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

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Monday, March 7, 2011

Chapter Twelve: Passage to Europe

The picture for present day Europe is especially problematic due to an extraordinarily complicated history, in which all sorts of peoples from a great many places have fought time and again over the same turf for thousands of years, and almost all traces of tribal affiliation have vanished. The pre-historic picture is complicated, moreover, by an Ice Age, from c. 20,000-16,000 years ago, that covered vast areas of northern Europe with huge glaciers, forcing many populations to refuge areas farther south, where they remained for thousands of years before repopulating the northern latitudes. With the beginnings of the Neolithic there may well have been additional major population movements, as farmers from the Near East are thought to have migrated into Europe in large numbers.

[Added 3-10-11:Subsequently, there have been many large and small scale migrations, incursions, invasions, wars, revolutions, etc. that altered the social and cultural landscape of Europe in a multitude of ways. Moreover, during the last few centuries, various city-states, fiefdoms, duchies, kingdoms, etc. coalesced into modern nations, within which many previously distinct ethnic groups have ultimately lost both their independence and their identity.

While such events have certainly obscured much of the past, thanks to the work of archaeologists, linguists and, more recently, population geneticists, we are learning more and more about the early history of this vast region. Moreover, as I hope to demonstrate, there is much to be learned from a careful review of musical traditions which, in many cases, appear to have survived more or less intact over many thousands of years.]

The Immigrants

According to Stephen Oppenheimer (2003:129-30), the original “Out of Africa” migrants would not have been able to make their way toward Europe “until after 50,000 years ago, when a moist, warm phase greened the Arabian Desert sufficiently to open the Fertile Crescent.” Following both archaeological and genetic evidence he sees the homeland of these early Europeans in South Asia over 50,000 years ago, with a first wave of immigration, associated with the so-called “Aurignacian” culture, carrying the mitochondrial haplogroup U5 (an offshoot from superhaplogroup N), now common throughout Europe. He associates a second wave, from northwest India and Kashmir, dating from c. 33,500 years ago, with the somewhat later, “Gravettian,” culture and a different mitochondrial haplogroup, HV, along with two Y [male line] chromosome markers, R and I, which he calls “Ruslan” and “Inos.” Oppenheimer cites a recent study indicating that “the earliest roots of HV are found in South Asia...[and] the Trans-Caucasus was the site of her first West Eurasian blooming” (ibid.:145).

Another version of more or less the same genetic picture is encapsulated in the leftmost portion of the migration map we consulted in the previous chapter (Metspalu et al. 2004, fig. 5):

(See Figure 11.1 in Chapter Eleven)

Since M is not found in Europe, we can concentrate on haplogroup N and its offshoots, R and U, which appear in the leftmost loop, along with X, TJ and HV. Of the two arrows leading into Europe both appear to be rooted in the same Trans-Caucasus region noted by Oppenheimer.

“Caucasoid” Origins

Nicholas Wade, in his book Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2006), notes that “[t]he first modern humans were an African species that had suddenly expanded its range,” and continues, speculating as follows:

 For many millennia people would presumably all have had dark skin . . . It seems likely that the first modern humans who reached Europe 45,000 years ago would also have retained black skin and other African features. . . . [Thus] early Europeans, including the great artists of the Chauvet cave in France, may have retained dark skin and other badges of their African origin for many thousands of years (p. 95).

If Wade is correct, then what we now understand as typically “Caucasoid” morphology would have evolved in Europe, with white skin presumably an adaptation to a colder climate than that of Africa or South Asia. But white skin is only one feature of Caucasoid morphology; the original definition of the “Caucasian race” was based on the study of skull types, not skin color. And typically Caucasoid skull types are found not only in Europe, but among the dark skinned native peoples of southern India, known as “Dravidians.” 

Which raises an interesting question: did the typically “Caucasoid” physiognomy originate in Europe, as the result of a complex process of adaptation that would, aside from skin color, be extremely difficult to explain, followed by a dispersal throughout the entirety of a continent already inhabited by peoples with an African morphology, a process which is also very difficult to understand?  Or could it have originated in South Asia, long before the colonization of Europe, as a consequence of the same disastrous event that may have also produced, among a different “founder group,” people with a proto-Mongoloid morphology?1

The origin of proto-Caucasoids in South Asia at such an early date might also explain the presence of certain Caucasoid features among Paleosiberians, as well as the remarkably Caucasoid appearance of the Ainu, the indigenes of northern Japan, clearly unrelated to  Europeans in any way other than appearance. As I see it, dispersal throughout Europe of a population already bearing Caucasoid features when they first entered that continent makes a lot more sense than a gradual process of morphological change magically converging on a single type over thousands of years. But this is, of course, an extremely complex issue that may never be resolved.


