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JOHN BLACKING AND THE STUDY OF AFRICA MUSIC

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Africa 67 (3), 1997 REVIEW ARTICLE JOHN BLACKING AND THE STUDY OF AFRICA MUSIC Ko Agawu

JOHN BLACKING, Venda Childrens Songs: a study in ethnomusicological analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. (Originally published, Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1967.) REGINALD BYRON (ed.) Music, Culture and Experience: selected papers of John Blacking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. John Blacking (1928-90) was a major and inuential gure in the elds of African music and ethnomusicology. Trained as an anthropologist and later as an ethnomusicologist, Blacking began writing scholarly articles in the early 1950s. By the time of his death he had published over 100 books, articles, reviews, recordings and reports. Blesses with a relentlessly enquiring mind, Blacking developed his ideas without much regard for the distinction between public and private intellectual spaces. Given the range of subjects that interested him, it would have been a miracle if he had managed to avoid taking contradictory positions. But the best of his work is unfailingly stimulating, and his activities as lecturer and organiser did much to enhance the development of the ethnomusicology in the United Kingdom, to invigorate ethnomusicological theory, and to dene the analytical issues raised by African music. Blackings best-known work is a slim volume entitled How Musical is Man? The four essays are based on the John Danz lectures which Blacking had earlier given at the University of Washington, Seattle. Published in 1973, How Musical is Man? is a distillation of ideas that had occupied Blacking for some twenty years. They concern the nature of musicality, learning, the role of music in society, and musical discourse; and they stage a confrontation between the practices of the Venda musical cultures that Blacking knew well and those of Western cultures. The ideas were presented to a lay audience with passion and conviction, and, although the essays are not free of unsupported assertions or gross generalisations, they nevertheless served to stimulate thinking in many quarters about the signicance of music in human experience. It is a tting tribute to Blacking that the University of Chicago Press has reprinted his Venda Childrens Songs and gathered together a number of his essays under the title Music, Culture and Experience, edited by his former colleague Reginald Byron. Readers not familiar with Blackings broader output can now appreciate the ecology that sustained How Musical is Man? Venda Childrens Songs, originally published in 1967, grew out of Blackings Ph.D. thesis for the University of Witwatersrand. Although it is frequently consulted by specialists, the circumstances of its publication have inhibited its wider dissemination. The current reissue is especially welcome because it makes what is undoubtedly a seminal work available as an inexpensive paperback. While current concerns in writing about African music and about ethnomusicology have shifted somewhat from those of 1967, there is surprisingly little that could be said to be truly dated about Venda Childrens Songs. Music, Culture and Experience is, by contrast, an assorted collection. The eight essays span the sixteen-year period 1969-85 and thus represent the thought of a scholar in his mature years. All

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except one are presented under new titles, and it is signicant that the revision eliminates the geographical specicity of some of Blackings titles. For example, Deep and surface structures in Venda music, the original title of chapter 2, is now The problem of musical description, while Political and musical freedom in the music of some black South African Churches is recast as The music of politics, chapter 7. And only the subtitle is retained from the original heading of the preceding chapter, The context of Venda possession music: reections on the effectiveness of symbols. The editorial hand here may have been a little heavy, if not misguided, for it contradicts Blackings rm belief that we must resist the urge to homogenise Africa by always specifying the geographical origins of our data. Although devoted readers of Blacking may well nd that some of their favourite essays are excluded from this collection (my own list begins with The problem of ethnic perception, 1985), Blacking emerges as a speculative theorist with strong universalising impulses, one who leans heavily, if not always securely, on the ethnographic view of the Venda that he had himself constructed in previous publications. The single most inuential idea of John Blackings, a more than incidental Leitmotif that pervades numerous publications, is the claim that musical structure and social structure are independent, or, as we might say in certain quarters today, that musical processes are imbricated in social processes and vice versa. Stated so baldly, the idea is neither provocative nor original. Indeed, it is an idea that has informed aesthetic, critical and analytical writing about music since at least the early nineteenth century. From E.T.A. Hoffman and A.B. Marx to Adorno and Carl Dahlhaus in our own day, or - to choose a different trajectory - from Erich von Hornbostel through Alan Merriam, Kwabena Nketia, and Klaus Wachsmann to Blacking himself, writers have wrestled with locating the boundaries between the musical and social, between the musical and the extra-musical, between inner and outer meanings, between views of the musical work as autonomous and views of it as non-autonomous, and between ostensibly cold, scientic practices and hermeneutic, human-centred ones. In Blackings hands the idea is shown to be hugely complex, and is pursued from a wide variety of angles. What might the origins of this idea be in Blackings thought? Much as one would like to imagine a conventional account in which Blacking, in the course of his twenty-two-month encounter with the Venda between 1956 and 1958, discovered the interplay between the social and the musical, I am led to a simpler view, that the problematising of the gap between the musical and the extramusical was well in place before Blacking had even heard of the Venda. Fieldwork thus conrmed existing theory; it did not produce it. Traces of Blackings attachment to the idea go back to his early musical training in the United Kingdom, to his frustrations as well as achievements in trying to be a practical classical musician, and to the confusion aroused by his desire to make sense of the class and status distinctions that characterised his native society. Blackings construction of a different Venda was thus an inevitable consequence of his particular personal history. The ethnomusicologist John Baily, who worked closely with Blacking at Queens University in Belfast, has taken note of this enabling prejudice: With hindsight one can see that he tended to idealise the egalitarian side of Venda society. He lost sight of their division into nobel and commoner classes, and disregarded the musician specialists who did not quite conform to his ideas about the universal musicality of the Venda. The Venda became The Musical People, an example to us all of what we could and should become. [1990: xiii] We are all in some measure aficted by this kind of blindness, and it is a mark of Blackings seriousness of purpose that the genealogy of the musical structure/social structure idea in his thinking follows a complex trajectory. Sometimes he leans towards the musical, at other times

