Domenico Di Virgilio
Different Histories of Ethnomusicology

The next paper was read at the XII ESEM meeting at Líisle Jourdain (Toulouse, France, in 1996).

The theme 'Unknown histories of ethnomusicology' suggested me to choose a collection of quotations from novels, diaries, travel reports I have been reading for the last few years.

These quotations are a more or less detailed description of other cultures, and I called them 'different histories of ethnomusicology' because if not strictly connected with it as a scientific discipline they are nevertheless close to it. In fact I think of them as a different but reliable approach to the knowledge of 'Others' as well as of ourselves. In our personal history too we chose, maybe, to be ethnomusicologists after reading or listening to such histories.

The material to choose from is extremely wide and I only took into account the Italian and English literature, besides the Geographic area I refer to is mostly the East, as it is nearer to my specific area of studies. But of course we can choose to travel to every direction, and through the time, and always find myths and legend that have been created to narrate ourselves through the descriptions of the others. Starting from the oldest times to the present one, when new media as photography and cinema have enriched the possibilities.

But a "non-ethnographic" or a "non-ethnomusicological" approach maybe doesn't tell us the same things. When we give our preference to a media other than another which part of ourselves do we choose to narrate? And why? How do the writers, the travellers, the intellectuals consider other cultures and their music expressions?

Western classical music is only part of a centripetal self-asserting world that for centuries, searching and analysing the 'Others' has tried to assert himself. Is this search a never ending regret for the lost innocence?

Are there in other cultures ethnomusicologists (who are) deeply involved in studying our Western folk-music? And in studying other cultures does the Western world apply the same point of view he has towards his own musical expressions? In recent years an Indian musicologist wrote: "It is a gross mistake to characterise Indian Musicology as ethnomusicology, as done by some foreign scholars." (Pradip K. Sengupta, Foundations of Indian Musicology, New Delhi 1991).

These are only few questions, but many other can be thought of.

An answer, only one and a provisional answer, is in the use of some Western musical features in non-Western pop music, a use free from any critical or problematic approach. And more recently in the rise of the so-called World music.

In his book 'Orientalism' (London 1978) Edward Said says: "One of the striking aspects of the new American social-science attention to the Orient is its singular avoidance of literature. You can read through reams of expert writing on the modern Near East, and never encounter a single reference to literature." and again "a literary text speaks more or less directly of a leaving reality". So what we want to deal with here are few writers and their way to look into the world of people that they feel different from themselves. I start with a near place and daily life as it was in Italy few years ago.

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) writes down in 'Zibaldone di pensieri' (Miscellany of thoughts) some " folk songs that were sung in my lifetime in Recanati".

Fàcciate alla finestra, Luciola,
decco che passa lo ragazzo tua,
e porta un canestrello pieno d'ova
mantato colle pampane dell'uva.

E' già venuta l'ora di partire
in santa pace vi voglio lasciare.

Nina una goccia d'acqua se ce l'hai:
se non me lo vòi dà padrona sei. (aprile 1819)

Io benedico chi t'ha fatto l'occhi
che te l'ha fatti tanto 'nnamorati. (maggio 1819)

Una volta mi voglio arrisicare
nella camera tua voglio venire. (maggio 1820)
(Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837): "folk songs that were sung in my lifetime in Recanati".)

He was a poet and took into account only the words, but we can listen to the music from the recording (audio30). These are teasing couplets (or Stornelli) still sung in Central Italy.

The same folk traditions are a living part in the poetry of Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912). The following example is the last quatrain from the poem 'Lavandare' (laundresses)

Il vento soffia e nevica la frasca,
e tu non torni ancora al tuo paese!
quando partisti, come son rimasta!
come l'aratro in mezzo alla maggese.
(Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912) 'Lavandare')

Click here to listen example of "teasing couplets" recorded in Abruzzo, in Farindola (Pe). (Download - QuickTime mp2 - 785Kb)

A line from the poem 'Ultimo canto' (Last song) is a description of the vocal technique used in folk tradition:

Canta una sfogliatrice a piena gola

the translation is not easy with poetry but it tells of a woman who (while) cleaning the maize-cob sings aloud with throat voice.

Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938) presenting his tragedy 'La figlia di Iorio' writes: "The characters of the play are everlasting as the human substance, the same today as two thousand years ago. The time is that of the legends, as in folk tales. The songs of the people and of the countryside provided me with the manners and the accents.".

