Angelique Kidjo

A quick easy post this morning to bring my musical thread to the local here and now. We watched an Austin City Limits this weekend featuring Angelique Kidjo, a singer from Benin fluent in several languages including one of her own devising.  We saw her live a few years back after hearing her collaboration with Christian McBride, a brilliant jazz bass player.  Several things stand out from that concert.  It is an accepted tradition in her native land for fathers to sell their daughters as brides; the more talented and beautiful she is, the larger the price received. Ms. Kidjo said her father had been offered a lot of money for her when she was still a girl and he had refused, saying his children were not for sale.  It is important to remember that women and children are still considered chattel by some in many parts of the world.  She eventually emigrated to France where she obtained further training and experience in a variety of genres.  She sings a very hot French cabaret style when she wants in addition to her more African styles.  And she can dance. I have previously here quoted her saying that joy is possibility, a great truth across disciplines.

She continues to treasure her village tradition of singing and music as a communal activity so that she engages the audience throughout every concert and ends by bringing as many as will fit on stage to dance and sing along with her. And she reminds us that we are all African, that our genetic heritage originates there.  I love it.


Angelique Kidjo photographed by J. Vines

Watching her on TV I remembered watching her live and thinking, Some are born to sing and then there are some sent here to sing.  She is one of those, like Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton or Tom Jones and others.  Some artists, some performers bring us art as a force of nature, and I consider myself oh so very fortunate to have seen some of these in my lifetime.  Thank you, Ms. Kidjo.

Ah, humanity

Back in the 1890s one of the more popular entertainments was attending lectures, and one of the most popular lecturers was Robert Ingersoll, known as the Great Agnostic. He gave some brilliant and funny talks deriding belief in religion and calling upon a supernatural god for help. He was not cynical, however, as he promoted science and nature, especially Darwin’s natural selection and Lyell’s geology, and as he believed in the betterment of humanity. Thus he said,

“Ignorance, being darkness, what we need is intellectual light. The most important things to teach, as the basis of all progress, are that the universe is natural; that man must be the providence of man; that, by the development of the brain, we can avoid some of the dangers, some of the evils, overcome some of the obstructions, and take advantage of the some of the facts and forces of nature”.

He thought that all religions were the same and that they all were on their last legs, so to speak, leaving the way cleared for the triumph of science in reforming mankind. Oh my. He did support women’s right and suffrage and he was an abolitionist before the Civil War. Of course he was condemned from the pulpit many times over but still many citizens across the country paid $1 to hear him speak. This period of the 1880s to around 1910 has been labeled the golden age of American freethought. That seems to have passed. I suspect he would not be encouraged by today’s politics of extremity, the erosion of the boundary between church and state, and the level of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism around the world.

Then we have the report this past week of an archeological find of a prehistoric massacre from 10,000 years ago. Here is a link to one version in the NYT: Essentially researchers found a large group of people clearly killed violently. This was before agriculture so it was not over land and crops but why is something we will never know. Could be religious?

I am also remembering 2 things Stephen Hawking said. More recently he expressed doubt that humans will survive much longer, especially if we do not move quickly together and colonize space, I guess thinking that we are making the earth uninhabitable. A while back he said that if space creatures did visit the earth, we might not come out so well, citing the European/American indigenous peoples contact as an example. Many (consider Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) have expressed the necessity of coming and working together as inhabitants of our Earth.  Progress does not seem simple with us.


Robert Ingersoll

Anyway, Robert Ingersoll, I appreciate your hopeful outlook and your appreciation of education and brain betterment, but it seems humans are humans from beginning until the end(?). Travel on.

Yearning for a slower pace of innovation?

I am not the most tech savvy old guy around and I have never been one for keeping up with the fashion. I understand that marching out the hot, new version of our tech devices is more about marketing than true innovation. I dislike having to upgrade a 2 year old OS because my bank no longer supports the old one. I know that scientific advancement has solved many problems and will solve many more should humanity linger awhile longer (not so probable if you read Stephen Hawking’s latest thoughts on the matter). I know that such advancements also engender a new set of problems but I do not want to discuss those now. I am old enough to remember the marvels of TV and then color TV and I am old enough to have heard some of the best music ever from an AM radio station 500 miles away fading in the static of a storm.

I also know the importance of sitting in the dark around a fire or sitting at the kitchen window and watching the weather for the full development of a sense of whimsy and wonder. Consider this bone flute from our prehistoric ancestors in eastern Europe around 35,000 years ago.


From yet another article in the Origin of Music I gained a sense of how such an instrument was devised. Drago Kunej and Ivan Turk give a detailed report of their research into another bone artifact from even earlier around 45,000 years ago, including their attempts to replicate such an instrument (if indeed it was a musical instrument) and what music it might have played. They lay out the data in great and delightful fashion and are appropriately cautious in their conclusions, but I will take their surmises beyond the hypothetical stage. Recent readings have come together to indicate our hominid line appeared 1.5 million years ago; language would seem not very far behind if indeed some symbolic capacity was not part of the current and flow pressuring our evolution at that point. Modern humans including Neanderthals do not appear before say 60,000 years ago. Remember the oldest known paintings are around 35,000 years ago.

