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By Alex Shoumatoff

Bamako : A Blues Lover’s Pilgrimage to the Motherland

There is at first glance nothing about Bamako to suggest that it is one of the hottest music spots on the planet. Bamako is the capital of Mali, the parched, land-locked West African country, two thirds of which is in the Sahara desert, which was just ranked by the U.N. Development’s Human Development Agency as the 184th worst country to be living in out of 187, on the basis of its annual per capita income ($350), the mean education level (fourth grade) and average lifespan (49) of its citizens, and the infant mortality rate (119 per 1000).
Bamako has to be one of the world’s most unprepossessing capitals, more like a big village, really, an anarchic collection of bougous, or neighborhoods. During the past decade of severe drought, its population has doubled to a million as villagers have streamed in from the dessicating countryside, and the city has grown swiftly and chaotically.
The bulk of Bamako sprawls up from the right bank of the Niger River to a tiara of tall red cliffs atop which sits the presidential palace. The president, General Amadou Toumani Touré, known as ATT, is widely perceived as someone who is not out for himself and has the best interests of Mali at heart. He led a coup of junior officers that ended the bloody, despotic 23-year rule of General Mousse Traore in l991, and then retired. He didn’t want to be president and only ran eleven years later because the people were clamoring for him, it is said, and won by a landslide, 64% of the vote. As Howard French points out in his new book on Africa, the democratization of Mali is one of the positive recent developments on the entire continent.
Most of Bamako’s structures are single-story, with courtyards where the women cook food on charcoal braziers. There are six main ethnic groups in Mali, with many sub-groups and the Bamana live with the Bamana, the Sangha with the Sangha, the Peulh with the Peulh, in large extended families and clans that take over entire blocks. The toubab, or whites (also known as ferenji), have their own bougous, too– the nicest ones, of course– with bougainvillea dripping over their walled, guarded compounds.
I am staying in a new luxury hotel called the Kampinski El Farouk. The glassy green Niger slides past my window, on its way up to Timbuctu. The downtown is a five-minute walk, so I set out to find the money-changers. Within a hundred and fifty yards blaring Cuban son, Jamaican rap, and bluesy-sounding ballads in Bambara (the language of the Bamana, Mali’s largest ethnic group), are competing for my ears. No music evolves in isolation any more, I reflect. Fusion is happening all the time. The music of Africa and the Americas has crossed and back-crossed and hybridized so many times that is no longer possible to identify what exactly comes from where. But there is a widespread perception that the music known as the blues, which emerged in the Afro-American South in the l890’s and fathered jazz and rock n’roll, and is so infectious and cathartic that it is the world’s dominant popular music form, originated here, in Mali. This perception has been reinforced by a recent seven-part PBS series on the blues, which begins in Mali; and by such cross-cultural collaborations as Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toure’s Talking Timbuctu and Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabete’s Kulanjan, and the anthology album, From Memphis to Mali. Whatever the truth of it is, there is a lot of great music in Mali that has little or nothing to do with the blues, as I soon find out, entering the labyrinthine central market, which takes up most of the downtown, flowing out of buildings, across streets, spilling into alleys and courtyards. Every few yards a different blaster is playing a different cd or cassette, the stars of whatever part of Mali the person manning the next stall is from. The haunting melodies and intricate rhythms of Wassoulou, Mandinke, bogolon, and a host of other styles mingle with the steady low hum, punctuated with periodic eruptions of laughter, of people bartering with each other in mutually unintelligible languages. The visual assault is no less riotous : the thirty kinds of mango that that are grown in Mali are on display with the protocubist wood sculptures of the Dogon cliffdwellers, who live along a 100-mile-long escarpment upcountry; the dazzling, boldly patterned tissus that the women wrap themselves in; the sumptuous turquoise or green or yellow boubous, or frocks, that the men wear. My head is swimming in the joyous hullabaloo. Is this one of the world’s poorest countries, I wonder, or one of the richest? Perhaps the fact that there is so little for anyone to make off with is a blessing in disguise.
It is certainly one of the calmest and safest countries in Africa, or anywhere, and one of the few where Americans are still liked. This is because many families have a member living in Queens or some other Malian enclave in the States who is sending home money, and because the French, whose heavy-handed colonization is not remembered fondly, are so hated. With the national unemployment rate at 60%, there’s a huge pool of people who don’t have to get to work in morning, so they party in the city’s numerous clubs, which are hopping till three a.m. most days of the week and have names like the Bozo Club and the Bla-Bla Club (named not for empty chatter, but a town in the interior) and are like juke-joints in the American South in the twenties. Bonnie Rait, who made the blues pilgrimage to Mali in 1999, compared them to Texas roadhouses.

