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.