Sunday, January 29, 2012

Essay: Indigenous Musical Explorers

Explorers of Music via Nature

During my years of listening to hundreds of recordings, including field recordings of indigenous musical traditions, I discovered a few musical traditions that still amaze me today.  While these traditions range from the didgeridoo ritualistic music from Australian aboriginals to the hula tradition of Native Hawaiians to folk songs of the Okinawan people of Japan, I’m focusing on three groups for this essay including the Wulu Bunun (Taiwan), the Saami (Nordic countries & Russia), and the Baka pygmies of the Congo/Cameroon and Gabon. 

We enjoy a myriad of ways of connecting to the natural world through the sound vibration.  We whistle at birds, sing like birds, perform trance music (drums) that connect us to the heartbeat of the earth or we can perform a vocal tradition that connects us to people, places, and creatures, as in the case with the Saami’s spiritual chant, the yoik.  As modern human beings we often look at indigenous traditions as primitive.  And the more naive among us wonder how sophisticated music can be performed on earth-made instruments as opposed to played with electronic instruments.  Yet, when I listen to field recordings of indigenous music traditions, I have the opposite reaction, that modern pop music is primitive even with the latest technology.  The harmonies are often banal overdubs, the rhythms monophonic played on a drum machine and I don’t feel connected to anything, much less nature when I listen to modern pop music.

Indigenous music has many purposes and comes with a built-in mindfulness. This music is employed for rituals, rites of passage ceremonies, seasonal celebrations, harvest ceremonies, hunting ceremonies, for magical purposes as is the case with the Saami whose music has supernatural qualities.  The music is used for marriage, funerals, and various types of labor.  Instruments range from drums, flutes, lutes, bagpipes, and harps.  And of course many of these musicians have guitars and other modern instruments these days depending on contact with other modern cultures and people.  For instance, the Saami wedded their traditional yoik to electronic music as in the case of Norwegian Mari Boine and Finnish Wimme.  But these musicians also sing a cappella yoiks.

So let’s take a look briefly at the music of the Wulu Bunun, Saami, and Baka people.  I’m not an expert on any of these traditions, but have a passing knowledge and a deep fascination for the musical traditional connected with these groups.  Also, in an effort to preserve ancient music traditions, and to promote my upcoming workshop, Exploring Music with Ecological Themes, I will provide details of the above groups.

Baka (African pygmies)

Region: Cameroon, Congo, and Gabon, also Central Africa
Religion: Animistic/pagan
Culture: Hunter/gatherers and grow crops found in forest environs 
Diet: Omnivorous

Musical note: The Baka people (who I came to know through the UK band Baka Beyond), compose sophisticated music via the oral tradition, passed down to generations.  They make instruments out of plant fiber, including rattles, drums, lutes, and harps.  The Baka also use natural elements to perform their music, such as imitating the sounds of birds, or water drumming (women cup their hands and play the river water--sounds like a marimba).

The music is performed for different ceremonies, men’s rite of passage (spirit of the forest), hunting, other work, and entertainment.  The vocals are often polyphonic and the rhythms are polyphonic.  The women perform a yodel-like call which you can hear on Baka Beyond’s albums and  other recordings.  Contemporary Ivory Coast musician Dobet Gnahoré performs this yodel on her Cumbancha recording, Na Afriki.  She’s not the only contemporary African artist to do so.

I, like many people who have heard Baka music find it joyful, celebratory, delightful.  It fuses well with other types of music, especially Celtic music as with the band Baka Beyond.


Region: Finland, Norway, Russia (Kola Peninsula), Sweden
Religion: Animistic with cosmology, magic/sorcery,
Culture: Previously nomadic centered around reindeer, some fishers (Norway)
Diet: Mostly reindeer and fish (past), most likely Northern European (current)

Musical note: The most important instruments to the Saami as far as I know, are the large frame drum (used for magical purposes) and vocals in the form of the spiritual chant, yoik (also magical in nature).  Other instruments include two types of bagpipes, a plant-based flute, and the Finnish zither (kantale).

Features of the yoik include a non-melodic, non-rhyming chant to a person, place, animal, or object in which the yoiker exchanges energy with its subject via the frequencies and intentions of the chant.  A yoiker might also employ throat-singing as part of the yoik.  And some yoiker such as Wimme of Finland can get complex mixing the yoik with vocables, Saami words, and throat-singing.  I have not heard the Saami bagpipes or flute.

The yoik can be taught orally from one person to another, but I’ve learned that the yoik comes to you and not you to it.  I wanted to learn how to yoik because of my Finnish ancestry.

Wulu Bunun

Region: Taiwan (mountainous region)
Religion: Animistic/pagan, based on the cycles of the moon
Culture: Previously hunter-gatherer, but also grow/harvest millet (and rice introduced by the Chinese)
Diet: Wild game, millet/rice...

Musical note: The Wulu Bunun are known mainly for their polyphonic chant tradition used for spiritual, practical, and entertainment purposes.  In 1943, an ethnomusicologist recorded the Wulu Bunun’s 8-voice (4-part harmony) sowing festival song, Pasibutbut and brought it to France.  Up until that point, no one believed that 4-part+ harmony was possible.  The song is only performed by men and it sounds akin to a beehive. The story behind the song features two lovers that fell off a bridge into a river and now haunt the river.  Cellist David Darling brought the chant/song to international attention with his recording Mudanin Kata (River Boat Records), in which the cellist partnered with traditional Bunun musicians.  Similar to the other two groups I mentioned, the Bunun also have chants/songs for different purposes such as hunting, harvesting millet, etc...

If you would like to learn more about these cultures here are a few links:

Photos: Found on Wikipedia, Saami yoiker--Sofia Jannok
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