their feet than the average person, but I do get the sense that their work is as "antactic" as it is visceral.

    I like very much the idea of a "musical flow that takes on a life of its own," but for me these are as much musical thoughts as bodily actions.

    Jackson Pollock became known as an "action painter," but from his descriptions of how he worked it's clear that he was always thinking. However, under such circumstances, where the "flow" becomes all important, it becomes difficult to distinguish mind from body, no question.

    As I see it, many elements of jazz, both New Orleans and progressive, represent an effort to connect with the deepest level of the ancestral "legacy" I discuss in Chapter Eighteen, which is imo always there, just beneath the surface, to those who are sensitive to it. I don't see it so much as "bodily," however, as just simply: deep.

  8. As far as the second part of your post is concerned, Mike, I have a mixed reaction. I really don't want people to associate my work with topics such as Atlantis, morphic resonance, etc. and I'm especially sensitive to this because for many it will be all too easy to dismiss me by casting me in the same mold.

    There's a long history in our field, centered on a group of German thinkers, the Kulturkreis school, who also speculated rather wildly on all sorts of rather enticing "resonances," morphic and otherwise. And my greatest fear is that I'll be seen as someone attempting to revive that sort of thinking.

    Not that I don't respect many of these people, or believe they might have been on to something. In many cases they showed real insight. The problem I have with all of the above, and where I draw the line between them and me, is that they all too often worked on the basis of assumptions.

    For example, people like Sachs assumed that music must have begun with very simple structures, what he called "logogenic" or "pathogenic" expressions. While there is certainly some real insight involved in such assumptions, they were nevertheless assumptions, rather than testable hypotheses, and as a result his research went nowhere.

    Others assumed, on a very similar basis, that music must have started with only one or two notes and then evolved to encompass more and more tones until "sophisticated" scales emerged. Since we find very simple one or two tone "melodies" in almost all societies such assumptions mean little.

    As a result of the above situation, Kulturkreis thinking or anything remotely resembling it was at a certain point severely attacked and then dismissed. For very good reasons, as far as I'm concerned. So -- I am NOT attempting to revive any of this sort of thinking, despite the fact that there were some real insights involved. What I am doing is completely different, as I see it, much more like what the pop. geneticists are doing -- or what cosmologists do when they investigate various hypotheses regarding the origin and destiny of the Universe.

    I'll add one more thing: the most radical aspect of my book does not come from me, but from the geneticist. If you read carefully, you'll see that I'm largely following in their footsteps. Rather cautiously, I might add.

  9. Points taken, Victor. I have no confusion between your work here and the kind of speculative theorizing you're referring to. I would certainly share your aversion to any such association. My point in mentioning the clearly pseudoscientific-cum-mythical was to point out that some such theories or notions DO rise in credibility when sound science makes an advance resonant with them. If your work had no support from genetics, but was asserting that present-day Pygmy-Bushmen music was telling us something we could take to the bank about what all our ancestors were doing 100,000 years ago, based solely on your musicologically speculative interpretation of their aesthetic, it would be in the category you want to avoid, right? I don't think it is in danger of being perceived so.

    About those improvisers (like Pollock in painting) who think deeply "on their feet," and from a storehouse of formal training, I second your line about the blur between body and mind at a certain level. I generally include mind when I talk about "the body" in my work; what I'm generally getting at, more precisely, is a holistic body-mind at work, as opposed to one operating out of a dualistic self-concept. I'm currently writing up an entry for Grove Online about Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman's first main bass player. He came from a musical family and was already singing harmonies by ear to his mother's melodies, professionally, before age 2. When he talks about doing much the same thing along with Ornette's improvised lines, he frequently talks about "not thinking," or "thinking interferes" with his process. He too is clearly an intelligent, thinking, and formally trained musician, but I read what he says as a process of thought that takes place throughout his Central Nervous System and beyond it, to the rest of the body its neurons are driving, as opposed to the local ghost in the machine of his cerebral cortex.

    Also, BTW, I alluded to "morphic resonances" with more respect than I did to Atlantis. While some criticize the work of biologist Rupert Sheldrake as too New-Agey "out there," other credible peers of his and I have yet to see his work that way myself. You might find him interesting to look into, if you aren't familiar with him.

    I did read your paper for MTO, and am revisiting the Derrida piece; I'll throw in my two bits to that thread after I process them both more. I sense you swim in those particular intellectual-historical waters more than I, but I have dipped more than a toe in them myself, so I'll engage what I can anon, in the context of my own deeper waters. For now, I'm thinking maybe I should also read your whole book before commenting at much length on each chapter in my first pass, because I might be raising questions and issues you address later on...

  10. "If your work had no support from genetics, but was asserting that present-day Pygmy-Bushmen music was telling us something we could take to the bank about what all our ancestors were doing 100,000 years ago, based solely on your musicologically speculative interpretation of their aesthetic, it would be in the category you want to avoid, right?"

    Yes. You hit the nail on the head, Mike. For many years I had such ideas in mind, but was reluctant to write about them because they were too speculative and involved too many untested (and untestable) assumptions. When I became aware of the genetic research, that changed everything, because it provided me with something solid I could test my ideas against.

    As far as the "mind-body" thing is concerned, I agree. For me this is nothing mysterious, however. For anyone who's ever learned to play an instrument, it's clear that at a certain point our fingers "learn" what is initially grasped only by our minds, and at a certain point simply take over, with no need anymore for the mind to think what to do. Same with learning to ride a bike.

    Some years ago I got interested in morphic resonance and spent some time reading about it. Some of the claims were pretty hard to swallow, but also very intriguing. What makes me skeptical is that it seems ridiculously easy to test, and any scientist who managed to prove it was for real would be more or less guaranteed a Nobel Prize. That hasn't happened, which leads me to believe the tests must have been negative.