Music, the kinda universal langauge

One afternoon I was sitting by the hearth writing notes on the morning’s data collection, and a cassette player was running nearby. The Beatles White Album was on. Happiness is a Warm Gun was playing.

Lengotu, an Efe man I had been working with, who had made the claim to be a rain shaman (which in the case of the Rain Forest, meant someone who could stop the rain from being so severe) came over to me and said “You have to turn off that song.”

“Why?” I said. Then, right after I said that I took in the look on his face. He was clearly disturbed. Without saying another word, I walked over to the cassette player and hit the Stop button.

I never got an explanation that I could understand as to what was so disturbing about this music. The consensus was uniform among the Efe Pygmy men in the camp that day. This music was going to cause something bad to happen. In a society where most music arrives on the cultural scene in an act of ritual and magic, although it is enjoyed on a daily basis for is entertainment value as much as anything else, I was not surprised that some music would come along and have an unexpected impact. The music I had with me … not because I had brought it (I had brought none) but because other researchers more nervous about leaving behind their western ways had carted out there, consisted of Joan Armatrade, The Police, Dire Straits, and the Beatle’s White Album. It was the White Album that, apparently, had the extra mojo. And we didn’t hava to play it backwards to get that effect, which is the usual way in the United States.

Anyway, I was reminded of this event when I read this post by Dave Munger: Even isolated cultures understand emotions conveyed by Western music.

The Mafa people, who live in the far north of Cameroon in the Mandara mountains, are one of the most culturally isolated groups in the world. Since many of their settlements lack electricity, there are some individuals who have never been exposed to western movies, art, or music.

But the Mafa do have their own musical tradition….

The Mafa are not nearly as isolated as the Efe were at the time I was in the Ituri, and the musical tradition of the Efe is to the western ear even more non-western than the Mafa example Dave gives. But the instruments are similar, and my own guess is that most of the time similar emotions would be conveyed across these diverse cultures.

And then there is the occasional magic song.

Number nine … number nine … number nine…


  1. #1 Larry Ayers
    April 11, 2009

    I can understand how the White Album could be disturbing to someone not living in America or Europe during those times. The songs are basically pastiches of American pop music of the last half of the 20th Century, but if you don’t have the cultural referents I can see that the music might be upsetting.

    Great recollection, Greg!

  2. #2 PZDUMMY
    April 11, 2009

    Atheist? We can fix that…

  3. #3 Lilian Nattel
    April 12, 2009

    I’m reading Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia now. I love music–and the book is fascinating.

  4. #4 sondaze wybory demokracja
    April 14, 2009

    As for me music can express almost anything. I don’t mean lyrics, that are sometimes not understable (for example when you listen to j-pop and have never been learning japanese before…), but the melody. It can be storm, sun or love, but you still can feel it in your own way. That’s why we use it to relax, mobilise or ventilate our inner fury.