We are now facing the myth: in the words of D'Annunzio, nevertheless, the strangeness concerns people that are 'neighbours' to the writer. It is the same world called "Indias de por acà" by the Jesuits who were missionaries in Southern Italy. Ernesto De Martino, in his book "La terra del rimorso", thus explains: "The fact that the journeys are shorter or less tiring doesn't make any real difference because we have to face behaviours that are unusual, opposing our common way of thinking (...) we don't have anymore the key to get to the heart of them.".

In other times the Romantic poet Novalis (1772-1801) wrote:

"Alles wird in der Entfernung Poesie: ferne Berge, ferne Menschen, ferne Begebenheiten. Alles wird romantisch"

Not all the travellers who went to the East along the centuries wrote something about music. But among the reports they have given on several topics they certainly treated music with the same perspective.

If a traveller narrates about the marvels and (wickedness/cruelties) of a distant kingdom and people, the poet writes:

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
(Samuel.T.Coleridge, 1722-1834, Kubla Khan)

The same mythical world, with a touch of aestheticism (Japanesque was the rave of that time) is at the background of the description of the musical instruments collected by Dorian Gray: "the strangest instruments that could be found (...) collected from all parts of the world".

"At another time he devoted himself entirely to music, and in a long latticed room, with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer, he used to give curious concerts, in which mad gypsies tore wild music from little zithers, or grave yellow-shawled Tunisians plucked at the strained strings of monstrous lutes, while grinning Negroes beat monotonously upon copper drums, and, crouching upon scarlet mats, slim turbaned Indians blew through long pipes of reed or brass, and charmed, or feigned to charm, great hooded snakes and horrible horned adders. The harsh intervals and shrill discords of barbaric music stirred him at times when Schubertís grace and Chopinís beautiful sorrows, and the mighty harmonies of Beethoven himself, fell unheeded on his ear. He collected together from all parts of the world the strangest instruments that could be found, either in the tombs of dead nations or among the few savage tribes that have survived contact with Western civilizations, and loved to touch and try them. He had the mysterious juruparis of the Rio Negro Indians, that women are not allowed to look at, and that even youths may not see till they have been subjected to fasting and scourging, and the earthen jars of the Peruvians that have the shrill cries of birds, and flutes of humen bones such as Alfonso de Ovalle heard in Chile, and the sonorous green jaspers that are found near Cuzco and give forth a note of singular sweetness. He had painted gourds filled with pebbles that rattled when they were shaken; the long clarin of the Mexicans, into which the performer does not blow, but through which he inhales the air; the harsh ture of the Amazon tribes, that is sounded by the sentinels who sit all day long in high trees, and can be heard, it is said, at a distance of three leagues, the teponaztli, that has two vibrating tongues of wood, and is beaten with sticks that are smeared with an elastic gum obtained from the milky juice of plants; the yotl-bells of the Aztecs, that are hung in clusters like grapes, and a huge cylindrical drum, covered with the skins of great serpents, like the one that Bernal Diaz saw when he went with Cortes into the Mexican temple, and of whose doleful sound he has left us so vivid a description. The fantastic character of these instruments fascinated him, and he felt a curious delight in the thought that Art, like Nature, has her monsters, things of bestial shape and with hideous voice. Yet, after some time, he wearied of them, and would sit in his box at the Opera, either alone or with Lord Henry, listening in rapt pleasure to ëTannh'userí, and seeing in the prelude to that great work of art a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul."

(O. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray)

Orientalizing the Orient: the term Orient was built and used by the West and tells us more about the Occident than it does about the East. It designates a people, a landscape, even a spirit, which Westerners have always feared and yet found dangerously attractive. This is what E. Said says in his book 'Orientalism'. If we agree with him we can think of the thousands who have travelled through and lived in the Orient as studying and describing it carrying on themselves the mark of the culture they belonged to and of the time they lived in.

Is this Rudyard Kipling's 'White Man's Burden'?

This is the work done by William Jones and by so many other Westerners who followed him.

W. Jones arrived in India in 1783 to work in the East India Company. He already knew the Arab and Persian languages, and in India started to investigate as much as he could about the local culture. He had the ambition "to know India better than any other European ever knew it". His strong desire to know and classify all the fields of Indian knowledge was something like including the myth of the Orient within the path of Western culture. Or as E. Said says to domesticate the Orient and thereby turn it into a province of European learning". In 1784 W. Jones wrote 'On the musical modes of the Indus', a paper that already has an ethnomusicological approach; maybe the first one dealing with Indian music.

