Sunday, February 2, 2014

On Musical Instruments

I'll cop to this right out of the gate:

I'm a Muslim. I am conservative in my personal practice. As such, I take the conservative position of those Islamic scholars throughout history who have ruled that musical instruments, with the exception of the frame drum, are impermissible.

There are and have been other scholars, good men with a different, more liberal opinion on the matter of musical instruments. They have their followers. I am not one of them.

But I am also somebody that loves a good song. I can think of few things more powerful than the right song at the right moment. There was a time that I was handy with instruments, but I have long since given that up. Suffice it to say, I have lived both sides of the musical coin.

And as long as we confine our discussion to the individual's experience of musical instruments, whether playing them or listening to them, we are unlikely to reach any real conclusions on the matter of tuned instruments being ultimately beneficial or detrimental.

Where we can find some clarity, I believe, is when we look at the effect of tuned instruments at the societal level. And in order to do this, we need to go way, way back.

Jeremy Montagu, in his book Origins and Development of Musical Instruments speculates that it is "likely that musical instruments began with the concussive sounds of two objects struck together." He goes on to say that this striking may have been incidental, occurring as early man engaged in flint knapping. Maybe he was cracking nuts. We don't know, but we can imagine thumping and banging, maybe a whole lot of it all at once as members of the group worked at their projects. Communal rhythm is born.

And this is, according to Mr. Montagu, almost immediately attached to ritual and dance. Communal work leads to communal rhythm that bleeds out to facilitate the communal ties of religious ceremony and celebration.

People being what they are, we can imagine that things changed in a hurry. Some got good at all that rhythmic banging. This may have facilitated more intricate ritual and dance and the rhythmic practitioner may have been accorded greater esteem. As time goes on, man hits upon melodic possibilities. Striking slit logs produces different tones. Perhaps, in the stretching and drying of animal skins, we intuit the membraphones, or drums. A strong wind blowing over a hollow tree stump or a stand of reeds portends the early flute, and so on.

Each of these elements is refined over time, and while the community is still brought together by the sounds and effects of these early instruments, something else is happening. As the instruments become more complex in their construction and manipulation, a new class of person is making quite a splash.

The musician. Or perhaps the shaman? There is a relationship, then and now.

Gilbert Rouget, in his book Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations Between Music and Possession, tells us that:
For the shaman, shamanizing and musicating are two aspects of one and the same activity. So much so that among the Yaruro, in Venezuela, he is called tõewame, which means "musician," or, more precisely, "he who sings and dances."
Though the ancient shaman's instruments were often quite simple and almost always of the percussive type (drums, rattles, sticks), there was introduced into his performing an element of spectacle that clearly separated him from the rest of the group. It was, as Rouget puts it, "a truly theatrical performance, or, more accurately perhaps, a one-man show."

Captivating, no doubt, with the experience enhanced in many cases with fermented beverages, tobacco, and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have The Grateful Dead.

We've covered several millennia in a few short paragraphs, but seeing as there really is nothing new under the sun, let's make our points and wrap this up.

In addition to the vocal noises that our ancestors made, rudimentary percussive instruments added new sonic dimensions to our experience in a way that initially brought us together in ritual and celebration. It was all really easy, really accessible, and totally tied to the rhythms of life as they existed.

With the advent of the musician and his instruments, we see the community split and manipulated. We have been separated into performer and audience, respectively active and passive in our societal roles.

Fast forward to the present where communal singing has all but disappeared and stadiums are filled every weekend with inebriated drones professing their love and allegiance to corporate-funded prostitutes squawking their auto-tuned tommyrot through over-driven PA systems in what can only be described as the ultimate circus of political distraction.

Musical instruments, for all they might offer by way of immediate pleasure and distraction, have proven to be seductively divisive.

But what about a little campfire guitar? That brings the kids together real good, don't it, mister?

Sure. But what if someone forgets the guitar? Are we courageous enough to sing anyway?

Or have the instruments stolen our voices, cut us off from engaging one another in song, in celebration and remembrance?

There are some very conservative Islamic scholars that have gone as far as to say that it is legally permissible to break the musical instrument of the one playing it, an act that would be blatant and punishable destruction of property in any other context.

Although I do not advocate this, for all that these musical instruments have broken within us, the ruling does not strike me as unjust.

1 comment:

  1. Salam Sidi Ahmad!

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. I found it extremely eye-opining.


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