If the Trans-Caucasus were indeed a major staging ground for early humans into Europe, there is reason to believe their musical practices might be alive and well in the region to this day. The Republic of Georgia is home to what are probably the richest and most complex traditions of oral vocal polyphony outside of Africa. According to Joseph Jordania, a leading authority on Georgian music (and polyphonic singing in general), “unlike many countries in Europe, where the tradition of polyphonic singing is represented only in some of the regions, the whole of Georgia is one big group of closely related polyphonic traditions” (Jordania 2006:75). However, significant differences within this region become apparent when he contrasts the pedal drone, free rhythms, metric variety and ornamented melisma of the East, with the contrapuntal polyphony, strict rhythms, duple meter, unornamented melodies and yodel of the West. The musical split is paralleled by important historical differences, as West Georgia can be associated with the older, more traditional culture of “Old Europe,” prior to later migrations from the east:

[T]hese migrations and major cultural and population changes during the 3rd-2nd millennia involved only the territory of East Georgia, while the territory of western Georgia, situated on the other side of the Likhi mountains . . . remained virtually unaffected (ibid.: 219).

Significantly, the characteristics Jordania associates with the more conservative culture of western Georgia are all typical of P/B style as well, while many other features of P/B, such as hocket, part crossing, ostinato, continuous flow, improvisation, disjunct melody, meaningless vocables, open-throated voices, precise tonal and rhythmic blend, use of the same intervals both melodically and harmonically, and free use of secundal dissonance, are also characteristic, if not omnipresent, aspects of certain types of west Georgian polyphony.

Here is a remarkable example of Georgian choral polyphony that resembles P/B style in many respects. Listen especially for the yodeling, the many repetitions of short motives, the continuous, “run-on” flow, and the rapid, hocketed exchange between interlocking groups: Audio Example 36:Garuli Naduri (from Georgian Voices, the Rustavi Choir).

Is this a style that must necessarily have evolved from monophony to polyphony, simplicity to complexity, according to traditional notions of evolutionary “development”? Or was the complexity there from the beginning, a legacy from our African ancestors and their HV, Inos, and Ruslan descendents?

The Archaeological Evidence

According to Oppenheimer, European Russia seems to have first been colonized “high up the river Don, at Kostenki, due north of the Caucasus” (ibid.:147). This important Paleolithic site on the Don River, near Voronezh, dating between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, is the subject of a web site (Hitchcock 2009) containing many very interesting illustrations and discussions. Among photos of “mammoth bone dwellings” and “Venus” figurines resembling the well known Venus of Willendorf, we find drawings of two “pipes made from long, hollow bird bones” which “may have been musical instruments or animal lures” (see photo K, reproduced from Sklenar 1985):

 Figure 12.1 Birdbone Pipes from Kostenki (Hitchcock 2009)

Another website by the same author, is devoted to a closely related archaeological site, Mezhirich. Here we find an extremely interesting reconstruction of a mammoth-bone hut, designed in a manner that closely resembles some of the beehive huts we examined in Chapter Eight:

 Figure 12.2 Mammoth-Bone Hut (reconstruction)

Note the resemblance between the curved bones joined over the entryway and the manner in which bent saplings are joined in a typical Pygmy or Bushmen hut.

According to Alexander Buchner’s Encyclopédie des instruments de musique, “The oldest Pan pipes found in Europe come from the eastern part of the continent: a neolithic necropolis (2000 BC) in southern Ukraine and a site in the region of Saratov. Each was made of seven or eight hollow bird bones” (Buchner 1980:20). (Buchner’s research predates discovery of the Kostenki site. Birdbone panpipes have also been found in a tomb dating from the eleventh century BC, in Luyi, Henan Province, China (Bishop 2005)).

