Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Musical Extinctions

The word “extinction” evokes images of dinosaurs and dodos, animals once plenty, but now existing only in the historical record.

Civilizations go 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 situation.

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
Traditional societies 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 chinzambichipendaitsurimukwati 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.

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