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World music and the biodiversity challenge

Our des­truc­tive socie­ty of the Anthro­po­cene era would be well advi­sed to make good use of the rich tea­chings of ear­ly humans. Main­tai­ning the links bet­ween nature and culture, their musi­cians, in par­ti­cu­lar, paid care­ful atten­tion to the planet’s heartbeat.

At a time when abrupt eco­lo­gi­cal chal­lenges threa­ten the pla­net, it is help­ful to remem­ber that many people and socie­ties do have a res­pon­sible rela­tion­ship with nature. In this res­pect, our Earth is also a mosaic of the sound­scapes and crea­tions it ins­pires. It may be use­ful to ques­tion the rela­tion­ships bet­ween the music of dif­ferent peoples and the bios­phere to show how this music, by lis­te­ning to nature’s heart­beat, can teach us a great deal. World music is what 80% of men and women on this pla­net lis­ten to. Through its expres­sions, rural or urban, sacred or pro­fane, inti­mate or col­lec­tive, it embo­dies the fabu­lous diver­si­ty of the cultu­ral and ima­gi­na­ry iden­ti­ties that ins­pire it.


Biodiversity and the diversity of human cultures

The pre­ser­va­tion of the diver­si­ty of human cultures is indis­so­ciable from the pre­ser­va­tion of bio­di­ver­si­ty. Many ini­tia­tives to safe­guard cultu­ral diver­si­ty have alrea­dy been imple­men­ted and UNESCO has led the vali­da­tion of well-known conven­tions on Intan­gible Cultu­ral Heri­tage (ICH). But when it comes to defen­ding bio­di­ver­si­ty, there is a delay, even if a move­ment to reco­gnise it and have it clas­sed as World Heri­tage is under­way (Cf. the struggles to over­turn the scale of legal norms in order to show that we should see our­selves as cus­to­dians of com­mon goods rather than as owners). Wha­te­ver the case, this two-fold issue must be confron­ted because we are in the Anthro­po­cene epoch, per­haps bet­ter des­cri­bed as “Capi­ta­lo­cene”, a per­iod that star­ted when human acti­vi­ty began to have a signi­fi­cant impact on the Earth’s eco­sys­tem – some say from 1945 and the nuclear explo­sions that fol­lo­wed in the 2000s – resul­ting in a bios­phere irre­pa­ra­bly dama­ged by human acti­vi­ty. Without going back over the his­to­ry of the notion of pro­gress, it can be said that this situa­tion refers to the des­truc­tive pre­ten­sion that humans consi­der them­selves dif­ferent from the rest of nature and apart from other spe­cies. This ideo­lo­gy com­bi­ned with a sys­tem of eco­no­mic expan­sion to deve­lop the idea that natu­ral goods were limit­less. The resul­ting mar­ket logic could only sur­vive thanks to infi­nite expan­sion, to the extent that human acti­vi­ty is cur­rent­ly living on cre­dit and requires the equi­va­lent of 1.6 planets.

As ear­ly as 2005, 1,300 experts sub­mit­ted a report to the Uni­ted Nations asses­sing the extent of eco­sys­tem changes. Its conclu­sion was that these had been alte­red more by huma­ni­ty in its last fif­ty years than during the entire course of its his­to­ry. The impact of four fac­tors (the des­truc­tion of natu­ral envi­ron­ments ; exces­sive pre­da­tion of natu­ral resources ; glo­bal war­ming ; and the uncon­trol­led intro­duc­tion of spe­cies) had led to a loss of lar­ge­ly irre­ver­sible bio­lo­gi­cal diver­si­ty. One of the rea­sons behind this des­truc­tion is an expo­nen­tial­ly gro­wing popu­la­tion that now num­bers 8 bil­lion human beings.

Much of our natu­ral capi­tal is no more. Accor­ding to the WWF, where there were a hun­dred ani­mals in 1970, only 42 now remain. Two thirds of wild­life have disap­pea­red due to hun­ting, over­fi­shing and the disap­pea­rance of wet­lands and forests. Extinct spe­cies include : the Mexi­can grizz­ly bear, the Chi­nese dol­phin, the black rhi­no­ce­ros, the giant Pin­ta Island tor­toise, the Javan tiger, the Japa­nese sea lion, the Cana­ry Island oys­ter­cat­cher, the Carib­bean monk seal, the Cos­ta Rican gol­den toad and the Pyre­nean ibex.


