Tuesday, August 21, 2007

'The Forest People' - Colin Turnbull

There in the tiny clearing, splashed with silver, was the sophisticated Kenge, clad in bark cloth, adorned with leaves, with a flower stuck in his hair. He was all alone, dancing around and singing softly to himself as he gazed up at the treetops. Now Kenge was the biggest flirt for miles, so, after watching a while, I came into the clearing and asked, jokingly, why he was dancing alone. He stopped, turned slowly around and looked at me as though I was the biggest fool he had ever seen; and he was plainly surprised by my stupidity. 'But I'm not dancing alone,' he said. I'm dancing with the forest, dancing with the moon.' Then, with the utmost unconcern, he ignored me and continued his dance of love and life”.

'The Forest People' - Colin Turnbull

I've read three books in a row in which music plays a prominent role.

Moyhihan and Søderlind's 'Lords of Chaos' was the first; after that I read Thomas Mann's 'Doktor Faustus'; and I've just finished Colin Turnbull's 'The Forest People' - an ethnography of the Pygmies of the Ituri forest in Belgian-Congo (now the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo).

The book - which was written for a general audience, and is not a specialist ethnography - admiringly describes the harmonious life of the Pygmies as hunter-gatherers in the African rainforest. The Pygmies - theBaMbuti - live in complete consonance with their habitat: the forest is not only the dwelling place, it is their provider of sustenance and protection, it a benevolent and beautiful deity. Their involvement and understanding of the world of the primordial forest is deeply spiritual, as well as instrumental.

In the book the music of the BaMbuti is the primary symbol of their relationship with the forest. More specifically, that relationship is symbolized by the sacred molimo flute, which the BaMbuti regard as a "thing of the forest".

"Somewhere over there, in the darkness, the molimo now called; it sounded like someone singing but it was not a human voice. It was a deep, gentle, lowing sound, sometimes breaking off into a quiet falsetto, sometimes growling like a leopard. As the men sang their songs of praise to the forest, the molimo answered them, first on this side, than on that side, moving around so swiftly and silently that it seemed to be everywhere at once. Then, still unseen, it was right beside me, not more than two feet away, on the other side of a small but thick wall of leaves. As it replied to the song of the men, who continued to sing as though nothing were happening, the sound was sad and wistful, and immensely beautiful. (...) The molimo gave a great burst of song and with a wild rush swept across the camp, surrounded by a dozen youths packed to tightly that I could see nothing, and disappeared into the forest. Those left in the camp made no comment; they just kept on with their song, and after a while the voice of the molimo, replying to them, became fainter and fainters and was finally lost in the night and in the depths of the forest from where it had come".

Of course, it is all too easy to mutter to oneself "Too many damn idealists!" and make some derogatory remarks about the way Turnbull romanticizes the life of the BaMbuti.

On the other hand, I find passages like the one quoted above wonderful: not only is the text well written and dramatically pleasing, as a consumer of 21st century recorded music I am intrigued by the way in which the BaMbuti use sound space, in a sense anticipating the dramatic possibilities of surround sound which has become so popular in this age of AV amplifiers with 5.1 speaker channels. Also, the molimo can be said to sample the sounds of the forest, playing them back in a musical context (BaMbuti men singing) for dramatic effect. Furthermore, I am fascinated by the paradox of the molimo: a secret which does not hide itself but on the contrary trumpets its existence, highlighting "...nature's mysteries as well as those inherent to social institutions and personal relationships" (Taussig) without actually revealing those mysteries.

In a sense, the music described in couldn't be more different than that described in 'Lords Of Chaos' and 'Doktor Faustus': where the latter two books describe dissonant music emerging from communities torn apart by hatred and madness, the music of 'The Forest People' is harmonious.

Nonetheless, in all three books music is presented as something emerging from a sacred otherworld (Hell; and the African forest, which is sacred to the BaMbuti), and in all three books, the music has a metaphorical relationship to the social circumstances from which it emerges. The music (Black Metal; Schoenbergian Satanic orchestral music; the BaMbuti molimo music) is presented as selecting, emphasizing, suppressing and organizing features of the societies it emerged from. Statements about the music are statements about the author's view of the society the music emerged from.

Though the literary qualities of the three books are vastly different (I find the writing style of 'Lords Of Chaos' quite ugly), all three books successfully connect dramatic music to social drama.

Post scriptum

Colin Turnbull's recordings of BaMbuti music are available from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. There are a number of samples on their website (here and here and here).

Here is an interesting biographical essay on Turnbull by fellow anthropologist and Turnbull's biographer Roy Richard Grinker (link).

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