6. Music may play a special role in culture change.

It is clear that music may have a particular, unique role in associating a society's present with its past. This observation may relate to Daniel Neuman's (1990:27-28) proposition that music can stand outside the rest of culture, its function being to comment and also to build bridges between a society and the outside world -- connecting insider and outsider, humans and spirits, culture and nature, present to past. The "outsider" position of musicians in many societies may be related to this phenomenon. Could this kind of observation lead to a general theory of musical change? This is not the place to try to provide one. But there are instances in which it would seem that it is music more than other domains which cements the past to the present. Some of my excursions could already provide illustration: In the Plains, music may remain while everything else changes; in Iran, it changed in some components and not in others, helping the transition; in the culture of Ishi, music may have provided the vanguard of change. But it seems to me that the special role of music can best be seen through the classic studies involving the history of musics originating in sub-Saharan Africa. African music, in its relationship to culture and culture change, seems to me to have been unique in its behavior.

The interaction between African and various other musics, mainly Western, the resulting array of musics in the various African-derived societies in the New World, and the reimportation of New World black musics to Africa with yet further musical results, has been one of the main issues in the history of ethnomusicological study of musical change. The concept of syncretism, involving the compatibility of cultures confronting each other, was, as it were, invented for this situation.

The following examples represent an older, non-Westernized style of performance (Badouma Paddlers' song), and a style that combined older African traditional elements with style elements from Western popular music ("Agayanka Dabre").

Badouma Paddlers' song

"Agayanka Dabre", a Nigerian highlife piece

Many major scholars contributed to the study of the African and African-derived situation, beginning with Hornbostel and the West African pioneer Ballanta-Taylor, and including particularly Melville Herskovits and later -- most importantly -- his students Richard Waterman and Alan P. Merriam . (For a tracing of the history of this strand of Africa-American musical studies, see C. Waterman 1991.) But let me speak of Herskovits for a moment: Among his many accomplishments, Herskovits in 1945 did something quite unprecedented: He rated the various domains of culture --religion, economy, political life, material culture, visual art -- comparatively in their relationship to their African counterparts, and he did this for a variety of African-derived New World societies, from Surinam and Haiti to Jamaica, Cuba, and the United States. Given the immense methodological difficulties, which I won't go into, one is still left with interesting conclusions that cannot easily be denied: The less contact an African-American society had with whites, the more like African it remained; that's perhaps to be expected. But also, music -- and secondarily religion -- maintained far more of an African character than did the other aspects of culture.

This might lead to the conclusion that in the course of culture change in the Americas, music was a conservative domain that resisted. But in the African world, Western music has played a substantial role even though there were fewer whites and more tribal and cultural cohesion and consistency than in the Americas. We should look at all this in an older African context, and so it may strike us that sub-Saharan Africa has a considerable degree of stylistic consistency. Of course each culture has its own specialties and particularities, but the African musics have a lot in common -- more perhaps than the musics of Europe, if you compare the folk music of the Sami with that of Greece, and all of this with church and court music of any period. If musical style derives in good measure from culture type and social organization, then in Africa, with its variety of societies, from major empires to middle-sized hierarchical tribal groups and on to the tiny, acephalous bands of pygmies and bushmen, one would expect a lot of musical variety. It is there, but also, certain principles -- short, iterative and variational forms, polyphony and the importance of having several things going on at once, the significance of rhythm and of percussive effects in all instruments and the voice, call-and-response, to name a few -- consistently characterize the music of sub-Saharan Africa and New World Africans.

We can't say why African cultures are more like each other in music than in other domains (as suggested in Merriam 1959), but it's also true in the Americas (Herskovits 1945). In the New World, the various unrelated groups, forced to live together, may have used the similarity of musics to communicate, and conceivably it was this association of music with Africanness that caused music to be the last cultural domain to Westernize. Or possibly it was a case of humans discovering, as it were, a particularly successful way of making music, in a style that first spread throughout Africa and then became the hallmark of Africans forced to make the best of it when dragged from their homes into slavery. We are tempted to ask, can music, once created, have a life of its own, as it were, and develop independently and even in contradiction to other domains of culture? It continues to be an unanswered question.


In this informal approach to the synthesis of some anthropological and ethnomusicological views of the relationship of past and present, we have seen that the world's societies survive by tying the present to their own past, and in this, music plays a significant and sometimes indispensable role. In devoting ourselves to the anthropological study of "past and present" in the musical cultures of the Mediterranean, we participate in discussing what has perhaps been the most fundamental question in music research.

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