Afrikaanse lessen voor de westerse kijk-mens.
(In de Marge, Jrg.8 1999 Nr.3, p.21-26)
A UNIVERSITY WITHOUT MUSIC IS A DEAD PLACE
African lessons for the western eye-people
My interest in new religious movements was spurred on in 1998 when I came in contact with a small group of followers from the so-called Ifa religion, a religious movement of African descent. In two articles for this magazine I have among other things discussed the origin of this religion in Cuba and Africa. The study of this religious movement also deepened my curiosity about traditional African music. That music and the role it plays in African life confronts us with the shortcomings in our own perception of reality and is for this reason alone worth studying.
CLARIFICATION OF TERMS
When I speak of African music, some clarification is in order. What we in the West consider to be African music is usually the music that by Western (especially American) influences strongly leans against those traditions that are familiar to us, such as the Africa-blues or the traditional African music that reaches us via Cuba: the Salsa and Son, very popular in The Netherlands these days. The American guitarist Ry Cooder played an important role in popularising the various traditional music styles. Buena Vista Social Club, a co-operation between a couple of elderly Cuban musicians, conquered the top of the charts. Also Talking Timbuktu, the result of the co-operation with Ali Farka Touré, the John Lee Hooker of Mali is an enormous success. The popularity of African music was also greatly stimulated by Paul Simon who with his Graceland, on which famous names like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makebo en Ladysmith Black Mambazo feature, brought about a renewed interest in South-African music. Also Youssou NDour must not go by unrecorded here; the greatest pop star of Senegal who by his presence at most great music festivals in Europe, contributed to the popularity of African music.
But as has been said, these examples all point to a particular variety of traditional African music that we only come across in a small group of relatively untouched cultures. The last couple of years I have studied several African peoples in which traditional music is still part of the culture: the Tuareg, a nomadic people that live in great parts of the Sahara, the Yoruba, that we particularly come across in Niger and Benin, and the Shona of Zimbabwe. A recent visit to the Bushmen and Himba of Namibia and Botswana convinced me once again of the lessons we may learn from the musical cultures of these peoples.
Francis Bebey some call him the guru of African music describes in his book African Music: A Peoples Art the phenomenon that non-Africans find traditional African music at first hearing strange, difficult and unattractive. The conclusion then is that the music is uninteresting. Beby emphasises that the study of African music requires time and patience. True understanding of African cultures and music demands many hours of attention, of careful watching and listening, of doing away with prejudices and abandoning all too hasty judgement.
The biggest problem may lie in the fact that the purpose of African music is so radically different of what we generally expect of music. African musicians set out to express life and all its aspects in sound. Their primary goal is not to combine sounds in such a way that they sound pleasant, its rather the other way around: natural sounds are incorporated, absorbed into the music.
Tom Klöwer, author of a fascinating book called Die Welten der Trommeln und Klanginstrumente names another even more problematic factor when it comes to perception, the reception of African music. Western people are in the first place eye-people. Sight has become the most important instrument to observe reality. I quote from his book: The special characteristics of hearing have clearly been neglected so that we to a great extent try to understand and analyse the world with our eyes and not with our ears. The perceived world becomes an image of reality in our mind, a constructed misrepresentation, because what we see is not what is truly there. Its merely the outside of the things we perceive. And a bit further on: Western man can gain new experiences by hearing and can newly assess and experience his perception of the world. Via hearing man can get in touch with the essence of his being. In other words, listening is a much more direct way of contact with reality than seeing.
Klöwers book incites different associations in me of which I will mention two within the space of this article. First of all the things I experienced while travelling through the United States. I found the complete lack of silence one of the most striking things. In all the cities, in all situations you encounter other people there is a buzzing, a constant noise. One would get the impression that people are afraid of silence. At the same time the constant noise intensifies the superficiality. The French philosopher Roland Barthes observes that there exists a kind of acoustic pollution, whereby everybody notices that it forms an attack on the intelligence of the individual: the pollution disrupts true listening. Within the traditional African music silence is as it were allotted an organic place. This should not surprise us knowing that the sounds of nature are incorporated into the music. Also silence is part of nature.
The second association is with Robert Musils famous book Der man ohne Eigenschaften. In this book Musil describes the based on historical facts story of Schlauer Max, a horse who is thought to possess (arithmetical) intelligence. The horse is capable of calculating simple sums by tapping his hoof until the right solution is reached. Only after extensive scientific research it has become clear that a horse can feel the emotions of his owner so that he can stop counting at the right moment. Other ways of perceiving reality go much deeper than just the visual one that only selects and generates a concept of the event perceived. In the animal world ample examples of communication and perception can be found in which other senses than sight are involved. A dog may see something, but will only believe it when he can also recognise the perceived with his olfactory organs.
The deeper meaning of hearing or listening to music and sounds is that through hearing man can come in contact with the essence of his being. Music may give access to regions that normally would be shut out and controlled by reason and intellect. In that sense music is at the same time a means of broadening awareness and a change from the fossilised forms of perception.
FUNTIONS OF MUSIC IN AFRICAN CULTURES
Almost all traditional African cultures use music in their healing rituals. Healing should be broadly interpreted here. It does not only concern itself with the physical healing of sick people, but also with the whole-making when for whatever reason the communal or social harmony has been disrupted.
