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Friday, January 15, 2016
The Musical Extinctions
The word “extinction” evokes
images of dinosaurs and dodos,
animals once plenty, but now existing only in the historical record.
extinct as well. Ancient Egyptian, Roman, Aztec and other societies have died
off, either by violent conquest or cultural exhaustion. Along with them,
artistic expressions—whether literary, dramatic, musical or otherwise—die off.
Another form of
artistic extinction occurs when one culture becomes so pervasive and powerful
that other cultural forms of expression become overwhelmed. This is the current
Manipuri lady playing the Pena
I had the experience
of this many years ago, when visiting the Indian state of Manipur, which is
nestled in the north-eastern corner of the country, bordering Myanmar, near the
Chinese border. As I was returning to my host’s home one evening, I had the
surreal experience of being blasted with the strains of Led Zeppelin’s
“Stairway to Heaven,” coming from a small roadside dwelling. Manipur is a rural society, whose traditional instruments
are soft-sounding bamboo flutes, the pena
(a lute played with a bow) and the pung,
a two-headed drum. Indeed, the contrast was jarring.
Drum market in Zimbabwe
have an astonishing variety of instruments. For example, Zimabawe, a
relatively small country in Africa, boasts the Ngome and Ingunga, just
two varieties of several dozen types of drums of various sizes. Other
percussion instruments include a peculiar drum played by rubbing and scratching
that produces an unusual scratching sound, and the kanyeda, an instrument made of bamboo strips strapped together and
filled with small seeds for percussion. Some traditional instruments facing
extinction are the chinzambi, chipendai, tsuri, mukwati and wenyere.
And it is not just
instruments that are fading away, but also musical forms and idioms. Traditional
musical forms are very much tied into the spiritual narratives and mythologies
of these societies. In many cultures, music is not regarded as a performance
designed to make money for the artist but as a means of connecting with the
sacred, which has reward in itself and is focused not on the artist, but on the
object of the art.
The introduction of
Western education, mostly by missionaries, effectively cut traditional cultures
from their roots and thus provided the means for Western musical attitudes and
idioms to enter. Indeed, youth in many traditional societies are trading in their
instruments for guitars and drums and the musical idioms of their ancestors for
rap and rock-and-roll.
Yo Yo Honey Singh
Examples abound: Yo Yo
Honey Singh, a Punjabi rapper, whose explicit lyrics shock local sensibilities; K-pop music featuring Korean boy bands with hair dyed blonde blasting rock-n-roll
in the Korean language; and Bollywood, the Indian film industry, which at one
time featured exclusively Indian instruments, now giving way to Western music.
Music is distinguished
by creativity and variety. Its diminution strikes at the very heart this
artistic enterprise, leaving all of us poorer in its wake.