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.


  1. Steve Feld is the only academic I know with grant support from the Grateful Dead.

  2. “talk is a primary way of being social”
    Of what culture is this not true?

  3. Well, yes, of course talking is a basic part of being human, but it’s a matter of degree — it sounds like talking is the way you announce yourself, command a situation, achieve your goals, as opposed to (say) striding in wearing an expensive suit, surrounded by flunkies who will beat up or buy off those who oppose you. Valuing verbal skill above physical strength and ruthlessness appeals to me, and I would think it would to you as well, you being a fellow verbalist.

  4. After I studied Yoruba for a few years at Boston U I took up Ewe (Gengbe to be exact, from Togo). I wanted to compare Yoruba to a related Kwa language. What was interesting was that Yoruba society is highly stratified and urban, and you had to learn the vocabulary of political titles such as “King” (each town had a different word/title for thir unique “Oba”) all the way down to things like ” Second under-Gatekeeper of the Eastern Lalupon Gate of Ife”
    Then I started Gengbe. There was really only one word in Gengbe for anybody of political significance: “Big Man” and then “Little Men”. If you wanted to get more specific you switched to French.
    Incidentally, there is a little joke about how dumb Lalupon Gatekeepers can be. The basic point is that they are so uncultured that they can’t even understand drum language.
    A drummer goes to the Lalupon Gate of Ife, and upon seeing the Gatekeeper, drums out the Keeper’s praises. Then, sudedenly the gatekeeper starts beating the drummer. A crowd gathers and pulls him off – you simply don’t beat a drummer for what his drum says, ever… The crowd asks what happened. The Gatekeeper says the drummer insulted him. The drummer says he drummed “Mo jeun imado, mo jeun oge, mo jeun Onibode Lalupon” ( “jeun” means both ‘feed on’ and ‘gain sustainance from’…” I feed on the warthog, I feed on the stork, I gain sustainance from the Gatekeeper of Lalupon.
    But the Gatekeeper heard: “E wenu imado, E wenu oge, E wenu Onibode Lalupon” (“Your face looks like a warthog, your face looks like a stork’s, you have the face of the Gatekeeper of Onibode”)

  5. Gatekeeper of Lalupon jokes are almost as good as Radio Yerevan jokes!

  6. Note that “big men” shouldn’t be conflated with chiefs or kings or other kinds of bureaucrats. The characteristic of big-man society is that the big men have authority but not force. They have to maintain the respect of the neighbors at all times. Consequently, they tend to specialize in persuasion, not orders: they behave like alpha geeks, who also have authority without force.

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