‘an echo, a ghostly presence gifted to us by the powers of magnetic tape‘ – Ian Maleney on David Toop’s 1978 recordings of Yanomami ritual songs & ceremonies
“Old music. Dead music. Music of Death. Music of the ancestors. Music of the silent. Music of the silenced.” So David Toop began a recent review of African Gems, a compilation of African music recorded between 1965 and 1984. I think of this, listening to Toop’s own recordings of Yanomami tribespeople, made in 1978 deep in the Amazon around the border between Brazil and Venezuela. Two and a half hours of recordings are collected on Sub Rosa’s 2CD re-issue of Toop’s original tapes, taking in shamanistic healing rituals, groups of men and women singing, rain songs and recordings of the Amazonian night; insects, birds and moths.
“Listen to another sound,” he writes, “the swishing noise of the sickle of modernity, alongside a choir of heterophonic voices lamenting a host of vanishings”. It is impossible now to hear “music of the ancestors” as anything but “music of the silenced”. Here and now, these types of recordings can only be heard as an echo, a ghostly presence gifted to us by the powers of magnetic tape. You can hear almost the whole Smithsonian Folkways collection on Spotify, but you can’t hear much of it in the world anymore. As Toop says, “colonialism, wars, electricity, missionaries, fanatics and fundamentalists of all kinds, AIDS/HIV and famine, corrupt politics, exploitation of natural resources, migrant work and the seduction of progress” have all contributed to an on-going erasure of these sounds, these traditions.
The Yanomami are not extinct; there are about 35,000 of them left. In the 1980s, gold mining wrought devastation on their forest homes. They have been a subject of study for anthropologists for decades, and are at the heart of various controversies which have dogged that profession; reports have claimed that anthropologists had repeatedly caused harm, even death, to Yanomami they had studied in the 1960s. Even now, the Yanomami are trying to regain blood samples taken by early anthropologists for study and experimentation, as tribal custom forbids the keeping of any bodily matter after death.
Are sounds bodily matter? Patently they are not, but still something of the body is retained when imprinted on tape, something recognisably, individually human. Am I glad of these recordings in the same way scientists might be pleased to have blood samples for study? In truth I have a hard time hearing sounds such as these as music; only rarely do the patterns of their rituals coalesce into something my brain can decode. In the past, at moments when I haven’t been able to listen to music, when I’ve been burned out on new sounds, I have retreated to sounds like these; sounds I cannot decode, sounds I can just be with for a time, uninterested in understanding or interpreting. When I have sought a sensuous, bodily relationship with sound, I have time and again gone to the recorded fragments of dead or dying cultures, forgotten people in places my mind cannot picture. Dulled and blunted by the rush of today, I have escaped to a recorded non-day, a past in a near-present, anywhere but here and now and this.
What sort of relationship is this? Does my lack of interest in classification, in understanding, denote an irrepressible orientalism; an east all-too easily contrasted to my west, where innocence and escape are possible for a time, before I return to home comforts? Or, by refusing to interpret and categorise, do I stop short of drawing the music “into a fatal shadow of misinterpretation, of false recognition”? I cannot say. I am merely with the sounds, as close as I can be to them now. For that I thank magnetic tape, and microphones and those willing and able to travel to distant places.
David Grubbs wrote a book called Records Ruin The Landscape, in which he wonders about the place of recorded sound among the American avant-garde of the 60s and 70s. In a world where recorded sound dominates over the experience of being with sound, in the moment with sound and open to its possibilities, where the record crystallises and objectifies, ossifies, then it makes sense to display a certain apprehension toward the record. It is understandable to see them as pale imitations of something much more powerful. But what place has the record in a world where history is being otherwise erased? What power has the record to stem that tide, or even just to say, irrefutably, that something was once here which is now gone? Is it more than a museum piece, or a bag of disembodied blood left to hang in a laboratory freezer? What is a recording in the face of death? I cannot say. I wish only to be with the sound, to try to remember what is being lost.