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African Pygmy Musicology

The Pygmies are a hunting and gathering peoples from the rain forests and jungles of Central Africa in the countries now known as Cameroon, Gabon and Congo. They are characterized by their short stature and although the term “Pygmy” is derogatory, no other term has been presented a an alternative, with many individual tribes preferring to be referred to by their tribe name. In all tribes, music is an inherent and essential aspect in all Pygmy daily activities and is a constant of their way of life. Each activity from healing to basket making, sacred rituals to every day games, contains music as well as dance. Indeed, music is an irreplaceable and important part of a Pygmy’s life and all Pygmies participate in the singing and dancing of their culture.

African Pygmy music is particularly characterized by the vocals which contain contrapuntal communal improvisation. Although polyphonic complexity of the music is dense and follow strict cyclical patterns, the Pygmies do not recognize their music in this rigid, mathematical framework and simply learn it from growing up and being immersed in the culture (Brandel, 1956). The numerous musical forms are almost exclusively vocal and polyphonic and is based on “repetitive melodic-rhythmical formulas, with micro variations and a great deal of individual improvisation,”(Campagnoli, n.d.).

A common vocal technique used is referred to as Jodel which utilizes the rapid passage from head o chest voice, performed on sounds without meaning, much in the same manner as European Alpine yodelling. Typically one member begins an individual repeating melody and after a few minutes, another joins in with yet another melody with its own rhythm and cycle. These vocalisations are utilised in every song and can be sung by any member of the tribe, at any given time. All the individual sounds form a polyphonic harmony that in many ways mimics the very sounds of the forests.

The majority of the instruments used by the central African Pygmies come from previous exchanges with bantu peoples and other tribes living on the edges of the central African forests. These include instruments such as the cylindrical drum, arched harp (ieta), harp-zither (ngombi), lamella phones and other modes of rattles made from local resources ,”(Campagnoli, n.d.). Flutes and standing musical bows (limbidi) are also used and played most often by the women.
Water drumming is popular style that characterises Pygmy music. The Pygmy peoples literally “play the water” by standing about waist high in the river and slapping the surface of the water with cupped hands. Each person plays a different rhythmic pattern that together form a more complex syncopated rhythm. Water drumming is a good example of how music is in the everyday activities of the Pygmies, even in something as simple as bathing as in the river.

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Origins and History

Although the Pygmies are traditionally nomadic peoples, massive deforestation and the presence of other, more modern tribes on the outskirts of the forests have made them more sedentary than in previous years. Pygmies have no political system and make decisions based on consensus, maintaining equality within the tribe. They are hunting and gathering people who live in one family huts made from the present resources such as branches and leaves and are almost exclusively built by women. Women also do the dam fishing and make the mats and baskets from various vegetation materials (Beal, 1964). These are weaved to form the different items and this skill is what enables the women to be more skilled at setting up huts and building fish dams. Women are also skilled at making the musical instruments used as well as the hunting weapons used by the men.

Men are exclusively in charge of hunting and finding food in the forest is essential for the survival of the tribe as well as extremely dangerous. Hunting also holds many symbolic meanings for the Pygmies and only men participate in this activity.

Children stay close to the women during early childhood, learning the skills they will need and helping out with small tasks. They learn the different vocalizations as well as drumming rhythms and spend much time helping with the gathering of vegetables and fruits. Children are susceptible to many diseases in the rain forests and because a large number of them die in childhood, much care is given to them by parents to help their survival (Beal, 1964).

The lifestyle is very simple and basic to the needs of human survival, allowing for much time being dedicated to music. The music itself mirrors the very sounds that emanate from the rain forests and surround the Pygmies on an everyday basis. The cyclical vocalizations sound much like the songs of the birds and animals and the rhythms and drumming on the river surface is on the same plane as the natural rainfall (Hallet, 1995). A natural kind of music is present in the very environment that Pygmies live in and so it is no surprise that their music is a close reflection of their life in the jungles of central Africa.

Modern Changes

Many pygmies are exploited by neighboring tribes who discriminate against them for their backwardness and refusal to participate in modernity. Despite this racist attitudes towards them, the Pygmies of central Africa manage to hold strongly to their traditional ties and so, the music also has evolved very little. They live a very quiet and secluded life, deep in the rain forests and away from most other ethnic groups unless purposely approached. This has enabled them to stay connected to their music and dance, a medium of their life which in turn keeps then strongly tied to their past.
Pygmy music remains unchanged in that respect although variations of instruments brought from neighboring tribes as permeated their music as well. The vocalizations are still characteristic of the Pygmies and children continue to learn them. Music is such an integral aspect of Pygmy life that it keeps the tribe as one, joined by the music they share everyday in all activities and rituals. Music is a way of communication and expression and is the pride of a Pygmy. They are people that have little to offer otherwise, however in their music they are able to offer everything about themselves.

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