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The Roots of World Music

Balinese gamelan musicians in Tabanan, Bali, 1977. (Photo: Michael Tenzer)

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Way before iTunes and iPods and mixing boards and studios, humans all over the world were making amazing music. Traditional music that crystallized and symbolized a way of looking at life.

Today, we’ll hear from two great scholars of music from way beyond the Top 40. From Bali. From central Africa.

We sing about love and loss and gangstas. They tell of elephant hunts, cosmic visions – and maybe gangstas, too.

This Hour, On Point: from Bali to Africa to the heart of traditional music.


Simha Arom, ethnomusicologist and director emeritus of research at France’s National Center for Scientific Research. He’s best known for his prize-winning series of musical recordings of the Aka pygmies and other Central African groups from the 1960’s through the 1980’s. His influential book is “African Polyphony and Polyrhythm: Musical Structure and Methodology.”

Michael Tenzer, ethnomusicologist and music professor at the University of British Columbia. He has focused on the musical traditions of Bali, and is author of “Gamelan Gong Kebyar: The Art of Twentieth-Century Balinese Music.” He co-founded the San Francisco-based Balinese music ensemble Gamelan Sekar Jaya, which was awarded the Dharma Kusuma Award for Cultural Service by the Balinese government.

Here are some examples of field recordings by Arom and Tenzer:

“Gamelan Gambuh,” an ensemble of bamboo bass flutes, drums and gongs originating in the 15th century or earlier.  Recorded by Michael Tenzer.


“Hindehu” by the Benzele Pygmies, in which a singer is alternating with a whistle.  Recorded by Simha Arom.


“Ndraje Balendro” by the Banda-Linda in Central Africa (see photo below), an initiation song with 18 wooden trumpets and a pair of bells.  Recorded by Simha Arom.


Wooden trumpets of the Banda-Linda people, 1970s. (Photo: Simha Arom)

Here’s Michael Tenzer, Simha Arom, and Tom Ashbrook in our studio today:

(Photo: Gabrielle Levy)

Several listeners asked where you could get the recordings. Michael Tenzer says:

“Some of the recordings are expensive or specialized or rare. Interested listeners might want to check university libraries or poke around on the web for used sellers.” He pointed listeners to the following Amazon listings:

Central African recordings by Simha Arom:

Anthology of the Music of the Aka Pygmies
Central African Republic: Aka Pygmy Music

Central Africa: Music of the Gbaya, Songs for Reflection
Aka Pygmies: Hunting Love & Mockery Songs

Balinese recordings and compositions:

by Michael Tenzer
Bali: Gamelan Semar Pegulingan: Gamelan of the Love God

Bali South
and Vital Records

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • http://offsetneedlesound@blogspot.com OffsetSound

    I love the sounds of the Banda-Linda horns. Where might I find a downloadable version? I could listen to this track and similar on a daily basis. Glad to have found it here. Thank you.

  • Andy McGraw

    Much of the music we hear on popular radio nowadays is very homogenous in terms of time: narrow range of tempos, all around 3 minutes. But many world musics have very different ways of structuring time. Please ask Profs Arom and Tenzer how time is structured differently in the musics they talk about and what the experience of different musical times do to us as listeners.

    Andy : Richmond, VA

  • http://lydiabreen.com/ Lydia Breen

    Please asks your guests what is the role of music to communicate with ancestors who have passed on? In this case, does communication with ancestors bring the living closer to the dieties?

  • Damien McCann

    I just listened to the clip of the Pygmy man playing the single note whistle and singing. Herbie Hancock used this same technique on the opening riff to “Watermelon Man” from his incredible 1973 album “Head Hunters”. In this particular case the whistle was made from a half-filled beer bottle.

    I would be interested to hear from your guests if they know of similar situations where traditional / aboriginal music has been “borrowed” by jazz / pop musicians.

  • laurance

    I just wanted to comment that the melody played at the top of the show had obviously inspirered the opening flute ( synthesizer) section the song Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock on the album Head Hunters (!!!)
    great show as usual.

    Laurance Jones
    Cranston RI

  • Craig C

    Great show. Any recommended recordings for purchase?

  • Brian

    Love the diversity. Where can I hear more?

  • Moss C.

    Can you guests suggest where we can find CDs of the music they are discussing?
    Wonderful show.

  • Barbara Susan Balboni

    I want to put in a word for an extraordinary album in the Garifuna Collective–Watina, which won the WOMAX award a few years ago. It is a recording by Andy Palacio, who died unexpectedly, of indigenous Garifuna music. Stonetree Records is committed to indigenous music–Garifuna and Creole artists from Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala, and because Belize is the least populated of the Central American countries their amazing work is not well known.

    Great program. Thanks for always educating and delighting us, your faithful listners.

  • Bill Luzader

    I was lucky to attend West Virginia University in the late 1960s and the early 1970s when percussion professor Phil Faini (Fy-EE-nee) traveled to and returned with various instruments and musical knowledge about East & West Africa which he shared & taught with the university community.

