by Charles Keil
[previously published in Ethnomusicology, Vol. 26, No. 3, September, 1982 by the Society for Ethnomusicology]
send heart boldly travelling
on the heat of the dead and down
Gary Snyder, “Towards Climax” (1974)
Trusting my colleague Gourlay to address the broader theoretical questions about ethnomusicology’s future, I would like to focus on a needed third area in ethnomusicology beyond research/writing/teaching and the more recently evolved performance-group orientation. I call this third area “applied” because it suggests that our work can make a difference, that it can intersect both the world outside and the university in more challenging and constructive ways.
In writing my abstract I had thought it a good idea to move from (I) a discussion of resistance to written music (bourgeois culture) and electrocuted music (mass culture) through (2) an assessment of what there is in existing communities that can be assisted, and only then move to (3) an insistence upon putting music into play wherever people are resisting their oppression.
But as I think about my own limited practice, all three aspects of applied ethnomusicology are linked together. The best defense against any kind of mediated or commodified culture, whether “high” or “mass,” is always a good offense, doing it, and doing it well invariably requires drawing upon the oldest and strongest techniques of the existing communities.
When I go to demonstrations I find myself beating out old African rhythms on an old Asian drum—the drum my mother got at auction and gave to me when I was about eight years old, putting me on the path. It’s a simple barrel drum with tacked-down heads, almost identical to drums I’ve seen in Beijing music stores, and it has kept its tone over many years and through all kinds of weather. Originally painted red, now touched up in black splotches, it’s a palomino anarchocommunist mother drum whose very sight and sound knit my life and work together. Most of the rhythms come from Africa or Afro-Latin research and practice, and they blend easily with whoever wants to add another drum part, cowbells, shakers or the Asian gongs I’ve been bringing along recently. Pennywhistles or reeds can be added, but much of the time at demonstrations the percussion has to support and blend with the chanted slogans and there isn’t that much space for horns.
The Afro-Asian outdoor blown and beaten Dionysian sound is long overdue on the left, where for many years protest music has meant mainly picking and singing, a Euro-American indoor sound of Apollonian or Apallachian strings and a heavy emphasis on words, We surely need this stream of strung-sung forms, but the other, and perhaps more powerful, half of the musical powers that be hasn’t really been applied to the struggles for justice and equality.
For me it is a matter of faith that what Bergson called “duree,” Levy-Bruhi describes as modes of “participation,” Jane Ellen Harrison defined as “that life which is one, indivisible, and yet ceaselessly changing,” and Amiri Baraka named the “changing same,” is best understood as “music” generally, and best heard in the blown and beaten styles of the third world specifically. Finally, this sound is recreatable anywhere, anytime, by any group of people who really need it.
This faith that everyone can reclaim their sociable musical nature also underlies a course I teach each semester, American Studies 128, Afro-Asian Musical Praxis, that accepts everyone without prerequisites, with or without musical experience, and works with them on basic Afro bell beats, clave rhythms, conga patterns until everyone can play all the parts and instrument’ for cha chas, sambas, mamboes, and improvise a bit. As the semester progresses we drift into pennywhistles, flutes, Asian reeds and gongs. Sometimes it seems unfair to be earning a university salary for teaching what some might call a kindergarten – rhythm band. At other times it seems to be the very best thing I can do for students. Perhaps there is no other course at my university where students are as consistently open and audible to each other; for the class to happen at all everyone has to participate constantly and listen carefully to all other participants simultaneously. To make this point of John Chernoff’s (1979), in every practice has to be good education, though admittedly remedial. Why can’t these socializing and liberating modes of music-making be taught in the early grades? This applied ethnomusicology has been urgently needed for decades, but while bourgeois ideology holds its grip on music educators, “stage bands” in high school is just how far the “jes’grew” (Reed 1972) can grow.