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towards the social. This is not an issue that can be settled, as one settles a football or boxing match; it is rather one whose signicance is enriched with the accumulation of new ethnographic data. Venda Childrens Songs aims to provide data and to exemplify a method of what Blacking, inuenced by Merriam (1964), calls cultural analysis: This study sets out to provide both a documentary record of most of the traditional childrens songs of the Venda of the Northern Transvaal, and an analysis of their music which relates its structure to their cultural background. [p. 5] After a brief description of the Venda, denition of key terms, description of musical instruments, and a summary of Venda ideas about music, Blacking proceeds to the core of his book, which is a series of transcriptions of the words and music of fty-six Venda childrens songs. We learn that Venda children behave not unlike children in other parts of the world. Their songs and rhymes (a distinction that, by the way, does not register in their discourse) include counting games, play songs, and songs of mockery. Some songs are sung by day, others by night. Some are for boys, others for girls, and still others for both sexes. Typically short (a few lines of poetry), sung syllabically and using a ve-note or seven-note scale, these songs, according to Blacking, encode already known experiences. We learn further that although the ethnographer went to great lengths to understand the words of the songs, such meaning does not ultimately matter to the Venda. Some words are chosen for their sound rather than their meaning, some are deliberately obscure or archaic, while others are foreign, that is, borrowed from the Vendas neighbours to the south, the Shangan Tsonga. And, since Venda is a tone language, we would expect speech tone to constrain melodic behaviour. Blacking explains how linguistic and musical factors vie for control over melodic structure, and how the musical factors almost always prevail. One surprising feature of Venda childrens songs is the apparent absence of an externalised beat or tactus such as one nds in other African childrens repertoires. This absence led Blacking to devise a system for establishing the putative clap patterns of each song. He invited twelve of his informants to do what they never did ordinarily, namely to clap their hands to various childrens songs. Blacking noted these and included those clap patterns that attained the greatest consensus in the book. It should perhaps be emphasised that, unlike the pitches and rhythms which are notated in the book, and which, we assume, the Venda produced on a number of occasions, the claps are not part of the songs but are a creative addition by the author. This sort of interference is by now a standard feature of ethnomusicological eldwork. Simha Arom, for example, has just used play-back techniques in order to establish the polyphonic and polyrhythmic basis of Central African Republic repertoires (Arom, 1991). Blackings documentary record, then, bears traces of the ethnographers view of the songs latent metrical units. Like Kyagambiddwa (1955), Nketia (1963), Jones (1959), and others, Blacking presents the melodies in staff notation so that readers familiar with this system of notation can readily recreate something approximating the Venda sound. In the absence of metre or time signatures, however, readers will have no way of judging the periodic or cyclical nature of the songs. If, indeed, there is a latent pulse that can be externalised in the form of handclaps, then it is likely that there is an attendant periodicity as well, a primary periodicity that contrasts which emerges from the asymmetrically arranged lines of the song texts. But how does one verify this? In 1967, when Venda Childrens Songs appeared, it was not a regular practice to publish a cassette or CD with ethnomusicological monographs. Today, however, the practice is more or less normative, and the University of Chicago Press would have won many friends among teachers and students of African music and of ethnomusicology if it could have issued a recording containing some, if not all, of the fty-six songs assembled here. Blackings claim that he has transcribed