  • Janet Bogdan

    You asked about where Herbie Hancock might have been introduced to the Akah’s music. Do you know the documentary ‘People of the Forest’ about the Akah? All of the musical sounds from ‘Africa’ that you have played (not the songs) were in that documentery. Denzel Washington narrated the film. He might be the connection.
    Best! Janet Bogdan

  • http://tracyjonsson@gmail.com Tracy jonsson

    I was exposed to fantastic music during my visit to Haiti. Gaga and Rara (in the Dominican Rep.) are fantastic examples of complex, hypnotic and transcendant rythms. I have a feeling that these styles will become obsolete when ever Haiti modernizes. Currently, there might be one or two radios in a town, and then it might only be listened to once in a while, and thus these styles are widely used! It’s awesome to think that there is such a resource so close to this country, and that it might be close to being lost!

    There’s nothing like music to understand a culture!

  • Robin Padilla

    Great Program! Suzuki kids (I’m a parent) in the USA play music spontaneously all of the time and share a great common hearitage!

  • Faith Justice

    Robert Kyr, professor of composition and theory, at University of Oregon School of Music and Dance and the
    director of the Pacific Rim Gamelan, has a wonderful CD, Violin Concerto Trilogy, that beautifully melds Western orchestral music with Balinese Gamelan in the Violin Concerto No. 2 (“On the Nature of Harmony”), section of the CD.

  • Robert B. Pierce

    Thanks for a great program!

    How about a program (or party of one) on Piobaireachd (aka Pibroch), the “classical music” of the Great Highland Bagpipe?


  • DAve Wasser

    I had the opportunity to spend time in Mali, W. Africa in the late 80s. While I was there, I took music lessons on the balafon–a instrument like a xylophone. I was mesmerized by a whole different, and impenetrable, sensibility around “time.” Trying to apply my concepts of beats and measures and time signatures and keys was fruitless. Only by putting aside my understanding of these structures and using my ear and memory could I play along with my teacher. One night, while sitting in the dark outside the hut where I was staying, I focused in on the sounds around me. I heard the rhythms of the music I had been learning in the patterns of music that were being created by three fruit bats singing in three separate trees, accompanied by the croaking and chirping of toads and insects. Sounds hokey, I know–but it was amazing! It made me wonder to what extent human music comes from inside ourselves or is a reflection of what we absorb from the environment of sound around us.

  • Beverly Smith

    I participated in today’s discussion. I described how in kindergarten (1952) my classmates and I, all but one of us Black, spontaneously started singing the Black traditional song “Hambone” Profesor Arom responded that this wasn’t spontaneous. I think he may have interpreted my use of spontaneous as being arbitrary or random. I had specified the identities of the students and the origin of the song. Like the Pygmies this music came out of a culture. I believe that the first child who sang, a part of black community and culture, chose to sing a song with Black cultural roots, rather than a pop hit by Nat King Cole or Patty Paige.

    Professor Arom also said that Pygmies never performed a song the same way twice. Improvisation is one of the most characteristic and admired features of instrumental and vocal jazz. Also of gospel.

  • Brett

    Wonderful show! Thanks to Tom Ashbrook, Simha Arom and Michael Tenzer. It was a genuine pleasure to hear samples of the music discussed on the show today (and thanks to “On Point” for putting up samples on this forum).

    I am a musician and have been so since I was around four. I started on drums and ukulele. I now play a variety of percussion instruments, as well as acoustic, electric and resonator guitars. I also give lessons in all of those instruments.

    The layering of instrumentation, particularly from the gamelan ensemble, was intriguing. I have been most interested in my life with polyphony and polyrhythms but how to achieve a balance of those using modern forms, so it was quite a delight to hear some of the recordings presented today when broken down into their individual parts then having each added together.

    There was a bit of controversy about three quarters of the way through the show when Tom played some of Madonna’s and Herbie Hancock’s music that utilized some of those traditional elements heard from some of the guests’ field recordings. Mr Arom very flatly said that this way of using traditional forms of music did not serve any purpose (I’m paraphrasing, but it was to that effect).

    I have to disagree with Mr. Arom, and my rapt attention of the discussion to the beautiful music being played in the show, and the moments of being transported by the various musical samples, was interrupted by a very old–and, in my opinion, very pedestrian and tiresome–debate of traditionalism vs. modernism in art (and, I might add, with virtually no examination of the complementarity of the two).

    While I respect the importance of preserving traditions, I also feel that there is plenty of room in this world for both the preservation of traditions and the borrowing of traditions to produce new music forms.

    I live in an area renowned for its traditions of Piedmont Blues, Old-Time Mountain Music, and Bluegrass, etc. There are plenty of traditionalists as well as modernists in those forms around here, but the traditionalists regularly show their disdain (in very much a similar way as Mr. Arom) for those who blend the different forms. They are very vocal about modernism being invalid, and even hold onto a notion that modernism will kill the traditions. There will always be traditionalists who play, promote and teach purity in tradition, and this is great, but the modernists keep the music vibrantly alive so that it doesn’t fall into the realm of “museum piece.” Modernism also serves to engage a new generation of listeners and players to both forms. More often than I can count I will hear of a young person who has been exposed to a modern form of a particular genre of music, then he/she will want to go back and explore its roots.