If the continuing reverence for written music by the masters denies the promise of applied ethnomusicology in the schools, it is the seductiveness of electric amplification and mediation that makes application difficult in the world. Between street agitating and classroom capacitating lies the problem of “party building,” how to get people singing and dancing for themselves and away from the aesthetic and antiaesthetic posturing of punk rock on the one foot and packaged disco distortions on the other. People may be moving to both musics but not in any way that creates a sustained community or vision of happiness. When I feel like I’m getting somewhere in the street and in the classroom, a consistent musical relationship to the world of “weekend entertainment” has been eluding me lately.
The small group of black post-jazz experimentalists in Buffalo believes strongly in keeping the vibrations unamplified and undistorted, but they are not very enthusiastic about playing in rhythm and for the dancers. That would be too commercial and/or too primitive, not open enough to the spirit of randomness, chance, “freedom.” But the musicians, again mostly black, who want to draw on the Afro- Cuban basics for dancing are also eager to put on a precise and predictable show, a microphone on every cowbell and conga drum and saving up for still more electrical equipment. If you want to work with and for the people, break down the “artist” and “entertainer” roles, involve the audience to the point of dissolving it, not lay a power trip on people, and so forth, it is not clear who I should be playing with, the “free” and acoustic mystics or the amplified show-time Afro-beaters.
Should I try to persuade the latter to unplug and free themselves, or the former to play with a consistent pulse for dancing? Should I try to build my demonstration drumming friends and/or fuse the graduates of the classroom application into a band for dancing? Should I stop trying for the sound and situation I believe is best and try to blend with one of the existing ethnic working-class traditions in Buffalo, flipping a coin to choose between polka, salsa, or disco-funk-soul? These are personal questions for me now, and I wonder if they resonate with anyone else’s efforts to create music that serves the people.
The following analysis explores some of these same issues from a more classical or world historical perspective.
THE REBIRTH OF MUSIC FROM THE SPIRIT OF TRAGEDY
Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy From the Spirit of Music” (1956), first published in 1872, and the works of L. H. Morgan, Marx and Engels, Gilbert Murray, Jane Ellen Harrison at the turn of the century, pulled away many of the veils that hid the realities of Ancient Greece from view. Since then, the discipline called classics has given us many fine pieces of scholarship. Our most interesting social scientists have pushed their problems back to Plato and the social evolution that made the emergence of philosophy, science; and history possible. Many poets point to that same transitional period. Fictional accounts, like those of Mary Renault and Michael Ayrton, have spread both a knowledge of and a feeling for that world where Western history begins. One basic theme in much of this writing, for me at least, is the relationship between tragedy and music on the one hand and the emergence of class society on the other. For it seems that class society is The Great Tragedy and until we bring down the final curtain on it we won’t get our music back.
At that point in time where ritual-song-dance-poetry (that good old-time religion) is broken up and portions are given to the ruling aristocracy to cherish, the people are given a big blood sacrifice in exchange. The king must die. As a ruling class emerges, its leading representative must die annually to renew life and fertility, or if not annually, at a prime time indicated by the gods whose representative on earth he is. That is the superstructural or ideological explanation for the sacrifice of divine kings. The social explanation and half of the psychological explanation for this event is that the ruled class must have its revenge and an anarchic interregnum which reestablishes the need for authority. The king must die for the sin of having risen above his fellow men. In the Christian version of this universal class society myth, the king dies so that we may all rise together in equality at some later time. Much later.
Once the ruling class is surer of its position, then tragedy can offer a substitute catharsis: the king dies, but only symbolically. The big man is brought down, the ruling family humbled on a stage filled with religious overtones and underpinnings, but it is a play and the patrons of the art just might have known what they were doing.
