It could be a random dash of colours on a canvas or the logical flow of equations on paper. Or perhaps, the fluid motion of dance, or a blueprint of an architectural marvel. Art has always been man’s way of expressing his abstract thoughts and deepest emotions. Of many art forms that he has mastered, one of them uses the elements of rhythm, melody and harmony. We call this art music. Aficionados believe that music is the window to our microcosmic soul and a means to understand the macrocosmic universe through sound. But how did man find music?
Although the origin of music is untraceable, it is believed that music was a gift from Mother Nature. Perhaps, her sounds orchestrated the origin. Perhaps, the sound of chirping birds or the pitter-patter of raindrops inspired our distant relatives–the Neanderthals. Whether or not they had a language, it is said that they had a sophisticated form of communication. In fact, archaeologist Stephen Mithen, in his book The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, says the Neanderthals might have communicated through music.
In all possibility, Homo sapiens too probably sang before they developed a language. In the Essay on the Origin of Languages, Genevan philosopher and music composer Rousseau writes: “The first language of humans was a song.” Researchers study different music forms and styles to understand the cultural aspects of ancient communities.
Studies reveal that several indigenous genres of music are treasure troves of mythology, history and cultural practices. In fact, it is said that spiritual knowledge and healing secrets are encoded in songs.
Clearly, music seems to have been fundamental to the evolution of language, eventually paving way for civilisations.
Studies reveal that several indigenous genres of music are treasure troves of mythology, history and cultural practices. In fact, it is said that spiritual knowledge and healing secrets are encoded in songs. This world’s musical heritage is rich in ancestral wisdom. Unfortunately, this wisdom tends to be buried with lost civilisations.
A conservative estimate by the UNESCO predicts that a good percentage of these ancient music genres is on the verge of extinction. They are dying simply because of their irrelevance today. The organisation warns that the loss of intangible cultural expressions such as music, theatre and dance, could adversely affect cultural diversity.
Soulveda explores some of the lesser-known, endangered musical genres that represent their unique cultures.
Ca trù is a North Vietnamese musical genre. It is a chamber music tradition involving three performers. In this genre, the female singer plays a percussion instrument called phach, while the male singer plays the string instrument dan day. The third performer is an appraiser who plays another percussion instrument called trong chau. Usually staged in a royal court for an elite audience, these songs communicate generational wisdom. Sadly, decades of war and strife have taken a toll on this genre of music.
Areak is the oldest genre of Cambodian local music. It is performed with musical instruments such as flute, drums, tro ou and chapei. It is said that Cambodians used music to summon healing spirits that could cure illnesses caused by evil forces. A person’s body would serve as a medium, and spirits would be lured into the body with food, alcohol, and of course, music. But with the advent of modern medicine, the ancient art of Areak is diminishing.
Kantaoming too has its roots in Cambodia. It is believed that this music guides departed souls and is, therefore, played during funerals. This genre of music is normally taught in pagodas. It is traditionally played by an ensemble with gongs, drums and srolai flute. However, most people have started playing recorded music during funerals, which does away with the need for hiring Kantaoming musicians.
Maori is an indigenous Polynesian tribe of New Zealand. Their instruments include various types of flutes (putorino and rehu), conch shell trumpet (pu) and percussion instruments. Maori music eulogised war heroes and narrated their epic battles. Due to the European influence, however, these legendary stories find no singers. A Maori sub-genre, which includes the Maori Rowboat songs, is also dying because motorboats are replacing traditional canoes.
No matter the genre–indigenous or fusion–music naturally embodies a soul’s expression. Not only is it a repertoire of history and culture, but also a way to understand our universe.
Vallenato is a popular folk music of Columbian farmers. As extensive travellers, these farmers became messengers for families living in other towns. To keep themselves and the others entertained, they delivered news through songs. Their singing was accompanied by playing guitars and kuisis flutes. According to UNESCO, drug trafficking has threatened this age-old musical genre. Efforts have been made to revive this form through a movement called La Nueva Ola.
While many such indigenous genres of music have been recognised as endangered, the harsh truth is that many of them have died without a trace. When those music forms died, so did their ecosystem of dance, theatre, ceremonies and rituals. “The speciality of such music lay in their unique cultural messages and unusual instruments. For example, sapeh is an ancient string instrument of Malaysia and Borneo. It was on the brink of death when government efforts brought it back to life. Today, sapeh is still being made in Borneo,” says RJ and writer on world music Madanmohan Rao.
But music is a beautiful thing. Even in the absence of institutional help, music seems to have found a way to keep its various forms alive through genre crossovers, colloquially known as ‘fusion music’. Freelance musician Joshua Costa believes fusion increases the likability of music and allows the art to reach a larger audience.
No matter the genre–indigenous or fusion–music naturally embodies a soul’s expression. Not only is it a repertoire of history and culture, but also a way to understand our universe. In fact, recent studies in the field of astrophysics have proved what philosophers and musicians have instinctively known: The nature of the universe is musical.