EOL 3: Music, Myth, and History (Bohlman)


1. Imagining the Mediterranean

Music begins in the myths of the ancient Mediterranean world, and it ends in the diasporas of modernity. In between the ancient and the modern is history: music history and world history. In between the ancient and the modern is the intellectual history of imagining the Mediterranean as a border between the West and what lies beyond, between self and other, between us and them. Myth and history intersect and interact wherever we search in the Mediterranean, and they are perpetually being interwoven with music and music-making. So sweeping is the interaction of music and myth that we might argue that it is the sheer abundance of myths that narrates the landscapes of the Mediterranean, landscapes past and present, which become the basis for the sacred journeys that geographically connect the mythologies of the Mediterranean. Myth represents a Mediterranean musical landscape that is both complex and unified, both bounded and unbounded.

History forms along the borders the Mediterranean in different ways. Historians of the Mediterranean world have sought to unravel the juxtapositions of myth and therefore to separate history from myth. In the intellectual history of the West, Herodotus often assumes the position of the "first historian," usually because his fifth-century BCE Histories reflected back on a past that was no longer his own, but rather belonged to those who had come from elsewhere. Herodotus was an inveterate traveler, and he therefore connected time to specific events and specific actors in the cultures of their origins, many of which Herodotus visited as an ethnographer. Accordingly, Herodotus also enjoys the historiographical position as the first anthropologist of the Mediterranean and the world beyond (Hodgen 1964: 20-3).

Mediterranean map
Illustration One: Greek Map

History dispelled myth for the Greeks, and it became a voice for colonial expansion from the Mediterranean's northern shore, into the Middle East, as in the case of Josephus's accounts of the Jewish wars. History-writing was, nonetheless, not entirely the domain of the Europeans of the Mediterranean, for there were Arab scholars, such as the fourteenth-century polymath, Ibn Khaldun, whose Muqaddimah was to introduce nothing less than the "history of the universe." The birth of history that Ibn Khaldun imagined, however, simply shifted the borders between myth and history, literally so, for Ibn Khaldun's perspective was that of a North African, who traveled widely also in Europe and the Middle East. The relation between myth and history to the Mediterranean became even more complex, enveloping all its shores (cf. Lacoste 1984).

Myth needs to be interpreted from literary, religious, and musical standpoints, all of which offer ways of recognizing the historical and anthropological functions of the narrative genres of myth, for example epic. Epic repertories locate history and religion along the Mediterranean littoral. In the Eastern Mediterranean the Pentateuch embodies the central myth of creation, exodus, and settlement in Israel. The mythical representation of Greek Antiquity, too, has an epic form that we know well, namely that of Ulysses's journey in the Iliad and the Odyssey, which, we should not forget, took shape in a musical oral tradition codified by Homer (cf. Lord 1960). The modern epic traditions of the Balkans and Beni Hillal traditions of North Africa represent the transformations of these areas through centuries of interaction with Islam (Slyomovics 1987). The Maggio tradition of Italy (Magrini 1992) and the Cid epics of Spain bring us full circle in a mythological representation of theSouthern and Western Mediterranean.

Myth is not, of course, history in the strictest sense, which is precisely why it draws our attention to a musical anthropology of the Mediterranean. According to Claude Lévi-Strauss and other scholars who have theorized myth, myth contrasts with history because it represents a timeless world. Lévi-Strauss would say that time is "cold" in a mythological world, whereas it is "hot" in a world driven by history (e.g., Lévi-Strauss 1969). The timelessness of the mythological world, to borrow from Mircea Eliade, contrasts with the timeboundedness of an historical world. Unlike Lévi-Strauss, Eliade stresses that mythological and historical worlds are connected, in fact, that humans pass between timeboundedness and timelessness during ritual and other religious practices. Among the most important of these passages are sacred journeys. In this essay, it will be one of the most historically powerful sacred journeys, diaspora, that focuses my remarks on a musical anthropology of the Mediterranean. I also draw a metaphorical parallel between those who go on the sacred journeys of the Mediterranean and the "musicians of the Mediterranean" in this edition of Ethnomusicology OnLine.

Quite unlike most discussions of myth, which regard it as a temporal framework for a distant, unrecoverable past, I reflect upon myth here as a modern phenomenon, not least because of its persistence in an anthropology of modernity. In particular, I concentrate on one modern and powerful metaphor of Mediterranean myth: diaspora. Diaspora provides one of the root metaphors for the oldest myths of the Mediterranean, for example, the biblical diasporas in Egypt and Babylon. The Jewish diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. remains, in fact, the most powerful of all historical metaphors for diaspora. Diaspora is, therefore, a root metaphor for the imagination of Mediterranean history.

Modern diasporas are no less present in the Mediterranean, and music is no less powerful as a narrative voice for these modern diasporas. In the Early Modern Era, the Sephardic Diaspora and the Discovery of the New World reformulated biblical myths in complex ways, remapping them onto the entire world. In the twentieth century, the founding of the modern State of Israel opened a modern history for biblical myth. Modern myths provide the motivations for Mediterranean musicians to immigrate to North America, such as those whose lives Karl Signell documents. We stand now on the postmodern threshold to the twenty-first century as the myths of postmodernity take shape, for example as the labor forces from the Mediterranean, from Morocco in the west and Turkey in the east, fuel the industrialization and transformation of the New Europe, and overlay the landscape of that Europe with the musics of the Muslim Mediterranean, just as the musics of the Jewish Mediterranean were dispersed across the landscape of the Old Europe (cf. Mandel 1990 and Lortat-Jacob 1995).

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