Let us take as an example the great tetralogy of Aeschylus, the Oresteia. The story, taken from mythology, contains many primitive features, such as the ancestral curse and the blood feud, but at the end of the trilogy these are all relegated to the past. The story is as follows. In the first play, Agamemnon is murdered on his return from Troy by his wife Clytemnestra. In the second, she is murdered by their son Orestes at the command of Apollo. In the third, after being purified by Apollo and persecuted by his mother’s avenging spirits, the Furies, Orestes is brought to trial and acquitted before a court of justice founded for this purpose by Athena, goddess of democratic Athens. She resolves the conflict between Apollo and the Furies by inviting them to co-operate in supervising the new court. The reign of law has begun…
Aeschylus was a democrat and a Pythagorean. He believed that the conflict between tribal custom, represented in this drama by the Furies, and aristocratic privileges, represented by Apollo, has been resolved in democracy, which accordingly he regarded as the fusion of opposites in the mean. In the trilogy, therefore, which represented the offence, the counter-offence and the reconciliation, he created a dramatic form which provided a perfect vehicle for the dialectical movement of his thought (Thomson 1974:91—92).
I’m afraid that Aeschylus only thought he was a democrat. His plays freed neither slaves nor women, but rather reinforced ruling class morality, legitimated the role of patriarchal law replacing matrilineal custom, and told the citizenry that the destiny of their leaders and their own fates were as one.
The rebirth of tragedy in Shakespeare’s time also focuses upon kings who must die, but this time the real kings are working out alliances with a rising bourgeoisie. The masks of Greek tragedy are off. The chorus and the Furies are gone and individualism is about to burst the bonds of collective poetry.
Tragedy appears in the rapid evolution of Greek classes out of the Greek gens and blossoms again with the rise of bourgeois productivity in the drama of the Elizabethan stage. In both, poetry still soaks it because the drama is a transitional stage in class society. It is the product of a society passing from collectivity to individuality (Caldwell 1937:254).
Tragedy, then, is the theft of what was once collective ritual-song-dance- poetry, and the staging of this energy in a form that fits class society and its guiding ideology.
In the century of advanced capitalism and imperialism the kings must survive and the peoples must die: the Armenian tragedy, the Jewish tragedy, the Palestinian tragedy, the Lebanese ‘tragedy, the Biafran tragedy, the Vietnam tragedy,the Cypriote tragedy, the Cambodian tragedy, and so forth. These sacrifices, these mass murders of innocents that disgrace us throughout the world, make up a very long list, for one can put the word “tragedy” after the name of almost any nation state and think of a slaughtering of the people. In our time attempted genocides have replaced symbolic regicides. It is a tremendous error of rhetoric to dignify any of these administrative massacres with the word “tragedy” for no one is ennobled by them in any way, though, of course, a very few continue to be enriched as the death tolls mount.
At this point in time the hubris, the pride, of our rulers knows no bounds. They are killing us and all life on this planet. And some of the biggest killers are given prizes for peace! These kings must die, like in the good old days, but no one should think of their destruction as tragic. Our anger, springing from the deaths of so many innocent millions, must be used to nurture revolutionary organizations and ritual-song-dance-poetry. Without these rites our revolutions will go wrong. Without a rebirth of music from the spirit of tragedy, our pent-up anger is likely to find outlet only in random terrorism, or in Cambodian forced marches, the kinds of bloodletting that stain the name of socialism and bring on even bloodier counter- revolutions. Yet without a revolutionary party that can impose justice, our musical joys will always be limited in time, shallow in feeling. No justice without joy. No joy without justice.
How will music be reborn from the spirit of tragedy? By doing it. “send heart boldly travelling on the heat of the dead and down”… And also by thinking about it: reworking that fertile ground where the classics and the anthropology of classless societies meet. By using the long-playing “wreckords” that have been made of primitive musics as clues and reference points. But basically, by doing it, playing together, building the party without amplification or mediation, listening and looking and feeling for the ways to bring song and dance and poetry and human rites back together again.
1979 African Rhythm and African Sensibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
1972 Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Doubleday.
Snyder, Gary -
1974 Turtle Island. New York: New Directions.
1937 Illusion and Reality. New York: International Publishers.
1974 The Human Essence. London: China Policy Study Group.
1956 The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music. New York: Doubleday.