THE CHAIN OF EVENTS that has brought me here begins in l961, when I was fifteen and incarcerated in an exclusive all-boys prep school in New Hampshire (St. Paul’s—the same one John Kerry went to). We were allowed to go into town on Wednesday afternoon, and on one of these trips I bought a record of a black country blues singer from North Carolina called Pink Anderson. There was a photo of him on the cover, an old black man with a strong, kindly face, standing with his guitar in bib overalls on the porch of his shack.
I connected immediately with Anderson’s raw, lacerated voice and his throbbing, searing guitar-picking. As the sixties progressed, a lot of other white middle-class American kids had similarly powerful reactions to the blues, perhaps because we, too, were culturally eviscerated. As Alan Lomax writes in The Land Where the Blues Began, his l992 book about the recordings he made for the Library of Congress in the Mississippi Delta during the thirties and forties : “All of us… are beginning to experience the melancholy dissatisfaction that weighed upon the hearts of the black people of the Delta… feelings of anomie and alienation, of orphaning and rootlessness, the sense of being a commodity rather than a person; the loss of loved ones and of family and of place—this modern syndrome was the norm for the cotton farmers and the transient laborers of the Deep South a hundred years ago… Rage and anxiety pervade the emotions and the actions of both the haves and the have-nots. And the sound of the worried blues of the old Delta is heard in back alleys and palaces, alike.”
I decided I had to learn how to play this music, and the next time I was in New York City, I went to Manny’s, the musical-instrument emporium on 48th street and bought myself an eighty-dollar, bottom-of-the-line Epiphone steel-string guitar. Then went I down to the Folkore Center in Greenwich Village, a one-room operation presided over by a man named Izzy Young, where Bob Zimmerman, soon to become Bob Dylan, and other unknown musicians were hanging out and trading licks. I asked Young who could teach me how to play the country blues guitar, and Young sent me up to Harlem, to a blind old man named the Reverend Gary Davis, who was living with his wife in a shack behind a row of condemned buildings [see my Rolling Stone profile of him in the Music From Many Lands section of Past Dispatches]. Davis was one of the legendary masters of country blues, ragtime, and gospel fingerpicking. He had made some amazing “race” records in the thirties (the artists were paid with a bottle of whiskey), but these were long forgotten, and he was playing in the street and in the numerous storefront revival churches in the neighorhood. Soon he would be rediscovered. Peter, Paul, and Mary sang one of his songs, followed by the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, and Hot Tuna, and he and Annie were able to buy a little house in Jamaica, Queens, where I visited them every chance I could until his death in l973.
Davis became my guitar teacher, and one of the three or four most influential people in my life. The first tune he taught me was not a blues, but a haunting spiritual that was from a much older tradition. As in much of his music, you can hear echoes of Africa. 42 years later, I’m still trying to play the tunes he taught me, and lately, in Montreal, I’ve been doing them with a saxophonist named Jody Golick. Jody has a fabulous collection of Malian music; he spent two months in Bamako in l994. Every once in a while, when he plays me a cut from one of his cassettes or c.d.’s, I’ll hear a lick or a riff that is strongly reminiscent of Gary Davis. This is not surprising. Lomax recorded polyphonic fife and drum bands in the Deep South that were completely African (even though they were playing popular numbers from the Twenties like “After the Dance is Over”), and he discovered that “black African nonverbal performance traditions had survived virtually intact in African America.” Davis was one of the last living links to these traditions. So I decided to go to Mali and see how his music went over with the local musicians.
January and February were some of the most bitter cold months Montreal had had in years, and Jody and I got through it by jamming and listening to Malian music and jazz in the afternoons. I would send him e-mails like :

Can we say that Africa music is polyphonic, the same chord of melodic sequence is played over and over again hypnotically, joined by other instruments and voices chorically, antiphonally, syncopatically, until a dense polyphonic loop is created, while Western music is monophonic, following a single melody line that is more complex and follows a progression of chords and harmonies ?

