Monday, December 30, 2013

Primal Music Find: Georgian Folk Music

Go on and have a listen as you read the Wikipedia entry.

A lullaby ensemble:

And the boys bring it home:

God, if that isn't beautiful.

This is were it's at, prime.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Primal Music as Political Action

We're building a foundation here. If you hang around long enough, you'll see where all of this is headed, insha Allah. It'll be a fun place once we get there, I think. And Allah knows best.

For now, though, consider this something of a musical rediscovery. I say "rediscovery" because, in the commodification of music, we have lost touch with its essential function as a means of restoring integrity and holism on a personal and communal level. I'm not sure that there was ever a time when people really thought about music enough to consciously reach those conclusions, but we can certainly deduce a communal awareness of the restorative properties of music, at least before the advent of recording devices and the selling of those recordings.

We are at a point in our musical history, as with our food and monetary systems, where only a very few truly benefit from current paradigms. The marketing of music has reduced this once sacred communal rite to something that is cheap, frenetic, and divisive. By subdividing the musical experience into genres and sub-genres catering to every possible and impossible aural fantasy, and through the digital, on-demand delivery of that content directly into our ears via wee buds, today's music industry has succeeded in isolating and confining us, each into our own sonic closet. Anxiety and existential agony are the only possibilities here, and the marketplace thrives on this.

Divide and conquer. It's a theme that will come up a lot.

This short clip on plainchant is fascinating. What's really interesting here is how the reporter can hardly help but reveal the total restlessness and fragmentation that modern musical paradigms have unwittingly induced within him. Check it out:

By marginalizing the communal and participatory aspects of the musical experience, we are groomed for our convenient, impotent roles as consumer and spectator. Panem et circenses. Bread and circuses, the Romans used to say. Entertain the people and they won't give two licks about service or policy.

That all falls apart, by the way, when people get together regularly to build something. We are all better off when we start to share and learn, building those essential links of human interdependence. And this can be so easily and enjoyably approached through primal music.

In more heterogeneous societies, commonalities are hit upon and explored. Where things are more static, traditional values are reinforced. In both cases, there is the enhanced possibility of bonds being formed and strengthened.

Exploitation is much more difficult under these circumstances.

Check out this work song, black American prisoners. Forced labor fatigues the body, no doubt. But just listen to how their souls fly!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Toward an Understanding of Primal Music

People respond to music in ways that are real and profound. In the last post, we discussed one theory around why that might be, but there are certainly other ways of looking at this. Here, I want to take a look at how we are designed and how insight into our nature can help us arrive at an understanding of the musical forms that we, as a species, may be most attuned to.

There are some senses that are pretty tough to temper, and hearing is one of them. You can always close your eyes. Our clothing greatly reduces our exposure to tactile stimulation. Our tongue is protected from unwanted tasting by virtue of its hidden position in our head.

Audition and olfaction are interesting in that comparatively aggressive mechanical intervention is required to block stimulation of these senses. We need to pinch our nose or forcibly stop up our ears, or else remove ourselves entirely from the stimuli if we find the sensory experience undesirable. Sounds and smells go right into us.

We're going to focus on sound here, but, as an aside, the Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, loved perfume and advocated its liberal use among men. A primary tenant of the Qasida Monday and Tea-Share gatherings has always been to show up smelling good. The relationship between smell and sound is something that we can explore later, insha Allah.

We are absolutely primed for listening. And although we might hear all kinds of things, nothing attracts our attention or excites our passions so much as music, which we will define here as a relationship between rhythm and melody. Primal music insists upon a simple and accessible relationship between these two fundamental elements.

An awareness of voice as instrument is necessary to understand it's fundamental role in primal music. If we are to adhere to these stipulations of simplicity and accessibility, then we must concede that, excepting those individuals born or otherwise rendered mute, there is no instrument more simple or accessible than our voice. Through the voice alone we can realize the two musical essentials of rhythm and melody, as in this example from the Sacred Harp tradition:

And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?

Soon as from earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my portion be!

Waked by the trumpet sound,
I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!

Another point to consider in defining primal music is the transactional reality of sound. This is captured in the famous conundrum of the tree falling in the forest where nobody is around to hear it. Does it make a sound? In attempting to answer this, we might come to the conclusion that it is the interplay of production and perception that confirms experience.

And this is why music has historically been a communal rite. While one can create music to be appreciated in isolation, like a meal or a conversation, we have found that involving others enhances and intensifies the experience.

Our charge in advancing the notion of primal music is not only to discuss what it is, but also what it does. Primal music is simple and accessible and through primal music we build community. It is therefore necessary that primal music, in its execution, be inclusive. And while most everybody has a voice, not everybody shares the same language.

Enter the drum.

If you don't know the words, sit in the circle and keep time.

Primal music from the Northern Cree:

Simple, accessible, inclusive. Voice and drum. Melody and rhythm.

Primal music. Go out and make some!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Music: Where It Comes from and Why It's Here

There is little debate on the role that language plays in the life of human beings. However, language is but one type of vocalization, and there are interesting discussions happening in scientific circles about human musical expression through voice and, by extension, instrumentation.

Why do we have this ability? What purpose does it serve? What is the role of melody and rhythm among human beings?

As with much research, we start with non-human animals.

Sounds produced by animals are understood to be largely, if not entirely, involuntary, tied directly to emotional centers in the brute brain. The perception of danger, for example, will automatically trigger shrieks of warning. Mating season may similarly stimulate a host of breeding-specific grunts and calls. The emotive and linguistic experience of animals is entirely synthesized (in the language of specialists).

This is not the case with humans. We have been blessed with voluntary control over our vocalizations. This requires a separating of emotions from conceptual thinking and behavior. Through this unique gift of language with its requisite psychic separation, we can talk about a dangerous scenario (a tsunami on the other side of the world, for example) without running for the hills.

