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Studying Global Music

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

Long before Bach, Beethoven and Beyonce, humans were making remarkable music all over the world. It told stories, gave advice, captured cosmic visions. It communicated what perhaps simple words cannot.

My guests today – two top ethnomusicologists – have traveled the world to bring back the rich traditional music of pygmies in central Africa and gamelan and shadow play in Bali.

We explore the deep architecture and meaning of some remarkable traditional music, and we learn something about the work of the ethnomusicologist.

-Tom Ashbrook

**Note: This show was first broadcast Feb. 22, 2010.


Michael Tenzer, ethnomusicologist at the University of British Columbia. He has studied the musical traditions of Bali, and he co-founded the San Francisco-based Balinese music ensemble Gamelan Sekar Jaya. He’s author of “Gamelan Gong Kebyar: The Art of Twentieth-Century Balinese Music.”

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

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  • Rodney Bland

    Regarding the pygmy music highlight, wanted to know how old that rythm is because Herbie Hancock likely borrowed this in his notable Headhunter album in the ’70s.

  • mark russell

    beautiful show THANK YOU !! 2 questions: has any experimentation been done with the way these “primitive” rhythms affect ordinary relatively non musical westerners
    ( i.e. the rhythms of the haitian voudoun loa papa guede, who is the keeper of all human knowledge, helping , for example med. students progress through their studies with less struggle ) &, 2nd questtion, can you recommend any recordings
    where highly skilled western improvisational musicians who hitherto had no experience of, say, various pygmy rhythms, learned them & riffed off them…

  • http://www.wyomadance.com Wyoma

    Great show on ethnomusicology!
    My work is African dance and holistic therapies.
    Particularly interested in the central african pygmy music.
    I called in several times between 11:30 and 11:50 but kept getting your recording just IDg station…and not really offering to hold or wait.

    Anyway, I wanted to sing Simha Arom a pygmy song I learned long ago. I would have loved getting more feedback on it if he was familiar with it.

    Would appreciate contact with him if possible.
    Also interested in cd recommendations of the music.

    thanks so much!
    Happy High Holidays,


  • Margaret O’Hara Best

    The brilliant Yale profesor Willie Ruff taught the Ba Benzele Pigmies of central Africa the Hambone in the 1960s. He took his daughter on a research trip to Africa where he recorded Pigmie music. He brought along his French Horn, but it did not interest the Pigmies. He wanted to share his music with them and before leaving taught them Hambone. His daughter said all sort of incorrect dissertations would be written about the Pigmie origins of Hambone.
    You can read this story in his autpbiography, A Call to Assembly. Mr. Ruff is one of the world’s best story tellers. His book is wonderful but I first heard him on local Public Radio. As a New Haven PS Music Teacher I have been treated to many more of his stories. Margaret O’Hara Best

  • Margaret O’Hara Best

    My comment was already posted at 12:17. But I got an urgent message to say where I am from: Cheshire, CT. I didn’t relize this was a rebroadcast. I tried to call the show because Professor Ruff’s daughter’s predicition came true on the show. Mr. Ruff is the Pimgie origin of the Hambone. He is from Rural Alabama. MO’HB

  • Brett

    I remember this broadcast…The one little piece by the Pygmy man who played a one-note whistle of some kind (which sounded like an okarina [South American wind instrument usually made out of clay] to me when interspersed with his own voice), and was also found in the Madonna song and Herbie Hancock tune, seemed reminiscent of some of the approaches Rashaan Rowland Kirk had toward his own flute technique: he would introduce sounds of his own voice on certain notes that he blended with his flute playing. (Kirk was a Jazz multi-instrumentalist who died over thirty years ago. He influenced many players and was the first—most notable of the firsts, anyway—to use a very breathy sound in improvisational flute playing. His influence would be most evident/most familiar to people by hearing Ian Anderson’s flute playing, the leader of Jethro Tull. Anderson directly borrowed from Kirk’s technique.)

    I find more similarities in the music of different cultures than I can count the differences on a few fingers; and, I see influences from one culture to the next, as well as similarities that may have evolved independent of each other.

    It is difficult to glean truly what Simha Arom meant when he heard the Madonna song with the Pygmy whistle in the mix. He could have simply reacted because he doesn’t like Madonna or has no use for American Pop culture, or found it to be exploitive, or whatever. To each his own; I neither listen to Madonna nor any commercial music for that matter (I find most of it exploitive on some level). But, if he was saying that cultures shouldn’t mix, or that introducing a native and pure music (pure culturally, that is) into other cultures serves no purpose, than I would have to disagree. There was ostensibly a reactionary position he was revealing…perhaps not. Tom put the lowest common denominator spin on that aspect of the conversation then didn’t really follow up, so…It’s too easy for the listener to hear Mr. Arom as a purist, or pompous traditionalist…

    I think context is important in looking at the music of different cultures; and, even without expanding that idea beyond the mathematical structures found in music (expansion could be a whole topic in and of itself), it is apparent. Not many listeners think of American Indian music, for example, as being very similar to Blues, but in American Indian music (of the Western US kind) it is very apparent. There was no direct influence; one culture did not influence the other musically, but both have the pentatonic scale very prominently displayed within their structures. Pick up any American Indian flute and simply blow into it while moving your fingers around (they are all tuned to a pentatonic scale) and you will get Blues-like sounds. Even within the parameters of a given genre of music from a given region, context is important within the structure of the music. If, in, say, Country and Western music, one plays a scale in C Major, for example, from the perspective of C it sounds vastly different (happy and celebratory) than if one plays the same scale from the perspective of A (melancholy). The same notes, from the same scale, from the perspective of different keys, will result in different emotions expressed/evoked depending on the context (context usually means in popular music that different chord structures are applied behind those scales). Playing in C Major and A Minor is to utilize the same scale; in terms of music theory, A is the relative minor of C.

  • http://ncpr.org stillin

    One of the best courses my daughter took at university last year was World Music, at the University of Arizona, Tucson. They studied many of the types of music mentioned and she was particularly impressed with throat singing…I loved the program.

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