To which he answered :

African polyphony works through a collection of rhythmic and melodic interlocking sequences or loops (called by theorists ‘ostinati,’ singular ‘ostinato’). Loops can be of different metres and lengths but all are based on a strict, often unstated, underlying rhythmic pulse. The resulting polyphony can be extremely complex and sophisticated and very difficult for the uninitiated listener to parse. For a Western musician the challenge is not learning a part, which may be fairly straightforward, but learning where to come in, which can be incredibly tricky and counterintuitive. Patterns seem to move in and out as they shift against each other, sort of like the famous Necker cube. When African music moves from traditional context to popular context it sheds complexity.
(In my opinion) there are two uniquely African contributions to Western music. 1) the polyphonic approach to organization which gave us the modern pop rhythm sound with bass and drums and especially backbeat. Also the 12/8, three-against-four metres that run through American music (e.g. the shuffle, the hiphop beat). 2) the metronomic approach to rhythmic pulse which made it swing.

It was mid-March when I got to Bamako. The weather was perfect, 80 degrees and bone-dry during the day, and the night cooled down to just the right temperature for sleeping. In a few months the ground temperature would hit 110.

Having swapped some greenbacks for Central African francs, I flagged a cab to Mali Cassette in Quizimbougou, where I loaded up on cassettes of Habib Koite (a fabulous Mande singer/guitarist who comes from a family of griots ), Salif Keita (an albino from a noble Mande family who broke taboos and became a professional musician and Bamako’s most progressive, out-of-the-box artist), and my new discovery but a veteran of the scene, Boubacar Traoré. On the counter was a weekly broadsheet listing who was playing where. Whatever you want to call it, the music of Mali is some of the most beautiful on earth. I am listening now (in Montreal, a year later) to Mali, a cd of singer/kora player Seckou Keita. Music doesn’t get any sweeter. Habib Koite came to Montreal this winter and heated up the place for a few nights at Kola Note, a club on the Avenue du Parc. If you ever get the chance to hear him live, don’t miss it.