Predatory imaginary and collapse

Howe­ver, human socie­ties are dependent on the “ser­vices” ren­de­red to them by eco­sys­tems in terms of sup­ply (food, fuel, mate­rials, medi­cines), regu­la­to­ry assis­tance (pol­li­na­tion, cli­mate, floods, pro­li­fe­ra­tion of patho­gens), sup­port for the func­tio­ning of the bios­phere (bio­geo­che­mi­cal cycles of  water and car­bon) and socio-cultu­ral bene­fits (aes­the­tic, spi­ri­tual and edu­ca­tio­nal rela­tion­ships bet­ween human beings and nature)…

In 2014, a fur­ther stu­dy, fun­ded by NASA, made ano­ther grim sta­te­ment, explai­ning that indus­trial civi­li­sa­tion was at the risk of col­lapse due to the cala­mi­tous mana­ge­ment of natu­ral resources and poor dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth. The scar­ci­ty of resources and the eco­no­mic stra­ti­fi­ca­tion bet­ween rich and poor have always played a deci­sive role in the pro­cesses that have led to the col­lapse of socie­ties. While you think about this sta­te­ment, remem­ber that the Egypt of the Pha­raohs, the Indus Val­ley Civi­li­sa­tion, Ame­rin­dian civi­li­sa­tions, the Roman Empire and the Khmer Civi­li­sa­tion of Ang­kor all had one thing in com­mon : before fal­ling apart, they were at their peak.

In this regis­ter, Jared Diamond’s book Col­lapse : How Socie­ties Choose to Fail or Suc­ceed (2005) has spar­ked hea­ted debate. In the case of Eas­ter Island (Rapa Nui, 900‑1500), he cham­pions the high­ly contro­ver­sial theo­ry that its inha­bi­tants exploi­ted their resources to erect the famous moai (mono­liths stan­ding with their backs to the sea) to such a degree that their civi­li­sa­tion effec­ti­ve­ly com­mit­ted sui­cide. Howe­ver, the nega­tive conse­quences of the non-sym­bio­sis of peoples with their envi­ron­ments, of their sepa­ra­tion from nature, can­not be dis­pu­ted. The paral­lel that can be drawn bet­ween the Vikings and the Inuit – peoples set­tled in Green­land bet­ween the 10th and 13th cen­tu­ries – clear­ly shows the col­lapse of the for­mer, while the lat­ter is still there : these ani­mist hun­ter-gathe­rers, des­cen­dants of peoples living in the Arc­tic for 5,000 years, have mas­te­red their way of life, unlike their neighbours.

It might the­re­fore be appro­priate to replace one pre­da­to­ry ima­gi­na­ry with others, pri­vi­le­ging what the Came­roo­nian phi­lo­so­pher Achille Mbembe calls “the idea of a cos­mic condi­tion”, accor­ding to which there could be a recon­ci­lia­tion bet­ween human, ani­mal, vege­table, orga­nic, mine­ral and other living forces, “solar, noc­tur­nal and astral” alike. A pers­pec­tive to which music roo­ted in heri­tage can modest­ly add its share by sho­wing that many socie­ties have not bro­ken the link bet­ween nature and culture.


Music between nature and culture

Just as bio­di­ver­si­ty has ins­pi­red humans, giving them the pos­si­bi­li­ties and constraints demons­tra­ted by the diver­si­ty of land­scapes, music has been the fruit of a co-evo­lu­tion bet­ween people and nature. After all, in the begin­ning wasn’t there what Ber­nie Krause calls “the great orches­tra of nature”? After thou­sands of hours of recor­ding the “voices” of the natu­ral world, the bio­acous­ti­cian has shown that half the sounds he has cap­tu­red since the 1960s have disap­pea­red due to human acti­vi­ties, but, most impor­tant­ly, that eve­ry spe­cies has its own signa­ture and musi­cal scores. And that we must urgent­ly revo­lu­tio­nise the way we look at and lis­ten to the world around us. For many peoples, this ani­mal and plant orches­tra forms part of their crea­ti­vi­ty and a vocal and ins­tru­men­tal dia­logue ; the music of the Pyg­my dia­spo­ra and its sym­bo­lic effec­ti­ve­ness pro­vides vivid tes­ti­mo­ny of this.