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song rather than performances can begin to make sense only to those who have had the opportunity to listen to a range of performances of the same song, or those who are able to compare a transcription of a given performance with one of the song itself. In the absence of such data we are forced to take him at his word. Readers inability to verify Blackings transcriptions, however, is less of a stumbling block to the reception of Vena Childrens Songs than their inability to appropriate Africa for theoretical purposes on the strength of the books ndings. By concentrating on producing an accurate documentary record and on a modest analysis, Blacking left little room for those readers who are inclined to treat the species of Venda childrens songs - their melodic and rhythmic character, texts, and performing practice - as so much data in search of a new theory. Blackings portrayal or Venda childrens songs reinforces the ordinariness of this cultural practice, and thus deprives those readers eager to celebrate difference of a hermeneutic window. Recalling the greater commercial success of the more speculative How Musical is Man? , we are not likely to be overly optimistic about the reception of Venda Childrens Songs. As for the musical structure/social structure issue, it is merely asserted here, not demonstrated. Blacking insists that the uniqueness or particularity of musical creativity should ne reected at the critical level, and should thus limit, rather than multiply, the number of acceptable explanations of a given work: Every piece of music has its own inherent logic, as the creation of an individual reared in a particular cultural background, and in terms of this there is ultimately only one explanation of its structure and meaning. [p. 6] This is surely an extreme position, one that seems to endorse a form of essentialism but it is fully compatible with the presuppositions of cultural analysis. Here, however, Blacking undercomplicates the nature of the creative process, which is frequently marked by arbitrary choices, by doubt, and by play. Not only that, he does not stress the different constraints imposed on someone composing or performing music as distinct from one who is merely listening to it. It would seem, in fact, that Blacking is not yet ready or able to separate the musical from the extramusical in order, paradoxically, to deny their separability. No one doubts the necessary relationship between a cultures material (including environmental) resources, for example, and the kinds of musical instrument that it prefers. At the cognitive level, however, the claim that patterns of sound ironically reect patterns of social organisation seems somewhat coarse, and badly in need of more subtle formulation. In a concluding section entitled Problems of method in ethnomusicological analysis Blacking briey reviews what he calls one of the more exciting developments of analytic technique, namely Hans Kellers Wordless Functional Analysis. Keller, a Viennese migr in Britain, and an inuential music gure, developed a system of analysis that sought to minimise the inuence of words (but not concepts) by substituting musical explanations for verbal ones. (See, among numerous publications, Keller, 1957). The analyst thus becomes a composer as well, and provides a meta-musical commentary that lays bare the structure (mainly thematic) of a work. Such commentary would be performed with the work, so that, without anyone saying anything, the work can be musically explained. Music is thus made to function as a meta-language. (See Agawu, 1989, for further discussion of verbal and musical meta-languages.) Blacking sees some afnity between Kellers search for the music behind the music and his own discovery that, although the musical language of Venda childrens songs seems divorced from that of other Venda music, the songs are in fact variations on the themes of the Venda national dance, tshikona, and of the boys pentatonic reed-pipe dances (p. 195). The music behind the music is a deep structure, a sub-surface articulation that bears a supercial resemblance to Chomskyan