That evening I went to the Hogan Club, where Toumani Diabete, a master of the kora (the twenty-one-stringed harp with a calabash for a sounding box), plays regularly, but that night some college students had commandeered it for a disco dance. They invited me to join them, but I was looking for Toumani and found him at a large open-air club called the Espace Bouna, which cost three dollars to get into. This was too steep for most Malians, and the audience was comprised of the elite, with a smattering of expats.
Toumani comes from a family of Bamana griots, or djele, as they are called– the oral historians and praise-singers of West Africa like the one in the Gambia from whom Alex Haley learned about his ancestor, Kunta Kinte. He says he is the 71th generation of kora players in his family. His father, Sidaki Diabaté, who died in l994, was known as the King of the kora; his grandfather taught the instrument at the University of Washington; and his twelve-year-old son is already spending so much time on his kora that he is neglecting his studies. I understood the fascination, how mastering this instrument becomes your life, when Toumani started playing, his two first fingers weaving delicate, ethereal, incredibly rapid and intricate arpeggios and tremolos on the two rows of strings, while his thumbs plucked alternating base lines. The kora is typically tuned diatonically (the white keys of the piano), to C major, but there is a mode of playing C major Toumani kept slipping into called the Dorian pentatonic (you leave out the fourth so that it can be played in either major and minor modes) that can give it a bluesy feel, if you want it to.
After the show I introduced myself to Toumani and gave him news and fond greetings from Jody Golick and Banning Eyre, PBS’s Afropop correspondant and the author of In Griot Time : An American Guitarist in Mali, the essential text for anyone interested in the music and the music scene. I told him that I had played with Taj Majal (we had a great jam for three hours in a music store in Berekley in l970. I walked in and he was playing some fantastic old-time country blues number, and we started playing and played all afternoon, then I left and I only then did I realize it was Taj.) Toumani is a very generous man, and a few minutes into our conversation he said, “What are you staying in a hotel for ? Come to my place.” So I moved to a room on the second floor of his house in the laid-back bougou of Bajala 3, sharing the hall with a dreadlocked percussionist from the Gambia living in Denmark (this was his first time back to Africa in seven years and he was “so glad to get out of that bomboclat place”); a young guitarist from Birmingham (this was his first time away from home and his loneliness was compounded by malaria); and a music writer from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, who had a deep appreciation and understanding of West African music and her Senegalese fiancé. Toumani is a big man in Bamako, and the bigger you are in Africa, the bigger your entourage. Several dozen Malians, young and old, related and not, were also living in the house. Most of them spent the day sitting in chairs out on street, moving from one side to other, depending on where the sun was. In the evening koras were brought out, and I jammed with them on my little traveling guitar until it came time to watch the Brazilian telenovela that everyone was immersed in and a television was set up on the sidewalk.
Every afternoon Toumani would appear in his Lexus with a steaming tub of rice and meat and vegetables, and we would all sit in the courtyard and eat together from it with our fingers. Then he and his entourage would go into a special room and pray, clearing out whatever impure thoughts and deeds might have arisen since the last time they prayed, a few hours before. The prayers sounded like the chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks. It was a beautiful scene. Rarely in my travels have I been welcomed with such warmth and hospitality. “Toumani opens his doors to everyone, and Allah opens his doors to him,” one of the elders told me.
Toumani had no trouble getting into “Candy Man,” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” or “Twelve Gates to the City”– the Gary Davis tunes that I picked for him. “We speak the same language,” he said.
But the precise transcultural process that produced the blues is impossible to reconstruct, because there is a two-hundred-year gap between the emergence of the genre in the American South cut and the arrival of the first slaves, and because the blues has returned to Africa and cross-fertilized with the indigenous music repeatedly, along with other music from the diaspora like Cuba rumba and son, Jamaican calypso and reggae, and Brazilian samba. But the echoes are unmistakable, and they are in the pentatonic scale (the black keys of the piano), which blues and much of Mali’s music are in, and in 12/8 shuffle-hiphop rhythm or the five-beat African clave (the ”Bo Diddley” or “shave-and-a haircut—two bits”) beat.
One night I went to the Matignon, a funky local dive with couples writhing slowly in the darkness and a torrential rain pouring through holes in the roof, and heard Jimi Jakob and his band, Afuni, whose members came from three countries, infusing r & b and soul classics like Stevie Wonder’s “I just called to say I love you,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” with their own West African soulfulness. Another night I went to a very pleasant and presentable restaurant called El Torre to hear a group from the Ivory Coast called the Go girls, who had been rehearsing at Toumani’s. They sang lustily in five languages and ethnic styles : in bete and ziglibiti rhythm, from the Ivory Coast; Malenke, wolof from Senegal; sorai from northern Mali, around Timbuctu; sousou from Guinea.
Another night I went to the Jembe Club to hear Lobi Traoré, who plays what sounds like straight, hard-driving, proto-Howlin’ Wolf blues but is actually Bambara music from Segou, the capital of old Bamana empire, five hours north of Bamako, which is where Lobi is from. Most of Lobi’s songs are not about a broken heart but are devotional songs to Allah. So this is an important point : the pentatonic is not inherently bluesy. In a particular cultural and emotional context, it becomes the blues. There is eighth-century Taoist zither music from China that is meditation music, although it sounds a lot like delta blues.
I had met Ali Farka Touré, Mali’s most famous artist, at Mali Cassette, which he is part owner of. Sixty-six now, he spends most of his time on his farm in Nyafunke, up near Timbuktu. Touré was really duded out, in a blue suit with a blue hat and a blue-and-yellow flowered shirt, like a Malian John Lee Hooker, with whom he toured on the European world in the Sixties. But he took exception to his music being called blues. A lot of good-time Malian dance music is in the pentatonic. “We don’t have the blues,” he told me. “We aren’t sick. This word blues is for doctors of musicology—and nurses. The word blues doesn’t exist in Africa. The translation is African music. Our music has been modernized with European instruments and there has been some Western influence. But the big influence is our tradition.”
Toumani’s fantastic guitarist, Fantamady Kouyaté, and I recorded a gospel-highlife fusion song of mine called “One Morning Soon” that is posted on my Web site, Fantamady’s inspired gleaming electric-guitar runs, which give the major rumba chord progression a moody, bluesy, Malian feel, were simply his response to the feelings he got from my singing and playing. He didn’t understand the English lyrics, yet he commented on them with exquisite sensitivity and passion. Toumani invited me to come back next winter and make a record with him. “But I’m not anywhere as good a musician as you are,” I said. “What’s important is that the music comes from the heart,” he told me.
“You always know you have a family here,” he said as we embraced and I got in the cab.
On the plane home, returning with my musical horizons expanded in ways that I’ll be working on for years to come, the Muse came over me and gave me these lines :