While this does confer many advantages to humans, it also leaves us more cerebrally fragmented than our animal counterparts. Comparatively speaking, we are poorly synthesized. Our brains are therefore understood to be more differentiated (more scientific jargon).

Differentiation is a kind of fragmentation. Synthesis is about being whole. Those are key points, so you'll need to remember them.

Scientists recognize the interplay of two "inseparable but opposing needs" (Perlovsky, 2010). We have a need to learn about ourselves and the world around us, and this requires differentiation, a breaking up of the emotive-conceptual-liguistic complex. At the same time, however, we have an intense desire for wholeness, total integration of our psychic and physical selves. We crave synthesis.

This is a bit of a conundrum. In our quest for knowledge, we run the risk of losing ourselves.

The more we learn, the more we question, and the further we get from a simple understanding of who we are and what our place in the universe might be. This can lead to a good deal of existential frustration and an attendant sapping of energy. An interesting historical sidelight to reflect on is the incredible success of "less civilized" groups in completely overrunning more "advanced" populations. Those who live by core beliefs that are, for them, beyond question, have conserved a great deal of energy, and others have suffered for it. We have the example of newly Islamized "barbarous" Arabs destroying the Roman and Persian empires. Centuries later, Mongol shepherds conquered most of the known world. It has been suggested that what the invaders lacked in differentiated knowledge they more than made up for through integration and synthesis. This afforded them a greater concentration of will and this was perhaps a major factor in their success.

God knows best.

Anyhow, in order to repair the fragmentation and potential loss of resolve that comes with language and the acquisition of knowledge, that which is learned must be contextualized. Acquired information must somehow be brought in line with our beliefs and emotive experiences. While there are several adaptive responses available to manage this, music, according to one cognitive theory, is a way of reintegrating ourselves. According to Perlovsky (2010), "Its fundamental role in cultural evolution was maintaining synthesis in the face of increasing differentiation."

Where the spoken word may be incapable of connecting to primal emotional centers, music can bring our unconscious drives to the surface where they can be more fully worked out, on an individual or cultural level. Music is understood, then, to be essentially restorative in its function. Over-emphasis upon our intellect threatens to disintegrate our selves and so we have been gifted with melody and rhythm to reconnect with our primal emotional drivers and reintegrate what we know with what we feel and need.

This tension between differentiation and synthesis is understood to further our cultural development. Experiences lead to questions, inquiry that can threaten the status quo on both personal and societal levels. This internal dissonance generates a need for soothing, a return to wholeness. Music seems to provide a way of clearing out that dissonance by bringing our emotions in line with our discordant intellect. This introduces the possibility of a very important dynamic: our internal state is what generates our music and our music will only reinforce our internal state. New ideas, acquired and processed through linguistic and intellectual centers in the brain are reconciled with the remainder of our consciousness through musical expression. Music is but one way of accomplishing this, but in any case the result is an integrated state that affords the newly synthesized individual a greater concentration of will.

He is unified in himself and therefore irresistible.

That might be taking it too far, but here's a citation and you can come to your own conclusions:

Perlovsky, L. (2010, September 22). Music and emotions. Functions, origins, evolution. SciTopics. Retrieved from

Friday, December 13, 2013

Drum Circle Tomorrow

For anybody who might be interested, Rowan Storm will be facilitating a drum circle this Saturday afternoon (12/14) at the Levantine Cultural Center in L.A.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Qasida Monday and Tea Share

Al-hamdu lillah wa shukr lillah, last night marked a full year of gatherings.

We missed a couple of months, and there were reasons for that. But for those exceptions, we were gifted the opportunity to convene on the second Monday of each month, starting with the first email invite back in November of 2012:
"You are invited to an evening of drink and song. We don't really get enough of either, so we're going to fix that, insha Allah."
Somewhere in the neighborhood of thirteen people showed up at my apartment about three weeks later, on Monday, December the 10th, 2012. And, as will happen with first-times, nothing will shake the memory of that night.

We have changed venues, moving first from my apartment to another. And last night found us our most recent location, Zawiya Perspective in Santa Ana.

Not much else has changed, though. Sessions start with a short introduction, the what and why of the whole thing. Then we talk about the frame drum and do a quick primer on basic strokes. We learn a simple rhythm and this will take us into a short but exciting drum circle experience, which was particularly nice last night, masha Allah.

And then we bring out the song books. Traditional qasidas, sacred poetry, almost entirely in Arabic. That's a barrier for some, but the drum offers an opportunity for non-Arabic speakers to make a very powerful contribution.

We sang for about an hour, through a haze of burning aloeswood, before refreshments were served. A brother from Afghanistan brought this amazing dish: baked chunks of pumpkin and caramelized onions covered in yogurt and infused with a fiery spice blend that was perfect for taking the December chill out of our bones. Our host, Brother Abdullah, served soup and a lightly roasted Yemeni coffee blend seasoned with ginger and cardamom. Served in tiny little glasses, the brothers were pounding shots like sailors at port.

One of the attendees was a man from Bosnia who is working hard with the local immigrants from that community, some 45 families in the southern California area, by his estimate. He told us a fascinating story about how gatherings such as ours were the only thing keeping Islam alive in Bosnia after the arrival of Communism.

Formal religious practice was outlawed by the State, but locals were able to maintain some semblance of worship and remembrance through frequent celebratory gatherings. The recitation and singing of sacred poetry was a staple at these events. They would use any acceptable pretext, a wedding, or a birth, for example, to gather in song. In so doing, they were able to preserve something of their adopted religion.

It kind of makes you wonder. What will people will say about Qasida Monday twenty years from now?

Dunno. But between now and then, here's to another great year!

Wa billahi tawfiq.