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notions of competence. Although Blacking did not follow Keller into actually composing analyses of Venda childrens songs, he nevertheless sought the professional alliance with the more mainstream analyst. Such intertextual resonances at the level of method are one sign of Blackings comparativist impulses. Indeed, his idea that the function of tones in Venda childrens songs may be understood as structural or essential and as embellishing or inessential, and consequently that songs can be stripped of ornament to reveal an underlying deep song - this idea links him directly with Hornbostel and less directly with Schenker. (See Stock, 1993, for a general discussion of Schenkerian applications in ethnomusicology.) The tone rows listed in the penultimate chapter use a form of hierarchic notation to represent the structure. Interesting is the fact that forty years earlier Hornbostel had concretised an intuition about African song with similar representational means (1928). More interesting is the connection between Hornbostel and his descendant Blacking, on one side, and the hugely inuential Schenker, on the other. Although Hornbostel developed his ideas in complete ignorance of Schenker, they both set great store by the intuition that surface musical patterns or foreground features hide simpler patterns at the background. The connection is not undermined by the fact that, unlike Hornbostel, who was dealing with folk music from around the world, music that he encountered on recordings, Schenker was a practical musician focusing on the Austro-Germanic tradition from Bach to Brahms by way of Chopin. Schenkers theory, easily the most inuential theory of tonal music in our century, has yet to inuence analyses of African melody decisively. (The few attempts include Ekwueme, 1975-76, 1980; Agawu 1990; and Latham, n.d.) Music, Culture and Experience is an altogether more diffuses work. No longer constrained by the ethnographic imperative (which is not to say that it lacks data), this collection of Blackings late essays is much more ambitious theoretically than anything attempted in Venda Childrens Songs. One unfortunate if unavoidable consequence of putting together essays that were never intended to be published as a set is a high degree of repetitiveness that can prove irritating to the reader. Consider, for example, the following statements, each of them dealing with Blackings favourite subject. In the rst chapter we read: The function of music is to enhance in some way by the quality of individual experience and human relationships; its structures are reections of patterns of human relations, and the value of a piece of music as music is inseparable from its value as an expression of human experience. [p. 31] Two pages later, Blacking plays a variation on this theme: Since the public and the private self, and even the vision of what the self could or should be, are products of social interaction, the structure of every aspect of the self will reect in various ways the processes of that interaction. Thus music, which is a product of the processes which constitute the realization of self, will reect all aspects of the self. [p.33] Music is subsequently dened as sound that is organized into socially accepted patterns (p. 33). After postulating a general maxim that he sound of music announces a social situation (p. 40), Blacking argues that: music may embellish or refer to specic social situations, and that what it communicates, by means of its contrasting world of virtual time, is therefore a greater awareness of the emotions already associated with those social situations [p. 40] Later he puts forward a general thesis that some or all of the processes used by a society in the

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organization of its human relations are used to organize available musical sounds (p. 46). He insists that there is considerable evidence to support the theory of a relationship between musical and social structures (p. 46). A few pages later he cites examples from early European polyphony, the music of Flemish composers, Venda and European folk music to show that musical structures can ... be seen as products and reections of social, as well as musical, processes (p. 49). He qualies his stance somewhat by claiming that there may be a one-to-one relationship between certain musical and social structures in some cases but not in all (p. 51). All of these statements - and several more - appear in a 1969 essay given here as Expressing human experience through music, so the repetitiveness may be justied on the grounds that Blacking is simply sticking to his topic. But what happens when we turn to the next chapter, The problem of musical description? Already on the second page of this chapter we encounter familiar words: In much the same way tht a context-sensitive grammar is a more powerful analytical tool than one which is context-free, so the cognitive systems underlying different styles of music will be better understood if music is not detached from its context and regarded as sonic objects but treated as humanly organized sound whose patterns are related to the social and cognitive processes of a particular society and culture. [p. 51; authors emphasis] Granted this is from a 1971 essay, for whose purposes a recapitulation of ideas from two years earlier may have been necessary. But how much patience should be retired of readers of Music, Culture and Experience? Those who persevere will nd only a page later the assertion that: Because music is humanly organized sound, there ought to be relationships between patterns of human organization and the patterns of the sound produced in the course of organized interaction. [pp. 56-7] Later in the essay we are told that Musical relationships may reect social relationships, and both may be generated by cognitive processes which are used in other elds of human behaviour (p. 70). It is obvious that Blacking, in these two opening chapters, comes close to arguing by assertion, and that the challenging theoretical issues raised by the musical structure/social structure dichotomy, issues that have since been studied by, among others, Adorno (1967), Nketia (1981), Dahlhaus (1983), Feld (1984), and Leppert and McClary (1987), are given only a preliminary airing here. It would be a pity if readers gave up after chapter 2, however, because there are things in the rest of the book that will repay close study. Chapter 7, for example, deals with music in religious worship, and Blackings argument is that the music of the black Christian Churches of South Africa expressed and enhanced a black collective consciousness that members were not able to express in words (p. 22). A study of Venda possession music, ngoma, complete with song texts, a transcription of a musical excerpt, and a genealogical table displaying ngoma ceremonies that Blacking witnessed between 1956 and 1958, reminds us that music is always a social fact (p. 177), that no music has power in itself (p. 176), and that, based on his experience of Venda possession cults, and on corroborative evidence assembled by others, the effectiveness of musical symbols depends as much on human agency and social context as on the structure of the symbols themselves (p. 174). Of particular interest is the fourth chapter, Music and the historical process in Vendaland. Originally published in 1971 in a fascinating collection edited by Klaus Wachsmann, the essay considers possible uses of musical evidence in reconstruction of African history. Blacking is keenly aware of how easy it is to make false comparisons and to ignore real correspondences.