If you’ve never been to Bamako,
Maybe it’s about time for you to go.
You’ll never know what’s in store
For you in Bamako
If you don’t show
You’ll be glad you did
and heavy-hearted when it’s time to go.

Back in Montreal, Kate McGarrigle, one of the legendary McGarrigle sisters, and Borza Gomeshi, who has a studio in the Laurentians, have digitally remastered my low-fidelity recording of Fantamady’s soaring solos into a coherent and beautiful bed-track, and I have laid down the vocals of “One Morning Soon.” Now we need some percussion and a bass and other instruments. It will be some day, inshallah, part of a cd with my music and songs called “Suitcase on the Loose.” (Sample lyrics : “I’m a stateless suitcase/ a weightless suitcase/a loveless and a hateless suitcase/ I’m a suitcase on the loose/ that’s seen a lot of use/ flying by the seat of my pants, catch as catch catch/I’m just trying to keep one town ahead of the re’po man.”)

Allen Evans, who has put out a recording of choice Gary Davis performances on his own recherché label, World Arbiter, sent me another of his cd’s, of the above-mentioned eight-century Taoist meditation music played on a zither tuned to the pentatonic. It sounds uncannily like Blind Willie Johnson, although emotionally neutral, completely cerebral [maybe, as an outsider, you can’t resonate emotionally the way a native listener would]. Allen speculated that the pentatonic originated in China and made its way west to the Ottoman Empire and from there with the slave trade to North Africa, where the New World slave trade disseminated throughout the Americas. But after seeing the extraordinary documentary on the wanderings of the gypsies, and how their music adapted to each country they reached, “Latcho Drom,” I think it is more likely that it originated in Rajasthan, India, with the people who became the gypsies and took it west across the Middle East and Europe to Spain, where it became flamenco and from there fused with the Moorish/Arabic music of North Africa, producing the proto-blues of Mali. The westward migration of the pentatonic is something I would like to write a book on some day.
But Jody argues that the pentatonic is everywhere. This is true. It is in pre-Colombian pan-pipes in the Andes, where it appears to have arisen independently, without diffusion, unless as some think it crossed the Pacific from Polynesia. The reason it is everywhere, he maintains, is because of acoustics, the physics of music. The octave breaks up into five harmonic steps which every ear, regardless of what culture it is in, hears. Maybe he is right. And this scale, in its many variations, sometimes produces and is the expression of a melancholy state of mind. [True of some pentatonic modes but not others.] The same or a similar sequence of notes produces analagous emotions in every culture. [A big claim to make …] That is why Toumani feels a complete affinity with the huaynos of the Peruvian Andes, the most famous of which is El Condor Passa. Music is truly the universal language, as Pythagoras and countless people after him have pointed out. But this doesn’t rule out the possibility that there is an ancient connection between the music of Rajasthan and that of Mali, via the gypsies, that the origin of the blues is really in India, if you take it back far enough. [Some hypotheses of cognitive evolution see music as a precursor to language. So maybe the origins of the blues are with early African hominins… It’s purely speculative and no one will ever know.]
The guitar is thought to have evolved from the stringed instruments of North Africa, but the most unquestionably bona fide African instrument in North America is the banjo. And yet it is almost only played by whites. (Gary Davis played a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar that he called a “gitjo.” I have one of his custom-made gitjos. And Taj Majal plays very rootsy southern country bluesy banjo, but there aren’t many others). The explanation for this is that the banjo was played in the minstrel shows on the plantations of the old South that the slaves put on for the masters, and the minstrel show was later appropriated by white musicians in black-face, and the banjo became not cool for blacks to play and a virtuoso instrument for white country musicians like Earl Scruggs. The Grand Old Opry is an Anglo-American metamorphosis of the minstrel show, and in bluegrass, too, you can also pick up distant echoes of Mali.