R. Kipling (1865 -1836) and E.M. Forster (1879 - 1970) both wrote about India, but from opposite points of view. I don't have now any hint for Kipling but from Forsterís 'A passage to India' (1924) I remember the 'queer little song' of Prof. Godbole. The song, from the Hindu tradition of Lord Krishna and his milkmaiden-lovers (the Gopis), has an importance and a function in the book, affecting the minds of the principal characters, as Forster underlines: "Ever since Professor Godbole had sung his queer little song, they had lived more or less inside cocoons, and the difference between them was that the elder lady accepted her own apathy, while the younger resented hers."

The years between the two world wars were for many writers years of travels and discoveries

Aldous Huxley (1894-1955) in his travel books makes a continuous confrontation between the Occident and the other cultures, and always tries to reconsider our Western world.

George Orwell was born in 1903 in Motihari. He was, like Kipling, an Anglo-indian. For five years he worked in Burma in the Indian Imperial Service and came back to England in 1927. In his writings there is always the outlook of someone who carries the burden of the imperial power. He definitely calls this burden colonialism, and shows the responsibility of a new social commitment.

'Jesting Pilate' by A. Huxley was published in 1926. It is a travel from India to California passing through Malaya, Java, Borneo, Philippines, China, Japan. Huxley has the opportunity to watch several performances of music, dance, poetry, and describes them. Talking about music he has always to go back to his knowledge of Western Classical music: minor key, dominant, tonic; and so the descriptions seem to have an ethnocentric outlook. He also underlines the social context that surrounds the performances and the performers.

I have chosen a description from Kashmir:

"The coolies sing as they pull, partly out of sheer lightness of heart (for these Kashmiris are wonderfully cheerful, in spite of everything), and partly, no doubt, because they have discovered the psychological fact that to sing in chorus creates a strengthening sense of solidarity within the singing group, and seems to lighten the work in hand by making the muscular effort respond almost automatically to a regular rhythmic stimulus. I noticed two main types of labourerís chantey. One of these is melodically quite ambitious; for it ranges over no less than three notes of the minor scale. It is sung in unison, and there is no separate chorus leader. The commonest form of the melody is more or less as follows:

Da capo ad infinitum. They sing it all day at their work and half the night as well, for fun, when there happens to be a wedding or some similar festival. The other chantey takes the form of a kind of dialogue between the chorus and a chorus leader, who responds to the two strong beats of the choral song by a single monosyllable, always the same, sustained for two beats, and sung emphatically on a lower note. The words were incomprehensible to me; but translated into terms of gibberish, they sound something like this: Chorus, Dum - Dum. Leader, Bong. Chorus, Tweedle - dum. Leader, Bong Tum - diddy Bong, Tweedle - weedle, Bong. And so on, hour after hour.

This rhythmically dialogue is the favourite music of the waggon teams. Walking abroad, one is never for long out of hearing of that monotonous Dum - Dum, Bong, diddy - dum, Bong. The singing floats down between the poplar trees of the straight flat roads of the valley, and slowly, laboriously the waggon and its human crew come following after the swift - travelling song. Passing, I feel almost ashamed to look at the creeping wain; I avert my eyes from a spectacle so painfully accusatory. That men should be reduced to the performance of a labour which, even for beasts, is cruel and humiliating, is a dreadful thing."

This gives me the opportunity to go back to a book written by A.H. Fox Strangways 'The Music of Hindostan' and then to an experience of my own.

The book of Fox-Strangways is not fiction, is a treatise on Hindustani music and the first chapter is a collection of folk music examples from Fox-Strangways' travel through India in 1910-11. Two songs were collected in Dehra Dun, on the hills facing the Himalaya.

These were sung by women, tile-layers. They clattered their wooden trowels on the floor, in an approximate rhythm, and felt shame because there was no actual roof to work on.

In 1978 I collected in Allahabad, in the Gangetic plain, some women songs: the women were working on the roof of a building, beating with wooden trowels on a stretch of sand and gravel, and singing in antiphony. (Download - QuickTime mp2 - 325Kb)

In 'Burmese Days' (1934) G. Orwell describes a 'pwé'. The performance lasts six pages of the book and, among the natives, is attended by two Westerners with different points of view: John Floris, an English timber merchant (he represents the author) and Miss Elizabeth Lackersteen, who travelled to Burma to reach her relatives.

