Chasing Waterfalls

If your musical interests extend beyond the industrialized world, you're sure to run into field recordings sooner or later. But that doesn't mean you have to like them. Field recordings are for scholars, obsessives, eccentrics, obscurantists, and pseuds. As resources, realms of knowledge, the musics they preserve are invaluable. But because they're local by definition, their value isn't designed to travel, much less resonate with the unacculturated. Back in the '70s—after living in the Bosavi region of Papua New Guinea for months, becoming fluent in Kaluli dialect and intimate with the many Kaluli songs he heard and recorded—Steven Feld composed and performed and was ultimately moved to tears by his own mourning song for two anthropologist colleagues who'd returned to the States. Only then, he believes, did he begin to get inside the way music felt to the Kaluli themselves. This, Feld suggests, is something all too few ethnomusicologists manage. So how is a simple rock and roller or "world music" fan going to do the trick?

This puzzle hasn't stopped MacArthur laureate Feld from constructing several albums of Kaluli songs and sounds, all author royalties to the Bosavi People's Fund and the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies. And for me and whoever else happens to grok this sliver of the audiosphere, his inconsistency betokens a large mind. As rafts of scholars, pseuds, and Banana Republic customers have demonstrated, you needn't get terribly far inside something to get something out of it; one might even argue that such expectations are puritanical. And so, while remaining unmoved by ethnographic recordings from Indonesia to Nubia to Alabama to Belize, I've connected big time to Smithsonian Folkways' rich and lovely three-CD Bosavi.

Bosavi is a major rain forest in the foothills of the extinct volcano for which it's named, home to 2000 people all told. Twelve hundred of these are Kaluli, who like all Bosavi people sleep communally in scattered longhouses and spend their days fishing, hunting, gardening, and scraping a starchy staple called sago from the wild palms that grow around their homeland's many streams. Or anyway, that's how they lived before white explorers zapped them in 1935. What with Christian missionaries threatening hellfire, governments regulating burial and such, and logging and mining companies tempting their young with money and commodities, things have gotten a lot more complicated. In fact, most of the ceremonial songs on Disc III are nearly extinct in ritual form. Some of these were recent imports, brought in by visiting carriers or relatives from other Bosavi locales. But gisalowas the pride of the Kaluli, and the performance by Halawa on Track 5 took place at the very last all-night gisaloceremony, in 1984. Maybe the ritual will come back—Feld's work has already helped fuel an indigenous neotraditionalist tendency. But it will obviously never be the same.

Ulahi, the Billie Holiday of Melanesia
photo: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Ulahi, the Billie Holiday of Melanesia

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It's impossible to read Feld's Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expressionwithout experiencing this runaway evolution as loss. Here is a tiny people that developed a complex poetic-onomatopoeic grammar for its seven-voweled language (beet, bait, bet, bot, boot, boat, and boughtbut not bite, bit, or but) brimming with bird imitations and water sounds. 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. It's outrageous that Christian evangelicals could treat this culture with the ignorant contempt sketched in the CD booklet—if anything, the superiority lies with the heathens. But does that mean I'm tempted to follow the text of Halawa's gisalo, to which Feld devotes 50 pages?

Unfortunately, but also inevitably, no. 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. So even if a musical tourist were to penetrate the narrative references and subtle grammatical and rhetorical poetics called into play, a bare semblance of emotional connection would be the most he or she could hope for. For me, knowing about all this is fascinating and satisfying enough. And as Feld, who is intensely aware of the contradictions of his calling, understands full well, I would never have gotten that far if the Kaluli—who since white people started watching have devoured musical novelties from as near as eastern Bosavi and as far off as the U.S.A. (they preferred Feld's Sidney Bechet cassette to his Bird cassette, which they found way too fast)—hadn't embraced a new fad: guitar bands.

With their imported instruments, unison vocals, modern-to-Christian concerns, and roots in interlonghouse competitions set up by the government-run regional high school, the guitar bands are the musical manifestation—which in such a sonic culture means the definitive one—of the destruction of everything Feld holds dearest in Kaluli life as well as Kaluli music: "lift-up-over sounding" 's out-of-phase synchronicity, coming-together-within-chaos, self-starting cooperation, participatory discrepancy. At first, he feared and even deplored what the new music represents, but he's made his adjustment. Where the Papua New Guinea name for the style is "string band," the Kaluli call it gita gisalo, linking their pronunciation of "guitar" with their signature genre. In addition to radiating the kind of instant charm that often graces undeveloped guitar musics—low on bass though they may be, their declarative tunes and guileless vocal projection are hard not to like—the 19 guitar-band songs that fill Disc I of Bosavitake up themes of loss and sharing that are consciously Kaluli. Feld also notes that many of the bands are fronted by married couples, and that one performs the first Kaluli song ever about the pervasive practice of wife beating—genuine progress, cash nexus or no cash nexus.

Especially for the first half of the disc, which Feld front-loads like any canny producer, I'm quite taken with this stuff. Compared, say, to the Ugandan guitar songs on the John Storm Roberts-compiled Kampala Sound, the tunes have a sour, mournful undertow, and the male-female leads, synchronized by Kaluli standards, are raggedy around the edges. While not unmitigated virtues, these are marks of character. Like the themes and metaphors I can barely absorb, such idiosyncrasies help make the music Kaluli rather than "world." But Feld is right—in the end, they're not Kaluli enough, and they aren't where I made my connection. My Kaluli breakthrough occurred while I was dutifully checking out Disc II, "Sounds and Songs of Everyday Life."

Bosavi's predecessor was a 10,000-selling 1991 CD Feld coproduced with Mickey Hart, Voices of the Rainforest, which situated Kaluli vocal and instrumental music in an aural collage of birds and insects, rainfall and running water, tree cutting and brush clearing. It was soon followed by two musical soundscape CDs from Central Africa: Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest, which Feld's teacher Colin Turnbull originally put out in 1957 and 1958, and Martin Cradick's Baka Pygmy Heart of the Forest, which lacks Turnbull's subtlety but does include three water drum tracks and the eternal "Nursery Rhyme." Both embodied the central point that forest people live so much by their ears that for them musical sounds occupy the same realm as natural ones, but the records nonetheless continued to foreground music per se—notably the Pygmies' sequentially hocketed singing, lift-up-over sounding if anything is. For me, Voices of the Rainforestburies the music too deep; I actually prefer Feld's musicless Rainforest Soundwalks(EarthEar, 888-356-4918, earthear.com). But Disc II of Bosavigets 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 setup, because then it's star time. Her name is Ulahi, one of Feld's chief advisers and compeers, and though she garnered Voices of the Rainforestmost 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 helayosong for her dead grandmother is as beautiful as any new music I've heard all year. In part this must be because its theory of beauty is so local, so bound up in place. Her helayo, based on a male ritual form that by the late-'70s recording date survived only in women's learned and self-composed work songs, pursues the specifically Kaluli goal of making listeners sentimental about the departed by carefully ordering a list of the sites she or he shared with them. But though this method certainly helps root and shape Ulahi's song, those sites mean nothing to me.

Instead, I'm responding to microtonal variations and developments worked on minimal melody, to a softly burred timbre imbued with thought, to the quietly miraculous liquidity of self-contained vocal production betraying no sense of performance, although performance is highly valued in other Kaluli music. 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.


Robert Christgau can be heard on Voice Radio'sThe Dean's List at villagevoice.com, Tuesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m.

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