A distilled version of this ran in the December, 2004 issue of Travel & Leisure.

Postscript :
I sent this to Jody and he e-mailed me back : “I’m not crazy about ‘the universal language’ cliché. I don’t think music is very like language. Music is a human ‘universal.’ But the experience of a piece of music by a cultural insider versus a cultural outsider will never be the same. You and I will never experience Malian music quite the way a Malian does. What is universal is that music always evokes by entraining parts of brain and body. The wonder is how this entrainment evokes such a powerful emotional response. I don’t believe it’s a mystery, but I do think it’s wonderful.”
A few days later, we went together to McGill to hear a talk called “The Cognitive Nature of Music,” by a professor at Tufts named Jamahed Bharucha. Montreal is a mecca for the study of music as a major brain function, Dr. Bharuca said. Everybody likes music. The question is why ? How much of the response is from learning, how much is innate ?
I am aware that I have cognitive limitations when it comes to music, particularly to performing it. I don’t keep the beat and I don’t have a natural sense of pitch and sometimes sing off-key. My performance depends entirely on my energy level and state of mind. I am not a good listener. Listening skills are not one of my endowments. Perhaps I am a little deaf. I am like the glukhar, a bird that my grandfather hunted in Old Russia, as recounted in Russian Blood (posted in Past Dispatches). This bird had the unfortunate trait of becoming deaf when it was singing, so you could sneak up on it and blow it away.
My father’s hearing was the first of his senses to go. He had to wear a hearing aid at the end. So perhaps this is hereditary. But Pa was an accomplished classical pianist. So I wonder if I had had some formal training in music and played with more people over the years, would I still have these limitations ? A lot of it is a matter of practice, just playing something over and over until it becomes unconscious.
Dr. Bharuca talked about the pioneering work of D.O. Hebb on what is now called Hebbian learning, the sort that takes places in the brain. There are two layers of neurological networks. The second recognizes combinations of units in the first. Hebbian learning is the strengthening of connections between active-input units. “Winning units” are pattern or feature cluster detectors.
The domain of music is very constrained. Most pop music has only three chords. Through cultural lenses we recognize chords as part of the training regimen. We activate recognition of similar chords, tones not heard but expected. A probe tone is defined by how well it fits into a context. When the subjects of Dr. Bharuca’s test report a probe tone, they are reporting activation of the automatic computational neural process. The reaction time is one way to test expectation. The context primes or activates the most expected tones. These are consonant tones, as opposed to dissonant tones.
The D chord is more often associated with the C chord in Western cultures because there are a lot of shared frequencies, shared notes. How much is expectation based on spectral similarity and how much on cultural norm ? The speed of Westerners’ reaction time from C to D is a cultural norm, and from C to E is a spectral similarity. Reaction speed is affected by contextual identity, the distance between notes, and asymmetry, the replacing of one chord with another that is out of key. Schematic activation takes place when people embedded in a culture are navigating a musical environmental and hear things that are normal. When a dissonance, an asymmetry, occurs, they activate special resources, like attention. There are schematic versus veridical expectations. You can’t violate an expectation if you don’t have one. This produces what is known as a deceptive cadence. Even if you know a culturally suprising event is coming, it is still surprising and cognitively impenetrable.
Is there neural evidence of schematic knowledge of key relationships ? [i.e. is the pentatonic scale inscribed in the brain, the way Chomsky says the dative case is ]
When there is a change of key, does the brain have this implicit knowledge ? We all have activation in the prefrontal cortex, the orbitofrontal gyrus where schematic learning is going on. There are tone-sensitive surfaces called voczals (if I got this correct) where pitch invariants are represented. Absolute or “perfect” pitch without a reference pitch very few can activate, but we all have relative pitch, pitch invariance which is comparable to visual invariance (we all see what is out there in more or less the same way, although we may process it differently, due to cultural and psychological, physiological and cognitive differences). Different cells respond to translational invariance. The major and minor modes are pitch invariant, as are the ancient Greek modes, and the modes of Indian thats and ragas. In the key of C, if you hear F# instead of F, there is an ambiguity whether it is in the key of G or a tritone. F# will be heard as dissonant or unexpected at first, but over time it will effect a key change. There is cross-cultural learning. In the West only major and minor modes exist. But the ancient Greeks’ music was in other modes, and in India you have thats, ragas, kari, todi, bairar, flatted seconds. On the sitar, you can’t change key, but you can change mode. (the same with the kora. or sort of. Though Toumani is tuned to C Major he plays many, or most, songs in F Major but it’s a funny Malian-sounding F major because of the B natural – ie, F Lydian). Can we simulate the ancient Greek or the Indian brain ? (Here the recent study of birdsong at Berkeley seems relevant : the calls are genetic, but the songs are learned).
The gestalt perception of music is that in most musical scenarios we hear the tone as a unified object, but there are multiple levels of representation and attention levels. We can consciously select (or unconsciously) because of our limited capacity for attention. Some abstract patterns are perceived as fused. The tonal centers have a mapping function, translating from absolute to relative.