"A girl who had been squatting at the back of the stage, smoking, stepped forward into the lamplight. She was very young, slim ñ shouldered, breastless, dressed in a pale blue satin longyi that hid her feet. The skirts of her ingyi curved outwards above her hips in little panniers, according to the ancient Burmese fashion. They were like the petals of a downward ñ pointing flower. She threw her cigar languidly to one of the men in the orchestra, and then, holding out one slender arm, writhed it as though to shake the muscles loose.

The orchestra burst into a sudden loud squalling. There were pipes like bagpipes, a strange instrument consisting of plaques of bamboo which a man struck with a little hammer, and in the middle there was a man surrounded by twelve tall drums of different sizes. He reached rapidly from one to another, thumping them with the heel of his hand. In a moment the girl began to dance, But at first it was not a dance, it was a rhythmic nodding, posturing and twisting of the elbows, like the movement of one of those jointed wooden figures on an old ñ fashioned roundabout. The way her neck and elbows rotated was precisely like a jointed doll, and yet incredibly sinuous. Her hands, twisting like snakeheads with fingers close together, could lie back until they were almost along her forearms. By degrees her movements quickened. She began to leap from side to side, flinging herself down in a kind of curtsy and springing up again with extraordinary agility, in spite of the long longyi that imprisoned her feet. Then she danced in a grotesque postures as though sitting down, knees bent, body leaned forward, with her arms extended and writhing, her head also moving to the beat of the drums. The music quickened to a climax. The girl rose upright and whirled round as swiftly as a top, the panniers of her ingyi flying out about her like the petals of a snowdrop. Then the music stopped as abruptly as it had begun, and the girl sank again into a curtsy, amid raucous shouting from the audience.
Elizabeth watched the dance with a mixture of amazement, boredom and something approaching horror. She had sipped her drink and found that it tasted like hair oil. On a mat by her feet three Burmese girls lay fast asleep with their heads on the same pillow, their small oval faces side by side like the faces of kittens. Under cover of the music Flory was speaking in a low voice into Elizabethís ear, commenting on the dance.
I knew this would interest you; thatís why I brought you here. Youíve read books and been in civilised places, youíre not like the rest of us miserable savages here. Donít you think this is worth watching, in its queer way? Just look at that girlís movements ñ look at that strange, bent ñ forward pose like a marionette, and the way her arms twist from the elbow like a cobra rising to strike. Itís grotesque, itís even ugly, with a sort of wilful ugliness. And thereís something sinister in it too. Thereís a touch of the diabolical in all Mongols. And yet when you look closely, what art, what centuries of culture you can see behind it ! Every movement that girl makes has been studied and handed down through innumerable generations. Whenever you look closely at the art of these Eastern peoples you can see that a civilisation stretching back and back, practically the same, into times when we were dressed in woad. In some way that I canít define to you, the whole life and spirit of Burma is summed up in the way that girl twists her arms. When you see her you can see the rice ñ fields, the villages under the teak trees, the pagodas, the priests in their yellow robes, the buffaloes swimming the rivers in the early morning, Thibawís palace.
His voice stopped abruptly as the music stopped."

On the contrary Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) in 'Time for a tiger' (1956) writes only few lines on a performance by Malaya natives. But in these few lines there is again misunderstanding between different cultures, with a resurgent myth of the primitive.

"It was, to Fenella, a disappointing evening. A toddy jug went round and with it little glutinopus rice - cakes. The natives were hospitable. But their dances were nothing more than a happy romp and their songs artless and simple as five - finger exercises. Two drums beat easy rhythms and an old man blew a flute, first with his mouth, then with his nose. It was, except for the toddy, a mere jolly boyscout evening."

At last few words on Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989). In his works he mentioned music several times, folk music too, and in 1987 he published 'The songlines'. Is it fiction or travel book? Is it a reliable account of the Australian aboriginal culture or misunderstands it? Chatwin's questionable approach rise from his search, "the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score." he writes, that deliberately defies scientific insight to give preference to fiction. He wanted to write fiction, as he says in 'What am I doing here'.

How many ethnomusicologists have read Chatwin's book? And how many readers have gone through an ethnomusicological paper after reading the same book?

My opinion is that both the travels, in this as in other cases, deserve to be done.


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