Music of the Ancient, Lost or Forgotten

  1. Mountain Lion Jina (9:45)
  2. Chavin Burial Drone (9:35)
  3. Transocean Water Dance (8:51)
  4. Man of Corn (8:39)
  5. Antelope Keep (9:17)
  6. Great Wall (9:53)
  7. Tibetan Bon Bonpo (9:13)
  8. Rovliako Khelipan (7:51)

For the lover of invention, wayward ethnomusicologist, empathic historian and mythic storyteller.

Mountain Lion JIna

Remembering the film “Dersu Uzala” by Kurosawa, I have long been fascinated with Mongolian lore around predator wildcats. Also, a curiosity around how classical Indian music developed out of primitive cultures, enabled me to merge the two ideas. The possibility of isolated groups within the Steppes, and how Kublai Khan and his sons succeeded in decimating and stranding communities, cemented my musical concept.

An ancient mountain village where people call themselves Pasupatas, still exists in a wild region north of Tibet and east of the Caspian Sea. Isolated from the outside world, the Pasupatas believe they are still subjects of the empire of Jagatai. Great mountain cats that inhabit the rocky crags are sacred to the Pasupatas, and are perceived as jinas: saints, or messengers of the divine. In the stillness of the night, members of the village silently gather around a fire. Membrane covered drums with necks of sympathetic strings are played, along with madduka drums, precursors to the tabla. The village shaman begins a dominating melody on a small four-stringed lute accompanied by a pair of ritual gongs. The purpose of the music is to conjure up their jina, in a form solely focused on the final cadence. When the last chord subsides, there is a moment of silence. Then everyone turns to see the mountain lion appear just outside the circle, before it slowly moves away into the night.

Chavin Burial Drone

Years ago in Santa Fe, I met a somewhat eccentric man who was in possession of a set of funereal urns from Peru. He had done some research, and was convinced that they were sound producing instruments. We spent an afternoon playing them, with favorable results. This suggested to me a connection with small pyramids in Andean communities, used only for burial rituals, in which similar urns, unused, were found inside them.

Early Andean cultures participated in extensive and elaborate burial rituals. Pottery vessels, often with intricate goldwork crafted for the elite, were blown into by mourners. Human shaped funerary effigy heads with spouts, produced dense droning dirges, as royalty and families sat in a circle, playing them around the tomb of the deceased. In addition to tones, pronounced breaths represented the voices of the multitudes.Whispering prayers by friends and priests, who were most familiar with the character of the entombed, acted as supplications to help them through to the next spiritual plane. Many of the pottery artifacts were once thought, by archeologists, to be purely utilitarian, until local ancestors revealed their unique sound-making function. These ceremonial objects were found in rudimentary pyramids of the region, and this specific conclave originated in a small community called Karwa along the Pacific coast, south of the present day city of Lima.

Transocean Water Dance

It is known that a myriad of Polynesian cultures have existed throughout history. These island communities were restricted by their watery boundaries, which caused them to create unique religions and rituals around their daily lives. It is also known that many of these people died on the open seas, either in transit or in search of sustenance.

The Transocean people stand in awe of the roaring seas surrounding them. Yet they force their longboats into the surf and endless expanse of water, in order to supply their tribe with life-sustaining fish. The water dance is a pre-dawn vigil for the fishermen who will risk their lives in this endeavor. Two chieftans chant a canonic prayer throughout; hand-forged bells, made with copper and malachite sifted from beach sand, are struck with pearled mallets; primitive reed flutes and tiny maracas made of tortoise shell are played – all designed to embody the power of the ocean. The fishermen, laying prostrate on the shore, chant intonations through conch shells, asking their gods for good bounty and a safe return.

Man of Corn

When visiting Mexico City, I became curious about the dependence on corn by Mexican people, in addition to the many corn celebrations I have witnessed in the North American southwest by the Tewas. Then I began to imagine the first corn festivities, which surely must have been in or before Mayan times. Using the corn dance and other native ceremonies I am familiar with, along with the perennial inclusion of the elders of the tribe in them, I began to sketch out the conceivable original.

Vestiges of the ancient pre-Incan Jade civilizations still survive in small tribes within regions of Mexico, Central America and the northern quadrant of South America. The Man of Corn is known as a carved stone image of a farmer with corn growing out of his head. Ceremonies around the corn harvest were very important due to the cultivation of corn as a staple food, from the modest beginnings of the teosinte bush. In the absence of musical or rhythmic sound-makers, which would develop in later times, the Jade people used the natural environment, their own voices, and even the corn husks, to create the Man of Corn ritual. Today, these traditions are upheld, creating a wonderfully primitive, venerable sound. The farmer, with his headdress of freshly harvested corn, sings to his tribe with cupped hands, calling out for all to hear. The clan of elders responds as the call continues, setting the stage for a festive celebration that will last for several days.

Antelope Keep

I have visited Antelope Island, on the Great Salt Lake in Utah, many times. Historical information on this strangely isolated place describes its rich antelope population. When some friends decided to marry there, I made a piece about the island for them. In my research, I came to know how far back human population has reached in the area, which inspired this musical setting.