In this nou­ri­shing rela­tion­ship with an envi­ron­ment, the musi­cal ins­tru­ment is a bridge bet­ween nature and culture. To explore the field of sound, humans have been ins­pi­red by ani­mal, plant and mine­ral spe­cies, mate­rials they have inge­nious­ly fashio­ned. Since pre­his­to­ric times, to make their place in the uni­verse intel­li­gible, they have deve­lo­ped a mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with it, as evi­den­ced by the use of the acous­tic pro­per­ties of caves, the “voice stones” of the Neo­li­thic age or the bones of the first flutes. From music ins­pi­red by nature to cos­mo­go­nic sto­ries (sys­tems to explain the for­ma­tion of the uni­verse), there is only one step. What’s more, the majo­ri­ty of myths conceal simi­lar concepts (being and/or nothin­gness, pri­mor­dial chaos, the cos­mic egg, water, tree, etc.) while anthro­po­mor­phic gods and a ple­tho­ra of ani­mals (fish, snakes, birds, lions, etc.) often play an impor­tant role. Thus, the flute, to give only one example, is the supreme ins­tru­ment of trans­cen­dence, and the breath is at the root of a great many tra­di­tions, whe­ther Qi, the vital breath of Taoism, the ruah or “breath of God” in Gene­sis, its sym­bo­lic incar­na­tion of the power of the Druids among the Celts, or its role in Sufi cere­mo­nies. The Ame­rin­dians of Ama­zo­nia and the Papuans of New Gui­nea keep their flutes at the bot­tom of a river or in secret places to pro­tect them from the gaze of the uni­ni­tia­ted. Almost eve­ry genea­lo­gy in the world agrees on the fact that the crea­tion of the world was a sound phe­no­me­non. Lin­ked to the word, it is asso­cia­ted with sound, which occurs at the cru­cial moment of the event. This semi­nal sound makes the nothin­gness vibrate, gene­rates space and consti­tutes the first mani­fes­ta­tion of mat­ter (see, for example, Thoth, in Ancient Egypt, who clap­ped his hands while lau­ghing seven times to make the world appear ; the song of the Crea­tor asso­cia­ted with the roar of thun­der among the Maa­sai ; Pra­ja­pa­ti, the Vedic god who crea­ted India from a soun­ded breath ; crea­tion asso­cia­ted with the word in the Gos­pel of Saint John ; and the vibra­tion at the ori­gin of the key ele­ments of Sufism). All images that bring us clo­ser to quan­tum phy­sics that asso­ciates a wave with each particle.

In any event, this tota­li­sing vision is found in a num­ber of men­tal land­scapes for­ged by com­mu­ni­ties. For example, the Dream­time (the time of ances­tors, of a col­lec­tive spi­rit and law) of the Aus­tra­lian Abo­ri­gines out­lines a fas­ci­na­ting social and mythi­cal geo­gra­phy found in their songs and did­ge­ri­doo games, as they believe that eve­ry­thing in nature is part of themselves.



In a simi­lar regis­ter, the cos­mo­go­nic pan­theon of the Ame­ri­can Indians deserves to be taken into consi­de­ra­tion. All the more so as their des­ti­ny pre­fi­gures that of many of the planet’s peoples, vic­tims of the confis­ca­tion of their space and resources. Lako­ta chief and medi­cine man Sit­ting Bull said : “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poi­so­ned, you will rea­lise that you can­not eat money”. The Ame­rin­dians, ini­tia­tors of the concept of self-suf­fi­cien­cy, saw the deci­ma­tion, due to the greed of White Men, of 60 mil­lion bison that popu­la­ted the great plains of the Ame­ri­can West, to the extent that by 1889 only 1,200 remai­ned across the North Ame­ri­can conti­nent, inclu­ding 400 in zoos. Essen­tial­ly, once again, they believe that eve­ry indi­vi­dual is the centre of the world, a per­cep­tion expres­sed by their songs and dances. This psy­chic cor­re­la­tion bet­ween nature and culture is still found among gyp­sy peoples or the popu­la­tions of the Mon­go­lian pla­teau. The lat­ter, who live a noma­dic life­style with their yurts, fol­lo­wing the stars and their ani­mals to take advan­tage of the most favou­rable steppes, live in intense har­mo­ny with nature, as evi­den­ced by the role of the sha­man. Their music expresses this com­mu­nion, whe­ther it is an infi­ni­te­ly deco­ra­ted song that echoes in the end­less space or a modu­la­ted lan­guage of “throat sin­ging” that evokes bree­ders com­mu­ni­ca­ting with their yaks. And then there are their ins­tru­ments (shepherd’s flute, three-strin­ged lute, hor­se­head fiddle), the results of a natu­ral dia­logue that sug­gests the whin­nying of a tho­rough­bred or the tears of a camel.

