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When We Were Free gives listeners a rare fireside glimpse into the ancient, otherworldly music of the Bushman people of the Kalahari Desert.
Recorded in three Bushman villages in western Botswana, this CD includes the intense and fascinating vocal music of the sacred "trance dances" alongside intimate, meditative instrumental selections. The extensive album notes include color photos, background information on the Bushman race, personal notes on the musicians and their songs, and an unprecedented analysis of the system on which Bushman music functionsthe "theory" of Bushman music.
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The Bushmen, or San, are the oldest race on Earth. They are the
Originals, the hunter-gatherers, the nomads, the rock artists. They
are the Little People, the Harmless Ones, and the ancestors of all humans.
Their unique language is a complex combination of a wide variety of clicks and guttural sounds mixed with common vowels and consonants. This has brought them a degree of attention from the Western world, as has their romantic (and not particularly accurate) representation in the popular movie The Gods Must Be Crazy.
The Bushmen live mainly in the Kalahari Desert and its outskirts, with major populations in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. Traditionally they survived by roaming the Kalahari, men hunting game and women gathering food from the bush, always looking for water. Their society was largely egalitarian, and their economy was based on sharing and gift-giving.
With the influx of Western civilization around the Kalahari in the latter half of the 20th century, the Bushmen underwent a profound lifestyle change. They shifted from their traditional nomadic, hunter-gatherer ways to a sedentary lifestyle in permanent villages, often complete with clinics of Western medicine, general stores, law enforcement, and public schools.
The transition has not been easy or pretty. As in many cases where an ancient society is faced with encroaching Western civilization, the effect of alcohol has been tragic. And with employment opportunities hopelessly scarce and hunting outlawed in much of the Kalahari region, many Bushmen now live an impoverished existence dependent largely on government handouts and the raising of cattle.
It is natural to wonder whether this transition was wanted or unwanted, and whether it was inevitable. These questions do not have simple answers. From what I have experienced and heard, it seems certain that at least some Bushmenparticularly among the younger generationwere and are attracted to the modern lifestyle, with its boreholes for water, its schools, medicines, luxuries and conveniences. Many wanted to be involved with the rest of the world rather than to live in a bubble of traditional ways.
However, this largely forced transition has created an inescapable feeling of brokenness, sadness, and regret in today's Bushman villages. Among elders particularly, the lack of freedom, loss of culture, and unhealthy condition of their people have taken a heavy toll.
Isn't the term "Bushman" derogatory?
The academic community has in recent years adopted the word "San" as the politically correct term to refer to this ancient race, citing a perceived derogatory connotation in the origins of the word "Bushman." However, in my travels throughout the Kalahari, I found that when speaking English, these people commonly refer to themselves as "Bushmen," and very rarely, if ever, use the word "San." For this reason and for purposes of familiarity I have used the word "Bushman" for this project.
This CD is the product of an independent, non-profit endeavor with three goals in mind:
All the songs on When We Were Free were recorded in Botswana, in three villages representing three distinct Bushman language groups: the Naro from
D'Kar, the Ju/'hoansi from Grootlaagte, and the !Kung from Bere. The songs were carefully chosen from hundreds of recordings I made over the course of
two trips, in 2006 and 2008, totaling nine months. I traveled alone and
lived with Bushmen as a guest in their homes, building meaningful
personal relationships and gaining invaluable first-hand experience of
their culture, their music, and their present situation.
So you are "non-profit." How much money is really getting back to the Bushman people?
Many non-profit organizations have to support a staff which makes a living off of the products and services they provide, so it can be unclear how much of your money actually serves its intended purpose. I am the one and only staff member involved in this project, and I am volunteering all of my time and energy without compensation, as well as putting up my own travel expenses.
The only deductions from the total sales that will not go directly into the hands of the Bushmen will be the bare amount that was paid out of pocket for the expenses of mastering and manufacturing the CD, maintaining the website, and marketing/advertising the CD. All revenue beyond those expenses is divided among the musicians represented on the CD.
How did this all get started? Is it through a college or something?
Several years ago I heard a recording of Bushman music and it fascinated me. I began exploring whatever I could find about the Bushmen of the Kalahari and their music. Struck by their present situation, intrigued by their culture, and frustrated by the lack of music recordings I could find, the basic idea for this endeavor slowly came together. I filled in the details as I went along. It is not associated with any school or other institution or organization.
And who are you?
Clark Wheeler, a young musician from Ohio.
Popular musician Dave Matthews, a native South African, reports that during a visit to a Bushman village he asked a Bushman what the words to a
certain song meant. "There are no words," the man said, "because
these songs all come from before we had words."
This indicates the ancient and sacred nature of Bushman music. It doesn't resonate with modern sensibilities, but rather deep within the heart, with a raw and hallowed essence that is common to all Life.
The heart and wellspring of the Bushman musical tradition is the sacred dance, or "trance dance," which takes place at night around a fire, generally for the special occasion of healing or communicating with the spirit world. The women sit in a circle around the fire, singing and clapping their hands with a great, raw beauty and power. The healers, generally men, move in a circle around the women's circle, dancing and stomping their feet, and stopping from time to time to focus healing power or spiritual vision on a certain individual.
The music the women sing during these dances is complex and fascinating. It is polyphonic, meaning several different melodies are being sung simultaneously. A constant yodeling effect adds a rich, interesting texture. The music also modulates gradually and constantly upward on a sliding scale, stretching and pushing higher throughout the song. As the music intensifies and the spirit boils higher in the healer, the healer may burst with shrieks or yells, even fall over from being so removed from this world. These powerful dances often last through the night.
In addition to the trance dances, there is music for games and music for initiation rites, both generally consisting only of group singing and clapping and intended for dance and movement.
Then there is quiet music; intimate, personal music for passing time, partly leisure and partly meditative, using instruments such as the musical bow, the four- or five-stringed zoma, and the dengho, a version of the thumb piano.
Music functions on systems. Most Western musicbe it pop, classical, rock, or hip hopis based on chords, and these chords are derived from notes of a linear scale. There are certain rules and patterns to this music which govern chord progressions, melodies, rhythms, bass lines, etc.
Many Westerners listening to Bushman music may hear it as unorganized and inaccessible. This is because Bushman music does not follow the rules of Western music. However it does have its own distinct, fully developed, much more ancient system on which it functions. But it is not a system that Westerners are accustomed to processing.
The Bushman system is not based on chords, but on a cyclical pattern of notes. A Bushman song usually uses only four distinct pitches, sometimes five. (Western music uses up to twelve.) But these notes are used with great efficiency, variety, and interest.
Each song's identity is a particular melodic pattern which generates the basic skeleton or structure of the song. The melodic pattern is executed on each of the four notes, or levels, of the scale, always moving downward to begin anew on the adjacent lower note after the pattern is completed. After the fourth repetition of the pattern, the next lowest note is now the first note again, and the cycle starts over. One complete cycle is therefore made up of four repetitions of the melodic pattern, each on a different pitch level.
In a performance, the statements of the melodic pattern may be explicit, implied, or, often, a combination of the two. It can take a great deal of repeated listening before the Western listener begins to discern the melodic pattern in a particular Bushman song. But once it is discerned, it shines through vividly, and the song takes on an entirely new dimension.
This creates a constantly moving, perfectly functioning, circular system around which endless improvisations and further creativity is possible. No one note is given any more significance than anotherin other words, it could be argued that there is no "tonic," or tonal home, which is the basis of most Western music.
In a sense, it is egalitarian music. Organic, fluid music, natural and perfect, ingeniously simple, yet complex and full of character, color, beauty, and creativity.
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