Folkorist Rūta Žarskienė has studied “multi-pipe whistles” from northeastern Lithuania, the Komi Republic, Briansk in southwestern Russia, and the Kaluga and Kursk regions near Moscow:

It seems that the most striking principle, uniting Lithuanian, Komi and Russian instruments, is that the untied whistles are used only in groups and are played only collectively… The number of …whistles [used is similar] (Lithuanian—five to eight, Komi—four to six, Russian—four to eleven). The distribution of the Lithuanian multi-pipe whistles especially while performing sung polyphonic songs, could be relevant with [the distribution] of Russian instruments into so-called “pairs”. (Žarskienė 2003)

In a related article, Žarskienė examines the association of many of these instruments with bird names and the onomatopoetic imitation of birdcalls. Noting the wide area of dissemination of this practice, she suggests that such bird associations could possibly date back “to very ancient times,” and, presumably, the “earliest emotional attitude of mankind.” (Žarskienė 2000).

Lithuanian multi-pipe ensembles are frequently associated with one of the oldest vocal traditions in that country, the sutartine (pronounced su-tar-ti-nay). Sutartines are sung and/or played canonically in two or three interlocking parts, often emphasizing intervals of a second—a practice resembling aspects of P/B style, where imitative passages, similar to rounds or canons are not uncommon: Audio Example 37:Sutartine-Tureja Liepa (from website compiled by  Skirmantė Valiulytė).

Sets of trumpets or horns called ragai were “common in northeast Lithuania for performing sutartines.... Each...had its own name, individual rhythms based on one or two notes and onomatopoetic words to remember these” (Sadie 1984, iii:188-89). A photo of five Lithuanian ragai players (ibid.:189) bears a striking resemblance to photos of certain hocket-based trumpet ensembles in Africa:

Figure 12.3 Lithuanian Trumpets (Sadie 1984, iii:189)

Figure 12.4 Flute and Horn Ensemble, Chad (Blench 2002)

We’ve already heard an example of Ragai music in Chapter Nine:Audio Example 25: Tytytitit.

Research similar to that of Žarskienė was carried out by Olga Velitchkina, in the village of Plehkovo, in the Kursk region of European Russia, not far from the Ukrainian border. The following video was also presented in Chapter Nine, but let’s take another look: Video Example One: Russian Pipers. Can you hear the performers “hooting” along with their pipes? Velitchkina presents a transcription of a pipe duet from this repertoire, clearly demonstrating how intricately the vocal and instrumental parts interweave. I’ll include it here for the benefit of those who can read music:

Figure 12.5 Panpipe Duet -- Plekhovo (Velitchkina 1996)

As Velitchkina notes, the transcription is a bit misleading, as the performers never sing and play at exactly the same time. A more detailed transcription would make the basis in hocketing even more evident. Another remarkable point of similarity between this tradition and P/B is the cyclic organization of these pieces into distinct periods. Moreover, as Velitchina's analysis makes clear, variation from one period to the next is an important element in this style, as it is in P/B. Many other points of similarity with P/B are evident from both the recordings and her analysis.

Velitchkina makes the point that “[o]n first listening, this music seems closer to African forms (for example, to the Ba-Benzele Pygmy music) than to any European folk instrument traditions.” Here is an example of Ba-Benzele hocketed vocalizing with pipes, for comparison: Audio Example 38: Song After Returning from a Hunt (from Anthology Of World Music: Africa - Ba-Benzele Pygmies, recorded by Simha Arom). Here's an even closer example, from the Ouldeme people of the Mandara Mountain region of Cameroon. The “hooting” voices of the singers are clearly audible: Audio Example 39:Zavan (from Cameroon:Flutes of the Mandara Mountains, recorded by Nathalie Fernando et Fabrice Marandola). To me, the resemblance with the Russian pipers is uncanny.

To summarize, we see a clear pattern in certain remote areas of the Caucasus and Eastern Europe consistent with survival,  well into the Twentieth Century, of essentially the same “African Signature” we've already noted in remote enclaves of southeast Asia, Indonesia, Melanesia, etc. Specifically:
  •  The elaborately contrapuntal, interlocked, hocketed and yodeled vocal polyphony of west Georgia.
  • Long-term traditions of very similar types of communal panpipe playing, with unbound pipes, and associations with birds, found scattered throughout Lithuania, the Ukraine, and Russia, many in the same general area where remains of important Paleolithic settlements have been discovered (for example, Avdeevo near Kursk and Mezin, Gagarino, and Mezhirich in the Ukraine).
  • In one Russian settlement, Kostenki, hollowed pipes made of bird bone were found, which appear to have had either a musical, signaling, or hunting function, very possibly all three.
  • In Lithuania, a vocal tradition, the sutartine, organized in a manner somewhat like P/B canonic/echoic style, in association with a tradition of hocketed trumpet and horn ensembles reminiscent of very similar practices in Africa.
  • And finally, thanks to the remarkable research of Olga Velitchkina, we’ve learned of a Russian panpipe tradition remarkably close, in her words, to that of the Ba-Benzele Pygmies.

