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African Culture

Updated May 10, 2019
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African Culture When trying to compare and contrast the music-culture and society of the Mbuti and that of the Venda, it becomes difficult to comment on sound when we haven’t heard any Venda music. It’s easy to recognize that for the Mbuti the music embodies the heart of the forest, and for the Venda the relation to nature is the act of a mother giving birth. Thinking about concept and behavior this makes the music performed by the two cultures separate and distinguishable.

This is where culture and environment become important factors. How noticeable is this when listening to the music of both peoples? When given the opportunity to listen, without a trained ear, it would be difficult to find differences in the sound of the music. There are obvious differences in instrumentation between the two cultures. While the Mbuti mainly performs music with their voices, the Venda use drums, flutes, and various other instruments. There are similarities between the two groups with rights of passage.’ The Venda girls perform the Domba, and the Mbuti girls practice and perform the Elima. Clear.

Cultural distinctions can be made between the two groups concerning rights of passage.’ When it is time for the Mbuti girls to perform the Elima, they go into a hut and are secluded from the rest of the world. The boys of the clan try to push their way into the hut to find the woman of their choice. The Venda girls performing the Domba, are out in the open and visible for the men and everyone around to see. Since the Mbuti is of the forest, and the Venda is a village-based group, there are probably many cultural traditions and practices that are very different.

These differences may be difficult to distinguish with the materials available to us as Westerners. Seeing the two cultures perform live would enable a person to find differences and draw upon parallels. In both societies there is a visible comparison between the separation males and females when performing rights of passage.’ In both cultures we see a universal participation in music as a common thread to survival, and an individuality is kept within the music as it’s being performed. The Venda believes that all human beings have the capacity to be musical. Blacking solidifies this thought when stating that, The Venda may not consider the possibility of unmusical human beings, but they do recognize that some people perform better than others.

(pg.46 Blacking, 1973) The same general concept may hold true with the Mbuti, the concept that we are all somehow children of the forest. The relationship that the Mbuti has with the outside villages for provisions and the treatment they receive in these villages can be viewed as a distinction. How close does the Venda come to resembling the village groups sited in Turnbulls research? Is this where most of the distinctions can be made? The Mbuti is primarily a forest dwelling group, relying on the forest for most of their subsistence. The Mbuti uses the molimo as their main instrument, when an elder dies, ceremonies take place using this instrument by the men. The Venda is more complex socially, and they use more instruments.

Even the attitude the Mbuti has toward daily life and music seems much more relaxed and simple. Are there the same circular flow or looping patterns in the music of both cultures? Do both cultures have a downward motion in melodies? The Mbuti is very humorous with a sometimes very serious side to their humor. Does this exist at all in Venda culture? The Mbuti has a ritualistic feeding of the molimo, using fire and water to please the spirit of the instrument. Is this sort of ritual activity common at all in the Venda? The Mbuti women usually do not participate when the molimo is present, but the music seems to break down any gender barriers as it was mentioned in class that the women, know what’s going on.

Western practitioners of music have the luxury of a pen and notebook paper, headphones and CD players, modern instruments and studio equipment. While the cultures we are learning about have no such luxury. Nettle takes this fact a step further by saying, We think of a piece of music as existing in its truest form on a piece of paper. The academics among us can hardly conceive of discussing music without knowledge of a single, authoritative, visible version.

(pg.65 Nettle, 1983) When listening to the Mbuti music in class a complex system is clearly audible. In Western society notation helps with the conception and birth of a musical idea but, It equates composing with writing and accepts the creation of music on paper even when the composer can barely imagine its sound until he has heard it, of music which contains devices that can only be appreciated by the eye. (pg.65 Nettle, 1983) The music of the Mbuti is a constant flow of creation encompassing writing and composing while performing. This is why the task of the ethnomusicologist is noble. The first reaction most scientists or any rational minded person will have to a new idea that isn’t easily understood is to reject it.

If the importance and emphasis in the conception of music in these African cultures have been placed on sound, as in producing and listening, from generation to generation for hundreds if not thousands of years what can this tell us about Western music? Is it possible that the music produced within these societies has evolved much more rapidly than in Western music? In Western society we have been slaving away with our pencils and paper for centuries. Can we say that environmental and cultural difference is the reason we have difficulty understanding music structured differently than our own? The task of transcription would seem excruciatingly painful coming from a Western background. Are there many western musicians who would consider singing for twenty-four hours straight without a proper break? While westerners are more concerned with the complexity of music, it is clear that people such as the Mbuti and Venda are more concerned with remaining loyal to wherever it is that music comes from. Nettle does try to forge us into the future when he says, A central problem for future research is the degree to which social function, style, and content coincide and correlate, and the degree to which the cultural characteristics of a music community are reflected in the traits of the music it claims as its own.

The way in which the world of music is divided into musics, and the criteria for the divisions, are major issues that have perhaps not been given sufficient explicit recognition. (pg.51 Nettle, 1983) Nettle is saying how can we determine what’s borrowed from what is culturally distinctive. It is recognizable that as our society becomes more technologically advanced and corrupt, it becomes visible within popular music. In the same way as the sounds of the rainforests are incorporated in the vocal acrobats of the Mbuti. Which music is more musical in nature? I have recently discovered in this class that it isn’t safe to assume anything, especially when concerning yourself with music, something more complex than nature itself.

Geologists are capable of determining climate fluctuations that occurred well more than one million years ago, but it’s a struggle to understand music that we can hear and watch as it is being performed. We haven’t really talked about the human need that drives us toward something greater. The accumulation of different sounds combining to make something larger than the individual components of itself, is this how music is relative to society? If we ask where music comes from, we can answer it comes from humans. Some people who play music may tell you that music comes from our brains or our hearts, and still some may say it comes from the cosmos. Are we conditioned to believe that music comes from only one of these? A safe and logical response would be that music comes from a blending of all the things mentioned above. If something is considered as primitive, then it can be considered old.

If something is old enough than it could be considered as ancient, and if it’s ancient then it is from a relatively unknown source. If it’s unknown then how can it be misconstrued in a Western social context as primitive? We tack on our own societal and cultural biases to what primitive means. Primitive doesn’t necessarily mean less technically developed when concerned with music. If music that is considered by some to be primitive could actually be more advanced in a human spiritual realm, how would we know? Is it within the perception of something that can pass in the blink of an eye that only trained developed listeners are capable of tuning into? Or possibly the knowledge and answers to these questions may be found in a spiritual enlightenment phase where time, because a trance state exists, becomes fluctuated and distorts.

If it takes entering these states to gain a broader understanding, how can a person remember the answers to the questions? Music is capable of many things. Social Issues.

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African Culture. (2019, May 10). Retrieved from