I recently opened a book I’ve owned for some years, The Matrix of Language: Contemporary Linguistic Anthropology, and started an article called “Hard Words: A Functional Basis for Kaluli Discourse” by Steven Feld and Bambi B. Schieffelin. I was soon riveted by the quick cultural summary at the beginning: “In broad terms, Kaluli society is highly egalitarian, lacking in the ‘big man’ social organization characteristic of the Papua New Guinea Highlands… Kaluli everyday life is overtly focused around verbal interaction. Talk is used as a means of control, manipulation, expression, assertion, and appeal… Kaluli are energetically verbal; talk is a primary way to be social, and a primary indication of social competence.” I liked this very much, being fond of verbality and unfond of “big man” social organization, and read on: about the basic cultural metaphor of ‘hardness’ (used for the process of becoming a grown man, specifically for “fully developed capacity for language,” and for “the development of esthetic tension” in the performance of songs); about the way a mother teaches her infant the language (she “holds her infant so that it faces another child [and] moves the infant as one might a ventriloquist’s dummy, speaking for it in a nasalized falsetto voice [with] speech… well formed and clearly articulated”); and about the way rhetorical questions are used to “focus reaction” and to “prohibit or shame someone who is doing something that is inappropriate.” It all sounded fascinating, and googling around I found the site of a dictionary, Steven Feld’s article on how he moved “From Ethnomusicology to Echo-Muse-Ecology,” Shveta Shah’s piece on the giving and sharing of food, and (most immediately enticing) Robert Christgau’s review of Smithsonian Folkways’ three-CD Bosavi set:
Kaluli deploy (or deployed) a metaphor system based primarily on place names—7000 are cited in the 1000 songs Feld has transcribed—and designed to provoke weeping. Often weeping itself is (or was) literally sung, by women emulating the melodic contours of certain fruitdove calls. Most Kaluli musical terms derive from the vast vocabulary they use to describe waterfalls, as perhaps does the overarching aesthetic Feld translates as “lift-up-over sounding,” in which musical elements are layered in patterns whose apparent imprecision is intrinsic to their lifelike movement…. The place names of Kaluli metaphor compound geographical specificity (“this tree by that creek”) with psychological specificity. They graph unique personal interactions within a topography only Kaluli who’ve roamed Bosavi for decades can comprehend….
Disc II of Bosavi gets the balance just right. Starting with a whoop and a whap and incorporating much yelling, singing, and crashing of timber, “A men’s work group clears a new garden” is as spirited and surprising as any field holler I’ve ever heard. But that’s just the set-up, because then it’s star time. Her name is Ulahi, one of Feld’s chief advisors and compeers, and though she garnered Voices of the Rainforest most of its airplay—the Billie Holiday of Melanesia, Feld calls her—I think she’s far more striking here. Accompanied by the irregular thud of sago preparation, progressively more labored breathing, a squalling baby, and ambient birds and insects, her helayo song for her dead grandmother is as beautiful as any new music I’ve heard all year….
I’m responding to what I can only call pure music. It’s humbling enough to feel at whatever distance that these 1200 “primitives” could have produced such an elaborate aesthetic. It’s doubly humbling to recognize that among the 1200 there’s at least one who’s achieved what we in the West so arrogantly call genius.
I ordered a copy.