This article stimulated my imagination about the earliest innovations of artistic technologies. Researchers have analyzed the pigments and means of brushing or blowing the paint onto the cave walls. Kunej and Turk have researched how these flutes may have been made. Round holes in bones seem to have been chipped initially before tools for boring were developed. Even using a chipping tool involves some twisting to get the hole round and even. Many bones have oblong holes made by teeth as carnivores sought the precious bone marrow but these flute holes are quite round. Many questions arise: How were they placed? Were the ends open or closed? If closed, left closed or opened and then plugged up? Any old hominid can pick up a bone or a hollow elder branch and blow in it but the researchers demonstrated that it takes some experimentation to find the most effective way to blow across the flute edge and make a musical tone. Over time our ancestors also found that spacing the holes would yield different notes and combinations, some more pleasing than others. They speculate that such innovations took many generations to develop and spread culturally. And then, I guess, some genes for a musical ear began to be selected more successfully.


Much of what I have read assumes music began with singing and dancing with drumming; you don’t need much technology there, a good hollow log will do. Flutes and harps took more time and thought and innovation. Of course today we can take an electronic keyboard and make it sound like any instrument around; I still like the image of one of the Homo lineage blowing across the bone end and chipping holes in it until over the crackle of a warm fire plays some musical notes. Travel on.


Drift in communication forms


This word ‘drift’ refers to how communicative sounds can change over time. For example, the English we speak has drifted considerably from middle English which Chaucer spoke and wrote.

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye

(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

And specially from every shires ende

Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for to seke

That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.


One big change not evident in the written segment from Canturbury Tales is that this was before the great vowel shift; our vowels are very different even if the written letters are the same. Likewise silent letters were generally spoken and verb tenses were marked differently. So changes in both surface structure (phonology), syntactic structures (mapping meaning into or from sound), and even deep structures (some words have different meaning). This shift happened culture wide before Shakespeare came on the scene and his language is still quite different from ours.  Then English peoples spread out a bit and we now have the various English variants from the US and different regions, Canada, Australia, etc.

Musical forms also shift and drift from century to century, say Mozart to Stravinsky, and generation to generation, say Frank Sinatra to Bruce Springsteen. This would seem driven in part by the musical need to be just a little different and new from the old, catchy in other words, otherwise the music is relegated to the background and forgotten.

This brings me to the songs of humpback whales that change in a marvelous and so far mysterious way. In her chapter entitled ‘The Progressively Changing Songs of Humpback Whales: A Window on the Creative Process in a Wild Animal” in The Origins of Music, Katharine Payne tells of research over 32 years that demonstrates that these songs also drift. Male humpbacks sing long complex songs in their breeding grounds. The Atlantic and Pacific populations sing differently but both groups sing songs that continuously change in characteristic ways. At the end of the breeding season they are singing songs that are quite different than those they sang at the beginning and while they do not sing during their trek and time north, when they return to their tropical waters for breeding, they pick up where they left off. Holy mackerel of memory.


The beautiful humpback.  I also note that it was a female humpback in the Pacific who, when divers freed her from entangling ropes sure to kill her, swam joyously and then went and tapped each divers’ mask in a gesture of gratitude.

Now the mysterious part is that the whales sing these songs from widely separate locations taking advantage of the underwater acoustics. This makes identifying the individuals singing each song difficult, but what researchers have found is that when they separate out each song, all the whales in the group are singing the same song but not in unison. And these songs change and drift together in a natural and robust sort of choral matching. The scientists do not know how; they are looking for some whale that might lead the process but that is difficult given the ambient conditions. While they speculate that these songs serve sexual selection (as what does not these days?), everybody singing the same song does not seem the height of competition. Maybe there are nuances here that we are not privy too, like Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen both singing ‘Nature Boy.’ In any event the humpback whales do seem to engage in a group creative sing that changes and drifts according to their own amusement. Thank you, Katharine Payne, for some really beautiful science.

I cannot resist adding two selections of human creativity in linguistic production that have gone mostly unmatched. The first is from Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky.”

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

I say mostly unmatched because the word ‘mimsy’ was picked up and used in a movie a few years ago, The Last Mimsy. And here is a passage from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.


Three quarks for Muster Mark!
    Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark
    And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.
    But O, Wreneagle Almighty, wouldn’t un be a sky of a lark
    To see that old buzzard whooping about for uns shirt in the dark
    And he hunting round for uns speckled trousers around by Palmer-
        stown Park?
    Hohohoho, moulty Mark!

This is the passage that Murray Gell-Mann, the noted physicist, perused as he thought about what smaller units composed elementary particles. So we have quarks everywhere now it seems. The creativity of social communication goes forward in so many ways.

Finally, few books over the years have stood out for their genius in presenting the research, theory, and evolving questions about the roots of our humanity. One is Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience and now I add, even though I have not yet finished it, The Origins of Music. I appreciate so much having the opportunity to read such books. Wow!   Travel on.