Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Origin of Music (1)

Khoisan performer
12 x 6 inches, oil on board, 2017
Like so many other teenagers, music played a pivotal role in my coming of age years. It had a clear social function for me, it established me in a social group. In the 1970s the great lines of division were drawn along disco and rock music. Disco represented the traditional conservative right and rock the progressive left. I was on the left side. The left side claimed a more serious approach to music, whereas disco was just (commercial) entertainment, rock was interested in its own history. (The first major dent in this thought bubble came when, during a discussion in high school, a girl proclaimed that rock was just as commercial as disco.) I certainly was interested in its history and the first major experience for me towards my lifelong path in discovering the origins of music was when I stumbled upon the blues. Mesmerized I listened to original versions of Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Rolling Stones songs. The blues represented an ancient origin of music as if they were the paleolithic, the beginning of humankind. Today I'm looking at traces of music from the actual paleolithic (with the great disadvantage, comparing to the blues, of having no sound recordings available.)

Another factor too was my eventual career choice of becoming an artist, and teacher of (ancient) art history. Like my unwavering search into the origin of music, my other passion of art steered me towards its beginnings as well. Art has a material record that can be traced as far back to perhaps 75,000 BCE, roughly the same amount of time that gives material evidence (a flute carved from a bone) for the existence of music. The origin of both music and art should be dated to yet more distant times. The appearance of art however appears to be linked to our species of homo sapiens (even though there is evidence of artistic activity by Denisovan and Neanderthal cultures) and will not go further back than its appearance in Africa about 300,000 years ago. The first appearance of music is believed to go back to hominid species long extinct, perhaps as far back as two million years. Music furthermore, unlike art, is not reserved solely for hominids as it also appears in the animal kingdom.

Curiously enough both excursions into the origins of art and music lead to an investigation of the San culture in southern Africa. Lewis-Williams, in his research into paleolithic art, found in the San the closest analogy of living customs compared to what he believed customs of the paleolithic cave painters would have been like. The same analogy holds also for musical practices of the San. Thought to be isolated for 100,000 years, the San people are indeed genetically closest to the earliest modern humans. In the painting above a Khoisan woman is depicted who is part of a small group consisting of five women and two men. The group spontaneously improvise a tune, using on the spot devised instruments they hum, talk, and sing along with the rhythms created. Khoisan is a term for both Khoi ans San people who belong to the same Khoisan language branch. The Khoi, or Khoikhoi (plural) originated around what is current day Botswana, moved south into what is now South Africa. The San who live in the Kalahari desert, in Namibia and Botswana, are also known as the Kalahari Bushmen. The Khoi people, their women, and especially Saartje Baartman, known as the Hottentot Venus, caused French archeologists of the nineteenth century to name the abundant prehistoric statuettes found in France, Venus figurines. The San then, in music too, provide perhaps the closest analogy of all living cultures to the music of prehistoric times. 

That music originated in Africa seems beyond any challenge.
(To be continued, soon)

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