Over coffee, Jody explains that the circle of fifths is everywhere, because it has to do with the physics of sound (the standard work on this, Science and Music by British physicist Sir James Jeans, written 1938 and still in print), of the frequencies of sound that a column of air makes as it moves through a tube.
Let’s take the note A 220 (cycles per second or Hertz) – A below Middle C – as our starting pitch, or fundamental. Doubling the frequency is the same as fretting a string dead center. 440 cycles per second is perceived as an A an octave above our starting note. Tripling our original frequency to 660 cycles per second (like fretting a string a third of the way along and plucking the short bit) results in the note E a fifth above our second pitch. Thus just as a frequency ratio of 2:1 always produces an octave, a frequency ratio of 3:2 (in this case 660:440) always produces an interval of a fifth. That’s all you need to make a pentatonic scale. Four intervals of a fifth produces the 5 notes of the pentatonic scale. A E B F# C#; or when transposed to a single octave, A B C# E F# : 1 2 3 5 6 of a major scale.]
The pentatonic scale is derived from the first few notes in the harmonic series, so it, too, is everywhere. The octave is divided into five unequal parts : tone, tone, tone and a half, tone and a half. For instance, the inangha, or zither of Rwanda and Burundi, has seven strings tuned to G major pentatonic, G E D B A G E. The fifths over several octaves are compressed into one. One tune keeps repeating, as the ostinato, A G E, just like delta blues. What makes it blues is not the notes, but the temperament in which they are played. The feeling is not in the notes. To say that major is happy and minor is sad is simplistic. It’s all in the inflection and the context.

Not only the performer, but the listener determines the effect of a piece of music. I realized that part of why I keep hearing the same or similar sequence of notes producing the same or similar emotions in whatever culture I am going to is because I am looking for this. I am looking for and projecting familiar referents that may not be there, or exaggerating their existence, as part of easing myself into an unfamiliar setting. “Why, this is just like…” Just an anthropologist projects the thesis he brings with him into the field on to the people he is studying, unconsciously selecting the traits that support it and ignoring the ones that contradict it. Jody explained that “patterns we know are well worn neural structures. In unfamiliar music we perceive familiar patterns. They may or may not correspond to patterns the native listener perceives. They need not evoke similar emotion. I tend to hear rhythmic units of bars in nearly all music whether or not the original performer thinks the same way. Is it analysis or perception? All perception subsumes unconscious analysis. The results of some of that analysis presents as emotion.”
So what is universal about music is that the notes are basically the same. The differences are in the mode and mood in which they are played. Some of the differences are cultural, others individual. Is this it then ? We’d love to hear from readers– producers and consumers of music.

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