    This process keeps music evolving, as well as serves to keep traditions alive. Otherwise musical forms die out. As the world evolves and remote areas of the world begin to acquire the acoutrements of modern society, tradition and modernity will blend. I feel if we embrace both, both will stay alive.

  • Brett

    Thanks so much for your call on the show. It was a delight to hear a bit of “Hambone.” I also thought Mr. Arom was using the word “spontaneous” a bit too narrowly. I am a musician and I can say that all forms of improvisation rely on a certain framework that comes from something already constructed. All music evolves, even traditional forms, this doesn’t reduce the spontaneous moments as they are played. It is no different than oral traditions in story telling or anything else. To me, Mr. Arom seemed a bit too protective of the music he has gathered in field recordings. Traditionalists are important, don’t get me wrong, but they are often too involved in reactionary thinking.

  • hb

    Loved the show, but was surprised there was no mention of Evan Ziporyn and his group at MIT, Gamelan Galak Tika.


    Seems like a logical, local tie in.

  • http://that.livejournal.com David Morrison

    What a pleasant surprise! I’ve been obsessed with gamelan since I first heard it 25 years ago and I also love the traditional music of Africa, which is so rich and varied no-one could ever claim to truly know all of it.

    Often on NPR I hear some short spot about an “exciting new trend in word music…” which always turns out to be electronic beats with some kind of traditional music used as exotic festoonery. For once, we get to hear the real thing without machine rhythms and synthesizers that destroy the human feeling. This is why I love your show, Mr. Ashbrook. You go into interesting subjects at depth. Thank you.

  • Chris Nelson

    Arom’s recording of “Hindehu”, in which the singer alternates between voice and flute was absolutely breathtaking and fascinating. Very great show today, On Point. Thank you!

  • http://victorials.wordpress.com vinks

    I love you Tom Ashbrook! You handle everything and everyone so well, and you draw people out, far enough out to sing on the air! You ROCK, no matter what anyone ever says! I listen to this show almost every weeknight. I consider you a role model and an inspiration! Thank you, and keep up the great work!

  • http://www.wholemusicexp.blogspot.com Patricia

    Fantastic show on my favorite topic, traditional music from around the world!

    I listen to On Point in the evenings. Yesterday morning I had sent off an application and course proposal on global music exchange to a university. Then I received to music preservation type recordings in the mail and to top all that off, I turned on the radio and I heard this segment which blew me away.

    I’m a music journalist who started covering global music in 2002. I quickly fell in love with field recordings and traditional music. I also learned about psychoacoustics and sound healing (how musical vibrations affect our minds and bodies) and decided to research how ancient traditions healed with music.

    So hearing a show about roots music acts as a high point for me. And like one of your guests mentioned, listening to music from other places is like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole or maybe a musical Land of Oz.

    I hope you produce more segments on music and anthropology in the future.

  • Fred

    I heard the beautiful Hindehu song and I knew that I had heard it or something similar before and I racked my brain for hours trying to think of it. I knew that I could probably come here and find out, but I had to figure it out for myself. Watermelon Man finally came to me and I listened to it again. Then I came here to confirm that others had heard the similarities. I have a new appreciation for that song and I can’t tell you what a sense of satisfaction I felt to finally figure it out. Thanks for putting substantive material on the radio that makes us THINK.

  • Joseph Getter

    Several comments above have requested links to audio recordings. Probably the best one-stop shop for authentic, legal, quality downloads and CDs is the Smithsonian Folkways site.


    Click on ‘advanced search’ and you can search by nation, genre, etc. This record label was formed in the late 1940s and has long specialized in folk, tradition, and world music. Enjoy!

  • Walter Fox

    As others have pointed out, Herbie Hancock and Bill Summers in Hancock’s second version of Watermelon Man, used a technique similar to the Hindehu ( a beer bottle and voice according to Wikipedia). And according to Wikipedia, it was inspired by Simha Arom’s recordings. The use of again a similar technique on a Madonna recording was probably inspired by Hancock et al. But Mr. Arom appeared to be surprised by the Madonna recording and as far as I could hear, never mentioned Herbie Hancock.

  • Damien

    Thank you very much for the show. Good for the soul.

    I am wondering: is an English translation of the words used in the Balinese teaching song, and other like it, available? Where would I find such a thing? The little bit that Michael Tenzer translated for us struck me as very beautiful.

  • T.M. Scruggs

    Great show.
    Herbie Hancock and his drummer were actually inspired by the recordings of Colin Turnbull, whose album was a “hit” for non-U.S. folk musics and was the main introduction of pygmy music in the Americas.

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  • Ansingla

    Are the recordings not working above? Would love to hear them.

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