Long before Antelope Island on the Great Salt Lake was named, the Desert Archaic people around 8,000 B.C. lived on the island. Thousands of pronghorn antelope thrived even then, and the culture existed largely because of them. This ancient wedding song ritual was performed on singing flutes made of antelope bone. The flutes were played normally, and then sung into while playing, creating a reedy, austere vocal sound. The tonality of the music is centered around the single tone of a drum, carved out of a hollowed log and stretched with the hide of the beloved antelope.

Great Wall

Reflecting on how the sound of traditional Chinese opera might have formed, along with ancient China’s investment in both war and monasticism, a possible lost musical heritage began to emerge. I have constructed an ensemble that might help illustrate how strings, cymbals and a soloistic tradition could have been shaped, that produced the angularly expressive music and drama of the culture.

During the construction of the Great Wall of China, in the “Warring States” period, ending around 221 B.C., an elemental practice was for all men-at-arms to play on a plucked one-stringed instrument – a precursor to the zheng. They were instructed to create melodies embodying personal feelings about going to war, including loyalty, fear and misgivings. The performance of original melodies, in consort with each other, was the ultimate aesthetic preparation for warriors. The only option for creating melodic material was to place a moveable bridge somewhere along the length of string, forming two separate tones which could be manipulated by depressing the string on either side of the bridge. Punctuation was added by the supreme commander who would strike a similar but multi-stringed instrument in various ways, in addition to selected generals trained in the newly developed art of the cymbal. The final result was designed to bring structure to the music: a metaphor for leading troops into battle.

Tibetan Bon Bonpo

The ancient Tibetans eventually embraced their own version of Buddhism. But during their separation from the rest of the world, they developed unique sound-makers and elaborate rituals that distinguished them. In this extreme culture, every breath is important, every step significant, everything analyzed in a singular way. Interfacing with a primitive group of absorbed followers, and a few traditional instruments, their musical ritual unfurls.

The pre-Buddhist Tibetan Bon culture of ecstasy and ritual magic was expressed on the pellet drum, or damaru, by shamans called Bonpo. The original drum was mounted on a slender shaft, and is played by rotating it with the hands and fingers, as two beads attached by a short string strike either side of the drum head. Two Bonpo each play a damaru, synchronizing with each other through a complex breath pattern – one of the foundations of numerology in the future Tibetan Buddhist religion. As they walk playing their drums, village people follow striking chimes and bells. This is the mountain peoples’ interpretation of visceral transcendence, which developed separately from Buddhist and Vedic traditions on the subcontinent of India.

Rovliako Khelipan

There are many theories around how flamenco was formed. Being a devotee and cantaor, I could never ignore connections to European music, such as the English madrigal and Serbian guslari song. The historical accounting of central European gypsy exile preceding Ottoman invasions is clear, as is the indenturing of wayward people on Corfu, and their later mass exodus. Vocal embellishment and ornament from Indo-European cultures imply a melting pot of musical traditions during this tumultuous period of conquest.

On the Ionian island of Corfu, gypsy people who called themselves Rom were grouped into a fiefdom around the year 1360 AD. For almost 200 years, until the Siege of Corfu by the Ottomans, they developed a strong cultural community. Before migrating across the Mediterranean, and before the six-string guitar, which was invented in Cadiz in 1790, the gypsies of Corfu had greatly contributed to what would become Spanish gypsy music. Using what they had as a poor people: their hands, voices, tools and primitive drums, the huerga – a communal musical ritual – had begun. The community would meet secretly at what is now known as the Peristerograva caves, where they held celebrations. Using their Romani language, the Corfu gypsies created many of the somber to ecstatic lyrics which would help to define later flamenco expressions. Romani contains vocabulary from the many origins of gypsy culture including Slavic, Hindi, Greek and Persian languages. Rovliako Khelipen translates as “Stick Dance.” The percussive interludes make way for solo performances in which members of the group sing of various passionate subjects, including death, suffering and persecution.

Romani lyrics and translations:

I Phuv khamnisajlel pandz dromengo
Thaj bijandili pandz chejango, chehrajango:
Prvi chehrajin — Luludji
Dujti chehrajin — Pachape
Triti chehrajin — Phabaj
Shtarti chehrajin — Chirikli
Pandzti chehrajin — Dozacharipe
I Phuv e Pajensa roven
The Earth conceived five times
And bore five daughters, five stars:
The first star — Flower
The second star — Faith
The third star — Apple
The fourth Star — Bird
The fifth Star — Hope
The Earth and Water cried
For they wanted a male child, the Sun.

Neka sako brsh perel e bakresko shoro,
Thoven pe chavoresko chikateste e bakresko rat lolo.
Thaj akharen les Mahno.”
That every year you will slaughter a sheep,
Put its crimson blood on the child’s forehead
And give him the name, Bread!”

Mulo lacho Rom
Trubuj ando miro te sovel.
Pendzero si putardo thaj
udar phanglo.
A deceased, good Rom
Should sleep in peace.
The window is slightly open
And the door is closed.

Ande taxtaj pohari paj
Ande tijari vurma kataro naj.

In the glass is less water
In the plate the trail of fingers.