1. The observation of musicological behavior as a survival and conflict resolving practice


Levi-Strauss once suggested that "like mathematics or music, ethnography is one the rare vocations that we can discover in ourselves without its having ever been taught to us" (1955-57). If we agree with this proposition, we might perhaps take the research activities of travelers in various cultures as an example. Nevertheless, it is also true that there are many problems in considering these experiences as precedents for what we understand now as the anthropology of music or ethnomusicology. A wide time span separates us from them and their methods. But there are other problems, in particular the pronounced contextual conditioning of their observations, manipulation of discourse, deliberate omissions, and, in general, a culturally and historically specific mode of thought. Most specifically, one cannot avoid a certain hostility to the idea that this kind of historical research might be used to justify theories defending the birth of these sciences as a logical development of Western colonialism (1989 : 57) (1).

One cannot, indeed, deny the relationship of these sciences with the colonial project. Western history has been incapable of eradicating its colonial past, making it impossible for us to distinguish the colonial project from its epistemological structure. However much we try to understand the world in which we live, we are still unable to explain our existence, in a broader sense, without reference to the politics of colonial expansion (Popper, 1973).

The isolation of the specific study of music from other musicological and ethnographic sciences at the time of Guido Adler (1885:14) does little to justify his approach to the colonial project. On the contrary, one could say that controversy over the mutual complicity of ethnography and colonialism has permitted the development of new and more critical methods of study. In this regard today, some Latin American researchers, coming from a background in which the shattering impact of Spanish colonization is keenly felt, rightly articulate the need for a specific disciplinary convergence: a new "anthropology of music" (Grebe Vicuña 1993) or an "integrated musicology" (Waisman 1993) that will enable them to re-establish the intimate link between the whole of their musical repertories and their respective social, economic and cultural milieus, not only in their present but also in the past (Merino: 1976).

The fact that colonial narratives concerning musical behavior argue that music cannot be isolated from other customs does not allow us to regard them, even from an evolutionist standpoint, as a 'primitive' stage of knowledge, nor indeed to interpret them as the direct result of a 'scientific impulse', as this moment in Western history is habitually understood.

In the history of anthropology, as James A. Boon points out, comparisons between periods are irrelevant and unnecessary, just as anthropologists can, for the same reasons, dispense with discriminating comparisons between cultures. The fact is, however, that the motivations that drove certain missionaries, traders, soldiers, or scientists and musicians to enter into their unavoidably prejudiced observation of colonized cultures, complimented specific and practical interests intended to ensure control over other nations (conquered or merely visited), as well as their own survival.

Under circumstances of inappropriate and, to a large extent, forced linguistic exchange, speech, song, gesture, bodily posture, and dance, were assessed by these navigators as essential channels of information for their personal survival, no different in kind from knowledge about which kinds of birds foretell the proximity of dry land. In this sense, an interest in what is nowadays called a "soundscape" assumed a sharp focus for these men, and, indeed, those they subjected. On the watch-out, when at sea, for the soundscape of birds that directed them about the lands they skirted, Columbus' companions on his first trip listened day and night to birds, identifying species and flight routes.

"There came to the vessel two gannets and after a while one more; that was a sign that we were close to dry land. They took a bird in their hands, that was like a "garjao" ; it was a river bird, not a sea bird, and its feet were like those of a seagull. At dawn, two or three small birds came singing and later, before sunrise, they disappeared. After came another gannet, from the northwest and heading southeast, which was a sign that it was coming from dry land, because these birds sleep on shore and in the morning the go to sea for food and they do not fly farther than twenty miles" (Colón 1995:103) (2).

This feeling of dependence experienced by men from different cultures (including the Western one) towards birdsong, a feeling which organized myths and rites around their existence (as Feld has discussed elsewhere; see particularly Feld 1994), is recurrent in these navigators, for whom, of course, certain species of birds known in the mother country were not devoid of meanings either (Labajo 1984). There is nothing strange then in the interest taken by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún in the omens of the "oacton" or of the various genera of owls among the Indians of New Spain (1990, 313-318). Likewise, observation of songs and the coordination required by certain native dances of the southern islands performed on their arrival, were not minor matters for those, like Fernández de Quirós, who made use of this knowledge to appraise the organizing capacity, and thus defensive capacity, of his hosts: "... and morning and afternoon, all together, they made a loud and concerted sonorous murmur that echoed in the gorges, and they answered each other with screams" (1989: 79) (3).

In spite of the distortion that observation from a distance entails, travelers and natives did not have many choices. The Nahuatl Indians of New Spain attempted to understand the first Franciscans, who arrived at Tlaxcala in 1524, through the sounds they made during prayer: "These poor people must be diseased or insane, notes the local chronicler Muñoz Camargo (Muñoz Camargo, 1981: 165). Let these wretches shout; let them be, to pass their disease as they could, do them no harm... and look, have you noticed how they shout and cry at midday, midnight and a quarter before dawn? (4). Hence one might infer that an overall concern for sound gestures, both for visitors and visited, was one of the first, most significant and most detailed sources of reciprocal knowledge.

