Month: September 2010

Legend & Music Culture: The Lute of Tibet

There are some cultures in which you simply can’t take music out of its cultural context. All in all, that’s a damn good justification for ethnomusicology. Beside that, it’s something I wish more people kept in mind.  I’ve deemed this as Tibet week, so I’m delving into the music and culture of Tibet on whatever level I can.  Okay, so I should be focusing only on India this week considering my upcoming presentation, but they overlap a bit so I thought I’d tie it in.

There are a couple of ‘camps’ here in talking about the music of Tibet. The first one is with the non-musicological folks who think that Tibet is overdone. The second is where I stand with others, and it is that when I look at the Tibetan music section of any library (online or physical), I’m lucky if there’s more than one book present. If it’s there, it’s usually from the 70’s when the post-hippie movement sent folks from San Francisco on a hike through the Himalayas in search of themselves.

I’m trying to put together a bibliography of Tibetan resources. It’s more difficult than you’d think. Even the leading Tibetan music scholarly works leave much to be desired – though I’m grateful for their existence at all.

So back to this idea of legends within a music culture. Most of Asia is full of them, specifically Hindu nations where deities rule.  In Tibet and its present diaspora, it’s hard to peel off layers to find them.  They’re found in extant myths & stories, religious teachings, and most commonly via oral tradition.

I found an excellent short book by Peter Crossley-Holland called Musical Instruments in Tibetan Legend and Folklore, a piece published a monograph series in Ethnomusicology, No. 3 (1982) at UCLA.  In less than 40 pages, the text introduces the lute (vina), conch-shell trumpet (dung-dkar), thigh-bone trumpet (rkang-gling), long trumpet (dung-chen), frame drum (phyed-rnga), and hand-drum (damaru). More importantly, it puts them in context of their respective legends/stories, and thus within their cultural context.  This is a fantastic resource.

Musical references seem synchronous to Tibetan Buddhist culture. At the very beginning, an example of a story is shown (similar to one of Aesop’s fables) wherein the perfectly tightened (not too tight/too loose) strings of a lute are compared to the Buddhist concept of accordance in harmony. (pp. 2-4)

I had not yet heard of a lute as a Tibetan instrument, and in fact it has both Greek and Mongolian roots and is considered only secular (Crossley-Holland pp 3-14). It’s commonly known that Saraswati (and other Indian dieties) were/have been adopted by Tibetans. Saraswati (Indian goddess of music) can be seen pictured with a lute in some Tibetan texts, likely retrieved it from its Indian folklore.  However, what was its purpose then? I’m not entirely sure, although the text gives several story examples of the lute placed in Tibet.

More later…

Sopchoppy Intertribal Pow-wow

Yesterday I drove south to Sopchoppy, Florida, and attended the second of a three-day intertribal pow-wow.  After a long rural drive, the event took place deep within a city park area, and was largely isolated.  It was a great musicultural experience, and I wanted to spend a few minutes writing down my observations. I know very little of Native American music/culture, so I’ll probably skip out on a lot of emic terminology.  Sorry in advance!

The moment I opened my car door, I heard a drum and followed the sound. I walked through just as it was breaking for dinner (buffalo burgers, fry bread, french fries, corn on the cob, steak, veggies, & Indian tacos). I spent some time eating, looking at vendors, and looking around.  During the break, three people alternated on flutes of different sizes and timbres. Sometimes, two people would play together. This was really lovely as one person would lead with the melody and the other would copy it just a beat or two behind, sometimes filling in ornamentation.  Each flautist had a wireless mic attached to their bodies, so the tranquil music they were playing was a  soothing soundtrack.  One man who played a wide flute sang as he played, producing multiphonics and giving the effect of two people playing. I enjoyed this the most, as I’ve never heard it done on a flute before.

Right as the sun went down, I took witness to a Grand Entry (a parade of dancers). It consisted of several songs played by four different types of drums (males & females were segregated by drum), including an entry song played by those at the Unity Drum, a flag song, a memorial song for military veterans, and other various songs for specific tribes and sections within each tribe (such as a song for the female Shawl Dancers, and traditional men’s/women’s songs).

Set up as a sacred circle marked by bales of hay, dancers moved clockwise within it, making a circuit twice or more.  They always entered and left the circle on the east side, where the sun rises. The drummers remained outside of the circle under a tent just next to it on the west side.

