Saturday, 14 April 2018

M is for Music...Motherese...and...Motive...

is for

Massive! - loads to say today! Firstly, here is the late South African diva Miriam Makeba with Malaika -

There is much sound and fury around the authorship of this ultra-famous 40’s East African song of ill-starred love. The earliest recording was by Fadhili Williams though most people are now of the view that it was written by Adam Salim in 1945, a not-so-famous Tanzanian song-writer who at the time lived in Nairobi. The lyrics are simple, particularly the melody is quite unforgettably haunting. I heard it first in my teens and didn’t have a clue about the meanings (no YouTube, A-Z lyrics and translations then!) but loved it instantly. And all these decades later, it can “still take me back where my memories remain” – no mean thing.

A whole legion of artistes have covered it, including later singers from East Africa (Mombasa Roots) and West Africa (Angelique Kidjo), well naturally. However, covers are not only restricted to Africa, artistes right around the world – from India (Lata Mangeshkar, Usha Uthup) and Germany/Caribbean (Boney M) and US (Harry Belafonte, The Brothers Four) sung it through the 70’s and 80’s. It’s eternally popular – I heard it performed live in two restaurants in Kenya during my visit last year. Talk about earworms! and classics.

And coming back to the 21st century, here is the West African vocalist Eneida Marta, who sings in Portuguese/Creole, with a super-lilting number - 

Also a quick mention of Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi (1952-) since we are on the subject, a famous Zimbabwean musician who, apart from being a vocalist and guitarist, is a social activist, businessman, educator, philanthropist and one of the most recognised African cultural icons. He is the UNICEF goodwill ambassador for the southern Africa region. Take a listen to him -

And if you are in a hurry today, this is where I suggest we say goodbye, for I am about to get into a Megaramble about Music…

Music and its Million-year origins - If modern humans evolved in Africa and they spent the longest part of their time on Earth there, then isn’t it logical that music too started right there in Africa? Many scientists and palaeoanthropologists think exactly that. Because music certainly predates language, we know humans respond to tonal variations and inflections even when there are no words accompanying. The first musical instruments were likely the human voice box and the hands clapped together.

As every parent knows, making music is a universal human characteristic, babies sing and dance without any formal training, even before they have completely mastered speech. Humans, even those who can’t sing themselves, still respond to music. All cultures, even the most isolated ones, have some form of it. Music pervades every aspect and every social context of human life - birth, courtship, wedding, death, feasts and fasts, there’s music to mark/express every emotion – leading to the conclusion that ancestral humans acquired that ability pretty early on, while they were still in Africa and then took it along with them as they dispersed throughout the world.

Recent fossil findings indicate that the hominin larynx or the voice box dropped to a lower position as compared to other primate species during evolution. They also show that the shape of the hyoid bone, a unique bone we have in the throat, the only bone not connected to any other, changed slightly as the voice box descended. And these – the drop in the larynx, coupled with the changed hyoid, slight but hugely powerful changes, are what make speech and singing, the extraordinary vocal range of humans, possible. Without this unique hyoid, it’d be limited to a few hoots and yells, that’s what our evolutionary cousins the chimps do.

Archaeologists have lately found this fragile hyoid bone of some hominin fossils – the Neanderthals and the Homo heidelbergensis – and they are the exact same shape as ours, the modern humans. That pegs the potential ability for singing to about 530,000 years ago.

The larynx is made up of soft tissue so leaves no fossil records, sadly. However, as the larynx drops the shape of the base of the skull changes subtly to accommodate it. Researchers examining 1.8 million years old hominin skulls have surmised from their shape that they too, might have had the lower voice boxes that is typical of musical ability.

But wait, just having a voice box capable of singing doesn’t mean bursting into song, now does it? When did they actually sing? What about some other evidence, like musical instruments? If the hominins were making music those many years ago, then how come there are no remnants lying around? Enough stone tools and blades and stuff exist, so why not some prehistoric strings or drums?

Unfortunately, just like the human larynx, musical instruments are made from fragile, organic, degradable materials, unlike stone blades, so their preservation rates are pretty poor. So far, the oldest instruments found are some Neanderthal bone flutes in various parts of Europe, dated to about 43,000 - 44,000 years ago. They are fragmentary, and much controversy surrounds them as to whether they are flutes or chewed up bones with puncture marks from a carnivore’s fangs. From my ignorant layman’s point of view, the holes are too suspiciously round, equal sized, and regularly spaced to be made by an animal, so I’m going firmly with the bone flute camp!

While it’s clear that Africa is where the first music happened, the accompaniments to those early songs have not yet been discovered. Maybe they were just stones banged together, or wooden sticks clapped to keep the beat. It’s not easy to recognise them for what they are when located on archaeological sites. Even pots and pans can be clanged together to make music, which is what the ancient instrument ghatam, in India, is. So maybe we’ll find the prehistoric African instruments someday, maybe we’ll not.

