Friday, August 3, 2007

The Music of Indigenous Peoples: An Example from the Kalahari

I remember as a kid reading adventure novels and travel narratives of individuals who would talk about the fantastic skills of the Kalahari Bushmen. I would spend nights reading about the amazing hunting skills these indigenous people had, their complex and sophisticated cosmology, particular rituals they performed in the middle of one of the most dramatic - yet extreme - environments on the plant. I guess I was not the only kid who read these great stories and took them to heart, for the Kalahari Bushmen have long been of interest to anthropologists, religious studies scholars, indigenous rights activists, and many others.

As I went through undergrad, and then graduate school, however, I found out that many of the ideas I had about the Kalahari Bushmen were not accurate. Movies had been made that falsely depicted them hunting and killing giraffes. Texts had been written that depicted them in a particularly negative light, allowing the larger colonial powers to take over their traditional land and resources, forcing them onto smaller and smaller bits of their former homeland. It was a sad situation - my romantic notions had been shattered - yet another indigenous people were struggling to maintain their cultural lifeways in today's globalized world.

There are many ways that indigenous peoples have, and continue, to fight the larger colonial and imperial powers that are destroying their traditional lifeways. They keep their oral traditions alive. They teach their traditions to their kids. Prayers are offered to the earth and the sky. And music is played. That's right, music! Music is one of the most powerful mediums for expressing grief, resolving tensions, and keeping traditional lifeways and cultural knowledge alive and intact.

Well, my colleague Victor Grauer has been documenting and looking into the music of indigenous peoples on his blog Music 000001. In a series of extremely well written and argued posts, Victor has argued that the music of the Kalahari Bushmen can be used to place them, as an indigenous people, in their homeland for thousands and thousands of years.

Beginning with Part One, and continuing through Parts Two, Three, and Four, Victor discusses and resolves what has been called the "Great Kalahari Debate."

The "Great Kalahari Debate" revolved around two basic issues: 1. whether or not certain Kalahari "Bushmen" groups can be regarded as genuine foragers who remained largely isolated for most of their history and adapted to outside pressures without losing their identity; 2. whether or not certain aspects of primordial hunter-gatherer culture could have survived into the Twentieth Century among such groups. The genetic research appears to have resolved the first question -- in the affirmative (see previous post). But no amount of genetic research can, in itself, resolve the second.


So what did Victor do? He turned to the music of the Kalahari Bushmen to look further into this question. I won't repeat all of his posts here, there is simply too much good information in them. However, by using music, Victor is able to successfully argue that certain Kalahari Bushmen groups have been in their homeland for thousands of years, just as the genetic evidence establishes their biological indigeneity, thus settling the Kalahari debate firmly on the side of the traditionalists. I suggest anyone interested in this debate to visit his blog: Music 000001.

But there is more to this musical story. Not everyone may be interested in the Kalahari Debate - it involves a particular indigenous group and a particular set of arguments held mostly by anthropologists. No, the original reason I wanted to let everyone know about this blog is that on top of its great information, it has INDIGENOUS PEOPLES MUSIC THAT ONE CAN LISTEN TO. That's right, Victor has MP3s all over the site, ranging from an Aka Pygmy Divining Song to songs from the Bisorio of highland New Guinea, to the Mehinacu of Brazil and on and on. Listening to some of these songs brought me back to my childhood, letting me envision in my mind a world that is slowly disappearing. It didn't bring back the romantic notions I used to carry, but the music did resonate within me, and gave me hope. Music is a powerful tool, and through this blog Victor has found a way of using it to help indigenous peoples in his own small way. Cheers to you.

I think I will put on another great song and let my heart drift...

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1 comment:

NeoAuteur said...

You have a very meaningful blog. Keep it up.

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