While the Ice Age caused most of northern Europe to be abandoned and then resettled only thousands of years later, certain regions in this area were never abandoned. “It is in the Ukraine and further north up the rivers Dneipr and Don into the Russian plain...where we find the best record of continuous human occupation—even expansion—in Eastern Europe during the Big Freeze” (Oppenheimer 2004b:250).

The West

Lest we assume P/B-related traditions are limited to Eastern Europe, let us briefly review some candidates farther to the west. Fortunately, some excellent examples of rarely heard Swiss alpine polyphony have been recorded, initially by the pioneering Romanian ethnomusicologist, Constantine Brailoiu and, more recently, by Hugo Zemp. Listen, for example, to this recording of a group of yodeling cattle herders from the Appenzell region: Audio Example 40:Swiss Cattle Herders (from Voices of the World: disc 1, track 35). Here we have a somewhat different mix of distinctive features: a more sustained, lyrical, sound; an emphasis, as is typical for Central and Western Europe, on intervals of the 3rd and 6th; interlocking parts; stimmtauch (part crossing); disjunct melody; continuous flow; meaningless vocables; lack of embellishment; open throated voices; smooth vocal blend; and most notably, yodel.

Moving farther to the west, all the way to the coastal Algarve region of Portugal, a traditional song sung by fishermen as they pull up their nets, Audio Example 41:Leva-Leva (from Anthology of Portuguese Music, Smithsonian Folkways 4538, Vol. 2, track 1), is characterized by hocket; repetition; disjunct intervals; continuous flow; meaningless vocables; lack of embellishment or melisma; relaxed voices; and precise rhythms. Interestingly, this performance can be characterized as contrapuntal, but not polyphonic, as the rapidly exchanged hocketed phrases never coincide. Similar forms of tightly coordinated non-polyphonic interchange can be heard among Pygmy and Bushmen groups as well.

While polyphonic singing is extremely rare among the most traditional British folk musicians of our day, this was not always the case. Consider the testimony of the 13th Century archdeacon Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), who wrote as follows of some remarkable singing he observed among Welsh country folk:

As to their musical euphony, they do not sing uniformly as is done elsewhere, but diversely with many rhythms and tunes, so that in a crowd of singers such as is the custom among these people, you will hear as many different songs and differentiations of the voices as you see heads, and hear the organic melody coming together in one consonance with the smooth sweetness of B flat. . . And what is more remarkable, children scarcely beyond infancy, when their wails have barely turned into songs observe the same musical performance (as quoted in Burstyn 1983: 135-136 – my emphasis).

Gerald's words could easily be a description of African Pygmy or Bushmen group vocalizing, where everyone present, including small children, typically joins in with his or her own independent part.

The Written Traditions

Gerald’s comments may shed light on the origins of one of the most remarkable and mysterious of all medieval compositions, the well known round, “Sumer is Icumen In.” In the words of musicologist Shai Burstyn,

canonic singing, harmonically reducible to a stationary triad, is prevalent in non-European cultures. Some medieval European examples exhibit related traits. Rounds may be found in contemporary European folk polyphony, such as the East Lithuanian sutartine. It is therefore arbitrary to argue the unique historical position of Sumer on the ground of the fortuitous hard fact that it is the only such composition we possess. Since Gerald specifically defines Welsh and Northumbrian polyphonic singing as indigenous, attempts to elucidate his meaning must assume an oral tradition and should also consider the possibility of improvisation (ibid.:140).