The Mystery of the Motive? -The other intriguing question about music origins is – why? Why do humans sing and make music and dance at the drop of a hat? What’s the advantage, in evolutionary terms?

There are several theories…

The first take is that it helped develop ‘motherese.’ In all societies, mothers speak to babies in a singsongy, higher pitched voice. The human baby is born much more developmentally immature than the other animals and is dependent for a long time. There are of course sound evolutionary reasons for this – humans have grown a much larger brain, and if a baby were to be born with a larger head than it does, it would be quite lethal for the mother. Therefore a large part of its development is completed outside the womb.

To compensate for this dependence, an extra strong mother-child bond is essential, and motherese cements that. The human baby ‘knows’ its mother from early on. Consider this – the human foetus can hear in the womb pretty early on. The baby hears its mother’s heartbeat and her voice, and once it is out can recognise her voice. As I’ve said before, music started with mothers crooning to soothe the baby.

Another idea is that singing evolved as the ancestral human clans became bigger and bigger in size. Most animals that live in groups – zebras, monkeys, gorillas – groom each other. This cements the groups together, tightening bonds between members. Picking off nits or whatever from another member is a time consuming process, possible when there are say 15 members in the clan. But what happens when that expands to 150? How does the social fabric hold? Voila – singing! A community activity that can accommodate any number of members. Thus singing evolved as a kind of social glue.

A third take is that music serves no biological purpose whatsoever.  It is, as Steven Pinker, a renowned psychologist put it, just ‘auditory cheesecake’- fun, but not essential for survival of the species. Many scientists still agree.

Bottomline - the jury is still out on this one, and much frenzied and furious research is ongoing. As for me, I’m going with the motherese camp, though the social glue bit is also quite convincing. What do you think?

From the Safaris

~ Thank you for watching! ~

Books n Stuff

Micere Mugo (1942 -) is a writer, poet, social activist, feminist and teacher, born in Kenya but exiled due to her activism in 1982. She has lived in different countries in Africa and is currently resident in USA where she teaches in Syracuse University. Listen to her as she introduces herself and defines who she is in the following clip:

Thank you for your patience and extraordinary fortitude! :-)

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2018


  1. M is for Magic. I do love Meandering through your posts and taking away things to Muse on later.
    Music is not only our first language it is often our last. I spoke to a woman whose husband had severe dementia. He no longer recognised her or spoke. But he did sing if a familiar tune was played.

    1. How true! My grandmother spent the last five years of her life in a minimally conscious state, she responded only when her sons, my uncles, sang to her.

  2. Hari OM
    Well tackeled!!! Motherese does hold some validity for the starts of tonal sound... but I think that 'music' as such is a cultural development, which would pertain to the societal glue theory... whatever; music moves the spirit and am glad we have it! YAM xx

  3. M is for Magnificent Maze of Massive world - music, mysteries of origin, motives, and Mugo. What an impressive woman. She reminded me of America's Maya Angelou (and that's a compliment) - so classy, so knowing, so talented, and indeed a woman of the world.
    Well done M

    1. Ya, both have the ability to touch something within us

  4. Yes, that song takes me back to memories too. One Christmas in the mid 1960s, my mother got several of Miriam Makeba's albums and this was one of the songs. We played them constantly that Christmas break. I must have been a college freshman. Beautiful.

    1. I think she had a dozen albums out in the 60's in US - ties in. She was, and is still, an African icon and a trailblazer.

  5. Hi Nila - I'm coming back to this ... so much here - I love Makeba from my South African days ... but actually the music of Africa is special ... and your special on sound preceding voice ... so true - cheers Hilary

    1. Agree totally- it's very special and touches me in a most fundamental way, without any understanding of the lyrics..

  6. Beautiful music, Nila. Some names I recognise even! The music of Africa is definitely special.

    1. Both Oliver and Miriam are very well known as you say

  7. Megafauna is a new word for me and I love it! Awesome, descriptive word.

    Emily In Ecuador | Mototaxis - Second Most Popular Way to Get Around Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

  8. Music is certainly something that most humans innately love, either listening or taking part it in. We tap our feet to a beat without even noticing. We hum tunes absently when we're doing other things.

    Sophie's A to Z - Ghostly Inspirations

    1. True, rhythm always evokes a response even in the most unmusical person.

  9. Fascinating thoughts on music's beginnings and development. I think the whole "motherese" theory, which I was previously unfamiliar with, has a lot of merit.

    And you should have seen me, huddled by the library computer, with the volume turned wayyyy down, so I could hear "Malaika."

    1. Both motherese and social glue make sense to me, the auditory cheesecake bit doesn' should carry emergency earphones :)

  10. Listening to Malaika was a beautiful way to round off my weekend. I'll go for that auditory cheesecake anytime. www.


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