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The Humming of the Bees

Baka people of Cameroon

"The Humming of the Bees" was performed by ten young members of the Baka people in Cameroon, and recorded near the village of Kongulu in 1975. Mando, the name of this song in the native language, describes the noise of bees buzzing around their hive as well as a playful genre of music inspired by that natural sound phenomenon:

"This musical game consists in the weaving of the different voices, imitating the movements in all directions of bees whose flight (for those who follow carefully) seems to draw complicated geometric designs. Thus the song, forming a series of loops endlessly renewed, draws the listener inside a fascinating sound labyrinth."

The incredible richness of this music has been heroically documented in the work of the musicologist Simha Arom, above all in his book African Polyphony and Polyrhythm (first published in French in 1985). He argues that the music of various Central African peoples manifests forms of polyphony (distinct, simultaneously unfolding melodic voices) in the absence not only of musical notation, but also, in many cases, of explicit verbalization: "Even if musicians cannot explain in an abstract manner the rules followed by the music they perform, they are nevertheless bound by specific and complex constraints... Paradoxically, everything is measured but no one counts."

This music is a powerful reminder that musical complexity is not inherently dependent on notationwhich is also true, let it be said, of most music for most of the history of the world. I would go further and suggest that there are also musical phenomena that cannot be notated, or which notation, however sophisticated, can only clumsily approximate. The scriptural paradigm of music empowers one kind of musical memory (externalized, encoded) at the expense of another (ensouled and embodied).

Diagram of social functions of music among the Aka people (from Susanne Fürniss, "Aka Polyphony: Music, Theory, Back and Forth")


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