Some of the most remarkable similarities with P/B can indeed be found in certain practices characteristic of early Medieval notated polyphony, such as the rota, caccia  and hocket, all of which might well have roots in so-called “popular polyphony” (see especially Burstyn 1983 and Bukofzer 1940). The origins and meaning of the Medieval hocket would seem especially mysterious, unless the practice represented an attempt to incorporate certain traditional practices of the peasantry into the mainstream liturgical repertory. This isn't very different from the explanation offered by Burstyn with regard to the Sumer canon, which also, as he argues, is likely to have roots in polyphonic traditions already popular in the back streets and countryside.

While it is possible to trace the step by step evolution of mainstream medieval polyphony as a progressive elaboration of monophonic plain chant, “aberrant” forms such as the rota, caccia, and hocket seem to have emerged suddenly and out of whole cloth, suggesting that they are adaptations of long standing traditions already in place. This would, as well, explain the continual complaints on the part of so many church leaders, as though hocketing represented the encroachment of an alien and uncouth “popular” element into the sanctum of serious church worship.

There is some confusion about the nature of hocket, which has led to the belief that it is simply a matter of each voice or instrument contributing only one or two notes to a resultant melody or texture. While that is sometimes the case, more complex types of interlocking hocket are also common, as illustrated in the excerpts presented below (from Sanders 1974: 247):

Figure 12.6 Examples of Medieval Hocket (Sanders 1974)

A comparison between the first excerpt, from a 12th Century Conductus by Perotinus, and the hocketed interplay between voices 2 and 3 in the transcription of Ju’/hoansi Bushmen vocal polyphony presented in Appendix A (see Figure A2), reveals some very interesting similarities indeed:

Figure 12.7 Comparison of Medieval and African Bushmen hocket (Sanders 1974; England 1995)

Note especially the “fanfare”-like motives, the tightly interlocking counterpoint, the close imitation of one part by the other, the conflation of polyphony and heterophony, and the tendency for the parts to overlap at the unison or octave:

Of special interest for several reasons is the concluding section of an anonymous three voice motet from the Montpellier Codex, dating from 13th Century France, as transcribed by N. Nakamura (Amor Potest 2004):

Figure 12.8 Medieval Motet, Amor Potest (Nakamura 2004)

There is very little trace of the trained composer in this work, with its many blatant voice leading “errors,” obsessive repetition of brief motives, and continuous “run-on” phrasing, with no cadences whatsoever during the entire last section until the very end. Audio Example 42: Amor Potest, concluding section (from Music of the Gothic Era: disc 1, track 8). The last two characteristics are especially interesting as they invoke not only the varied repetition and continuous vocalizing so typical of P/B, but also certain aspects of the practice of Leoninus and Perotinus, the leading liturgical composers of 12th and 13th century Europe. Note also the tendency, found throughout this repertoire, to present hocketed segments without meaningful text, again remarkably close to Pygmy/Bushmen norms.

So common was this practice in Medieval music that some scholars have assumed most hockets must have been intended for instruments alone. Additional features of at least some of these hocketed examples that can be associated with distinctive features of P/B, as presented above, are: part crossing; ostinato; canonic or echoic effects; strict rhythm; disjunct melody; lack of embellishment; a tendency to conflate polyphony and heterophony; the occasional presence of secundal dissonance. In the light of everything discussed thus far, it is difficult to see Amor Potest as other than a transcription or adaptation of some sort of oral “folk” polyphony, roughly along the same lines as Burstyn’s view of the Sumer canon, only this time with the vernacular text completely replaced by a more acceptable one, in Latin.

Admittedly, any attempt to speculate regarding a possible connection between the musical practices of African hunter/gatherers and the Medieval churches and monasteries of western Europe may seem far fetched in the extreme. Indeed, until recently, there was no reason to associate African and European traditions of any kind. Almost all historians and archaeologists were in agreement that African and European prehistories were completely unrelated, with Europeans in all likelihood descended from earlier, archaic humans from the same continent. Thanks, however, to remarkable developments centered in the field of population genetics, our picture of world prehistory has changed, so abruptly and so radically that many in the social sciences remain either unaware or in a state of confused disbelief regarding the most recent findings and the profound implications they bring with them.

1. It’s important to understand that by invoking terms such as “Caucasoid” and “Mongoloid” I am not referring to "racial" differences, but morphological ones. In my view, "race" per se has no scientific meaning (partly because no one really knows how to define that term as anything other than a social construct) but there is certainly a science of comparative morphology, a far less ambitious, and more clearly circumscribed, mode of anthropological research, which, because of its questionable history, is often confused with "racial science."

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