As it was an intertribal event, the dances themselves varied greatly.  Vocalization/singing occurred with all songs (by the drummers), however the language and genre alternated according to tribe and song type. Of particular interest was a dance for young boys/teenagers in full regalia where money was thrown at the ground as they danced. Perhaps an offering for them to continue their path, and/or continuing to add intricacies to their regalia? The only thing I can relate it to are Flambeau carriers in New Orleans – [usually] poor men who carry lit torches to illuminate floats and [often] Mardi Gras Indian processionals.

Traditionally, you’d throw quarters at the ground where the Flambeau carriers walked. However due to the dangerous torches (and the fact that the carriers are usually inebriated beyond belief in the parades), it’s now customary to hand them the quarters. Notably, since Katrina I’ve seen this happening less and less and too often, people let them pass unnoticed. Often, parade krewes will hire homeless men to carry the torches, which is a dangerous job, however they know they’ll make some money by doing it.

Again – this is a far step from what I observed at the event this weekend, however it did cause me to reminisce.

Some observations:

I was very surprised at the strong American patriotism shown formally through regalia, through the veteran’s dance, and with waving flags.  There was an announcer walking us non-Natives through what was going on (about 10 of us), and he mentioned again and again how proud he was to live in a country where he was allowed to participate freely in these kinds of ceremonies. This seemed a bit odd to me considering the government’s history with our tribal nations.

I was equally surprised at the amount of republican Native Americans present (with bumper stickers like “Palin Nation“). I can’t imagine that the right-wing agenda is compassionate toward Native Americans, although I haven’t looked it up.

Everyone was very nice and receptive to questions. It was so nice to see how many young kids and teenagers were taking part in the ceremonies. Equally impressive to me were the amount of kids who seemed to really understand and execute the traditional dances well.  That there is a great deal of pride in their Native heritage is very apparent, and the energy of it was astounding.  There are so many other traditions being lost as they fail to be passed down. It was great to see that at least here, that was not the case (although it’s only a small sample, of course).

**As noted before, this event occurred at sunset. My iPhone doesn’t take good photos without a good amount of light. Likewise, there were several parts of the event where we were not allowed to take photos.

Overall, this was a great experience, and I wished I had brought a tent. I enjoyed the musical aspects, the food, and the storytelling.  If I’m around here next year (and I should be), then I’ll definitely return.

Ethno-Musicology, Newsletter No. 1: December, 1953

I’ve been reading the very first issues of Ethnomusicology, the journal for the Society of Ethnomusicology (SEM).

The very first compilation published in 1953 is a set of letters rather than a journal (which came after, and as a result of, these letters) disseminated throughout the year.  It gave an introduction to the “who’s/how’s/why’s” of the newsletter, short blurbs about what people are up to, a bibliography, list of recent recordings, and an exchange feature.

As early as the very first letter, people were studying such things as:

  • The Wolof Music of Gambia/Senegal (David W. Ames)
  • Ifaluk music (Edwin G. Burrows)
  • Sanskrit music literature (Alain Danielou)
  • American Indian styles (Bruno Nettl)
  • Indonesian music (Peter Goethals)
  • Ewe People of the Gold Coast (A.M. Jones)
  • Tutelo/Iriquois Songs (Gertrude Kurath)
  • Apache puberty dance music (David P. McAllester)
  • Northern Peruvian Highlands (William Mangin/Norman Pava)
  • Kalahari Bushmen (L.K. Marshall)
  • Belgian Congo/Ruanda Urundi (Alan P. Merriam)
  • Bogobo of the Phillippines (Felicia Peralta)
  • North American Indians (Willard Rhodes)
  • Indian-Catholic catechism songs (Nicholas N. Smith)
  • Florida Seminoles (William C. Sturtevant)
  • Norbert Ward (Indonesia)
  • Yirkalla of Australia (Richard A. Waterman)

A lot of North America is covered, but it makes me smile to look at this short list of folks who ended up becoming “the big names” in the field –

***Two years after this newsletter publication, Newsletter No. 5  calls for an organizational meeting to form an ethno-musicological society in Boston (November 17-19, 1955). (Ethno-musicology. Newsletter No. 5, September, 1955)

Based on  Ethno-Musicology, Newsletter No. 1. December, 1953.