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He advocates a dialectical method by which the inuence on musical creation of historical forces can be set alongside the documentary values of Venda music as a site of historical events. A more comprehensive review of Blackings writings would acknowledge his semiotic approach to analysing musical meaning, his commitment to interculturalism (as distinct rom multiculturalism), and, more generally, his efforts to expand the horizons of musical analysis without giving up the rigour of formalism. Paradoxically, the universalising tendencies evident in Music, Culture and Experience lead to the gradual disappearance of Africa from Blackings theorising. By disappearance I do not mean absence; I mean rather that Africa is stripped not only of its historical and socio-cultural particularity but, more tragically perhaps, of the uniqueness of its critical programme. In other words, the aesthetic, ideological and epistemological issues that Music, Culture and Experience is concerned with are nally of interest to those in the metropole, not to the Venda Africans who provided the data that made such theorising possible. Since it is not certain that such appropriation is inevitable, Blackings orientation must be taken to reect his ultimate concerns as a scholar. Venda Chidlrens Songs and Music, Culture and Experience indicate the range of Blackings achievement, and suggest why his ideas have been, if not directly inuential, then at least sonorously resonant with much innovative work in ethnomusicology. We need many more studies like Vena Childrens songs in our on-going attempt to document the musical and human resources in Africa. And, despite the diffuseness, repetitiveness and occasional inconsistency of Music, Culture and Experience , we would be much impoverished if we ignored it. That the issue raised by Blacking in the 1960s and 1970s remain alive for us today is one of many signs of his extraordinary foresight and his commitment to playing with ideas.

REFERENCES Adorno, Theodor W. 1967. Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, Mass.; MIT Press. Agawu, K. 1989. Schenkerian notation in concept and practice, Music Analysis 8 (3), 275-301. _____ 1990. Variation procedures in northern Ewe song, Ethnomusicology 34 (2), 221-43. Arom, Simha. 1991. African Polyphony and Polyrhythm: musical structure and methodology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Baily, John. 1990. John Blacking and his place in ethnomusicology, Yearbook for Traditional Music 22, xii-xxi. Blacking, John. 1973. How Musical is Man? Seattle and London: University of Washington Press. _____ 1985. The problem of ethnic perceptions in the semiotics of music, in Wendy Steiner (ed.), The Sign in Music and Literature, pp. 184-94. Austin: University of Texas Press. Dahlhaus, Carl. 1983. Foundations of Music History, trans, J.B. Robinson. New York: Cambridge University Press. Ekwueme, Lazarus. 1975-76. Structural levels of rhythm and form in African music with particular reference to the west coast, African Music 5 (4), 27-35. _____ 1980. Analysis and analytic techniques in African music: a theory of melodic scales, African Music 6 (1), 89-106. Feld, Steven. 1984. Sound structure as social structure, Ethnomusicology 28 (3), 383-409. Hornbostel, E.M. von. 1928. African negro music, Africa 1 (1), 30-62. Jones, A.M. 1959. Studies in African Music (2 vols.). London: Oxford University Press. Keller, Hans. 1957. Functional analysis: its pure application, Music Review 18, 202-15. Kyagambiddwa, Joseph. 1955. African Music from the Source of the Nile. New York: Praeger.

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Latham, Edward. n.d. Structure in Selected Folk Melodies of Africa: a Schenkerian perspective. Unpublished seminar paper, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University. Leppert, Richard and McClary, S. (eds.). 1987. Music and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Meriam, A.P. 1964. The Anthropology of Music. Evanston, III.: Northwestern University Press. Nketia, J.H. Kwabena. 1963. Folk Songs of Ghana. Legon: University of Ghana. _____ 1981. The juncture of the social and the musical: the methodology of cultural analysis, The World of Music 23 (1), 22-35. Stock, Jonathan. 1993. The application of Schenkerian analysis to ethnomusicology: problems and possibilities, Music Analysis 12 (2), 215-40. Wachsmann, Klaus P. (ed.). 1971. Music and History in Africa. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

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