In the healing rituals or the Tuareg the ancestors play a large part. Tuareg believe that the ghosts of the deceased stay active for a long time. The thing is to evade negative influences by all kinds of ritual customs. Next to that there is a strong belief in ghosts that can especially exert influence on the state of health of people. Via ritual music and singing it should be taken care of that the influence of the ghosts is used in a positive way. Also among the Shona it is important to placate the ancestors. The music in the so-called Bira-rituals may last for hours. Often they work towards a climax at which point one or more mediums get possessed by the ancestor-ghosts. The music stops and the villagers can present their problems and ask for a solution. To the villagers the bira is often the last resort. The herb doctor has already tried all kinds of herbs, incantations and medicine. Nothing helps and the illness only gets worse. When nothing helps the general conclusion will be that the ancestors have been upset and that they let that know by causing illness. The only solution is that the neglected ancestor-ghosts come to possess their victims by the means of mbira (thumbpiano)-music and are reconciled that way. During one of those Bira-marathons the mbira-music fulfils other functions: she stimulates and spurs on meditation, thought, reflection on the past, although at the end it should lead to possession of the ghosts. Someone once said that you can dig up all sorts of hidden issues. Rituals render problems perceptible and once they are perceptible, you can deal with it and tackle problems. This is why the therapeutic working and social function of these rituals can be so great.
Also among the Yoruba music plays a vital part in the well-being of people. The Yoruba believe that God Olodumare is incarnated on earth into Ashé , which means as much as power. Ashé you could say is a godly stream that pervades everything alive. Next to this the Yoruba know a great number of spiritual beings, called orisha. They are as it were the personification of the ashé. There is a great interdependence between man and orisha. A problem that one encounters in life is almost always the result of friction between the individual and his/her orisha. That is why it is important to maintain a good relationship with the orisha. And this is where the Yoruba music plays a crucial role. Song and dance can summon the orisha to help solve problems. Every orisha requires a specific musical rhythm. During these ritual meetings the orisha descends to unite with its human children. Only then the power of the orisha can be used to make the problems turn out right.
Finally, among the Bushmen music functions at several rituals to release all sorts of tensions within the group. Every time the order within the community is under threat, healing rituals are organised to recover harmony.
DANCING WITH THE GODS
Dancing with the gods is the title of a lecture I once gave about traditional African music. The title offers a gateway to elucidate something of the complexity of African music. The preposition with might be surprising to some. From our Western perspective one would be inclined to cross out with and replace it by for: dancing for the Gods. Music and dance as homage to the deity. But a swinging God the Father, in the middle of the common churchgoers!! Its hard to imagine.
However, its not a slip of the pen. The little word with as opposed to for indicates how different Western and African cultures are in that respect. In the West we are inclined to think in opposites and distinctions: body and mind, God and human being, religion and other aspects of human existence, music and religion, religion and dance and so on. Herein lies a fundamental difference with traditional African cultures. Who has ever gone through the trouble of entering deeply into a different way of thinking, a different living environment, will have noticed soon enough that the way of thinking in divisions is completely alien to the African tradition.
Dancing with the gods is really dancing WITH the gods. In this respect music and religion are one: after all: religion and life are one, and music and life are one. Form early childhood to old age life is imbued with music. From its first movement to its last man dances. Dance is after all so much interwoven with everyday things and doings that no difference is experienced.
In the beginning there was dance reads the title of a chapter of Robert Fishers book on West-African religious traditions. Dance, rhythm, drumming, song and mime: all ways of expressing a way of thinking, feeling and communicating. And that is why they fulfil such an important social function. Religious dance, Fisher says, has a social function particularly because the goal of religious dance is the systematic control of all good and evil forces: it is about the harmony of the spiritual and material world.
A UNIVERSITY WITHOUT MUSIC
The title of this contribution is a variation on an old African saying: A village without music is a dead place. The choice of this title is more than some tomfoolery. In the above I have claimed that Western man founds himself solely on the visual and on reason. And with that we have lost the access to the true dimensions of man and the world around us. Precisely a focus on the visual leads to superficiality in perception. The contempt with which we subsequently also judge societies that are primitive in our view, testifies to our own limitations and our own compartmentalisation in the perception of reality.
You may wonder what these observations are to do with us. It is I think not hard to follow the same line to our university. No one will be able to deny that theres much music in the way academics approach their subject. Musicality is typically something that has been forced out of academic spheres. Music as a means of communication has been banned to Griffioen the universitys cultural centre a mile away from the real campus. The academic buildings are stripped of anything other than to do with facilitating education and research. Music is not granted a place in the academic environment except maybe as embellishment or entertainment, at for example the opening of the academic year and at the Christmas lunch.
However, a strong fixation on the categorised, solely intellectual view on reality leads to a confinement of ones perception. This is also the background of many years pleading of among others the Bezinningscentrum for other ways of experiencing reality, like poetry, dance, music and art. A plea to grant these other ways of perception a prominent place within the academic culture. A culture without music is no culture; a university without music is dead place. When those other ways of perception are recognised as such and given a place, when the Free University buildings will be equipped for the experience of these other ways then the university in its totality will be able to profit from a wider and better view on reality. On top of that the Free University can become a place far more inviting workplace for its students and staff members than it is at the moment.
This is the way in which Africa can teach us important lessons about ourselves and the ways in which we shape our lives and work.
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