4 down…

Since there are 11 minutes left to this week I thought I would finally get around to doing my ‘end of the week’ post. It really was an excellent week overall. I felt better than I have in a while (physically), and I felt very focused and on top of my task list. Increasingly alarming family issues continue to arise, and old ghosts seemed to have worked their way into my world this week. Regardless, I’m happy to continue my trek.

Our Venezuelan Artist-in-Residence (see previous post) was a success, and I am so appreciative for the experience. I have a post to create specifically on this matter, so I’ll leave it for now. It ended with a fantastic show on Friday night, and I even cracked open a Yeungling for the occasion! Question: When did sitting down at a jazz club to have one drink become ‘an occasion’? Dorothy, I don’t think we live in New Orleans anymore…

Productivity was up 4.5% from last week, and I ended with 82.5% (106.5) of my projected 129 hours complete. I’m happy about the increase, but still not satisfied with the percentage. I rocked the sleep hours this week, and on Saturday I even took a 3-hr afternoon nap! I know, you’re saying “really – do I care?”.. well, remember that I write this for my own review later on. That’s why I do the stats. I like to look back on them and reflect –

My partner and I raided Best Buy & Borders on Saturday after our cleaning spree. I walked out with five new books, three music documentaries, and Seven Years in Tibet (on DVD). Today I sunk into a bath with one of the books, The Alchemist, and two pruny hours later, I had finished it and was ready for the next one. Oh, and I loved the book. If you haven’t read it, you probably should.

I’m addicted to the Matador travel network. It’s really a travel junkie’s paradise. This past year, they’ve started a new concept, MatadorU. They offer two courses: one in travel writing, and one in travel photography. I’m considering the travel writing course. I feel like it could be very useful in ethnomusicology. We’re being trained to write like nobody without a terminal degree can possibly decipher (well, I know several who could, but you get the point), and I hate the thought that my fieldwork writings would be inaccessible to my informants. We’re supposed to balance it with ethnography right? Sounds good to me. Plus, okay – I have this secret craving to write an article for BBC or Nat Geo’s world music section..

As far as actual ‘learning’ goes this week, so much of it has to do with the music of Venezuela (and again, that will be another post).

Everything else:

• Louisiana educational politics never cease to amaze me. LSU System President Lombardi (who should be on the planet’s top list of scoundrels) fired UNO’s Chancellor, Tim Ryan. This is a huge deal. I am one angry New Orleanian, and one huge fan of Ryan.
• Anna Lomax (daughter of the late ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax) uncovers Haiti’s lost music. Read more at Huffington Post.
• My physical anxiety is rooted in procrastination and in moments of planned rest – i.e. weekends.
• Bruno Nettl wrote an article on the ethnomusicology of Mozart’s Vienna. Note to self: find it!
• It’s entirely possible to live in a country or region and still be a musicultural outsider (maybe more than ever…)
• It’s entirely possible for a husky (i.e. mine) to scale and jump over a 6-foot fence.

Ready for week 5...

The Roving Ethnomusicologist

Do you like the title? I’m agitated because I can’t seem to narrow down where I want to complete fieldwork (resulting in a thesis). I mean I can’t even narrow down the continent. Cue my rant.

The more I learn about music on this planet, the more I realize how little I know, and how much more I want to continue learning.  I chose this field because I love it all, not because I love a pocket of it. Twenty years from now, I’d rather have spent my time roaming all corners of the earth instead of having written a college textbook on one particular culture. Twenty years from now, I’m going to regret having written that statement if I’m teaching at some University and publishing the third edition of my textbook that I force all of my students to use. Maktub.

This is really becoming an annoyance. I don’t just want to choose New Orleans music because I have several years of experience with it. I know that in several years, what I’ll have written for my thesis probably won’t matter anyway… however I do feel like it will set me on a path and I want to make sure it’s the right one.  On the other hand, I don’t want to sit here spending so much time thinking about it that I don’t actually ‘do’ it  (whatever ‘it’ may be).  Do people just plop their finger down on a world map and say, “this is it!”? I suppose not. There’s always a reason, an agenda, and a personal connection.

I have this world map on my office wall – one of those peel & stick decal things.  Every time I feel like I cross off a country on the “potential fieldwork list”, I soon find a reason why I’d just adore working there.  If we’re lucky, ethnomusicologists get to delve into two or three cultures in their lives. Most seem to capture one. I’d like to start by narrowing it down from a couple hundred…