Although two centuries separate the bellicose attitude of the 'Conquest of the Indies' from the 18th century 'scientific expeditions', more 'diplomatic' in spirit yet just as imperialistic in their ultimate goals, this concern remained an important means of negotiating colonial encounter, to the extent of inducing the Spanish every now and again to respond and participate in particular events. Thus, during an expedition led by Malaspina, an Italian navigator at the service of the Spanish Crown, after a similar skirmish to the one that put an end to Captain Cook's life in the Sandwich Islands, the chronicler recounts: "the folks of both corvettes agreed to sing peace, like the natives sang from the shore, producing what in Malaspina's opinion was a pleasant clamour repeated on both vessels and on the beach, not devoid of certain harmony and accompanied by the eloquent attitude of stretched out arms" (5).

Retirada del cuarto de círculo en el puerto de Mulgrave

Tomás de Suria, Retirada del cuarto de círculo en el puerto de Mulgrave

Tomás de Suria, a landscape and portrait painter who accompanied the expedition, contributed to this cooperative gesture "against his own will", evidencing genuine fear for his lives in a potentially dangerous situations resolved by this kind of "distant-participating" attitude. "They made him sit (after he had tried to dance in the circle they had made around him) and by force obliged him to sing their song, making faces at him and ridiculing him. Suria, forgetting about reality, yelled louder, imitating the native's contortions and gestures; this pleased them much and so he cunningly won their sympathy" (6) (Fernández, 1936: 10). Undoubtedly this account cannot be understood without referring to a whole literary legacy converging on the creation of the archetype of the "savage" of strange and dangerous ways. This induced Europeans to act in relation to a complex and vaguely defined cultural imagery, that took shape in Malaspina's orders to his men to observe extreme caution whenever in the presence of "immediate natives" (7).

Taking the analysis of the attitudes evidenced by these accounts as a starting point, it would be worth reconsidering various issues. Since observation cannot be regarded as a behavior pattern adopted irrespective of preconceptions (each culture, epoch and individual have their own), just as knowledge is not always an act of willful curiosity, we can ask ourselves whether people do not experience, under given circumstances, what might be described as an 'emergency apprenticeship', prevailing over these preconceptions.

In this sense, it is clear that there is no urge for knowledge of musical behaviors that one can separate from the politico-economic nature of the voyage, neither in the written accounts of the first conquerors, nor in those of the later expeditions of commercial colonialism. Nevertheless, the colonists scrupulously recorded their observations of the characteristics of indigenous musical performance as a means of appraising the natives' general attitude to the Spanish. The first conquerors use the term 'son' (sound) to identify by one single vocable the concept of musical expression of emotions as well as those of attitude and gesture. Suria later tried to describe the singing of the inhabitants of Port Mulgrave in an attempt to translate their inner feelings in a similar way (8).

The care exhibited in describing musical events was of no specific use to the first conquerors from the point of view of security, even if it was to become essential, later, to the missionaries and other colonists settling in the Americas. But the use of such information was clear to the voyagers of the Enlightenment who, while not settling in any place any longer than the first conquerors, tried to obtain data that might yet prove vital to traders who will come to those lands (9). It is not by chance that most of the musical notations recorded that have reached us are related to the repertory of hymns of peace or chants of hostility towards foreign rule.

The image of the ancient fight of Orpheus against Dyonisus, by which Fubini described most of the history of European music (1976), seems to resist application in this context. The obsession for world control through the testimony of words, both in the ceremonies of possession in Europe's conquest of the New World (Seed: 1995) and in the compilations of vocabularies by Enlightenment scholars, show a recurrent feature of European identity. This obsession proves, however, of little use in subduing a brawl. Most intimidation between indigenes and navigators take place at the latters' arrival at harbors or shores, where sound expressions are undeniably more effective than spoken language. In this way, it becomes obvious, in view of the navigators' journals, that the inhabitants of some of the coasts most visited by Europeans, at least in the 17th century, had established specific diplomatic practices.

Baile en la playa de Nutka

Suria, Baile en la playa de Nutka

Account taken of the few musical expressions of collective use that Europeans had to present to other cultures such as those of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, one can easily understand that references to music in such cases had to develop basically around the repertory of the residents. The set of objects prepared as presents to start hosting or data gathering relationships could not replace other external signs that could somehow illustrate the spirit of respect towards the men and the land in which they found themselves.

Since the construction of oral and written memories tends to be based on the unusual rather than on the usual, it is interesting to note how often dangerous incidents and peace making are recorded in the accounts referring to the musical expression of the "other". While they acknowledged its relevance in cultural dialogue, their interpretative doubt as to its meaning drove the Western voyagers to try analogous, if hastily improvised, responses based on popular songs (10). The unusual nature of the native's gestures explains their presence in the navigator's journals. The introduction of new attitudes in musical behavior, as a consequence of their traveling experience, evolved in proportion to the amount of time spent far from their homes. Another history is inscribed in the cultural space of a paradoxical European diaspora depending on and subordinated, in its discourse and political representation, to the Crown's schemes, but where transgressions and transformations of attitudes are discernible in the search for individual experiences and survival in a new context.

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