Retur­ning to the dama­ging divorce bet­ween nature and culture, we are struck by the rea­li­sa­tion that it is only the modern West that has attemp­ted to clas­si­fy beings accor­ding to the laws of mat­ter. The anthro­po­lo­gist Phi­lippe Des­co­la shows how huma­ni­ty envi­sa­ged in its natu­ral envi­ron­ment is divi­ded into four main types of onto­lo­gies, onto­lo­gi­cal gram­mars that refer to four per­cep­tions of the world : natu­ra­lism, a repre­sen­ta­tion of the world based on a dicho­to­my bet­ween nature and culture, typi­cal of Wes­tern cos­mo­lo­gies ; ani­mism, which lends non-humans the conscience of humans but dif­fe­ren­tiates them through the body, spe­ci­fi­cal­ly Afri­can voo­doo, sha­ma­nism and various ances­tral cults ; tote­mism, which under­lines the conti­nui­ty bet­ween human and non-human, the pre­ro­ga­tive of North Ame­ri­can Indians, the natives of Aus­tra­lia, Poly­ne­sia and Mela­ne­sia – com­mu­ni­ties in which we find sharks, cro­co­diles or snakes, guar­dians of their safe­ty and pros­pe­ri­ty, and clans that claim to be rela­ted to bears, spi­ders and eagles ; and last­ly, ana­lo­gism, cha­rac­te­ri­sed by a dis­con­ti­nui­ty of the consciences and phy­si­ca­li­ty of humans and non-humans but esta­bli­shing cor­res­pon­dences bet­ween them, found in India, West Afri­ca, ancient Chi­na, the Andean sphere and pre-Colum­bian Mexi­co… even in Europe until the Renaissance.

Tra­di­tio­nal music both embraces the facets of these per­cep­tions and sup­ports them. Through the foun­ding epics of Hin­duism, the Ramaya­na and the Mahabha­ra­ta, the uni­verse is cele­bra­ted. The soul of rice in Bor­neo is well cared for through song. The ger­mi­na­tion of millet in Tai­wan is into­ned through chan­ting. In Gha­na the spi­der is prai­sed for its work, as is the spar­row hawk in Vene­zue­la, the stin­gray in Aus­tra­lia, the crab in New Cale­do­nia and tall trees in Niger. In a dif­ferent per­iod, Jupi­ter chose the oak ; Venus, the myrtle ; Phoe­bus, the lau­rel ; Cybele, the pine, and Her­cules, the poplar. A way of remem­be­ring that music is ulti­ma­te­ly memo­ry, joi­ning nature in its role of res­to­ring humans that are often dis­traught, pro­fli­gate and sick of their own rages. In this regard, there is no need to recall its bene­fi­cial effects on a wide range of patho­lo­gies and the rise of the­ra­pies lin­ked to it. The evo­lu­tion of neu­roi­ma­ging tech­niques has made it pos­sible to bet­ter unders­tand the effects.


Towards an archipelago of dissident imaginaries

Suf­fice to say that it is per­haps use­ful – in a world gover­ned by algo­rithms and the feti­shi­sa­tion of value, pro­du­cing “above-ground” indi­vi­duals – to reco­gnise the vir­tues of this heri­tage music from all over the world, pure or blen­ded, rural or urban, ritual or fes­tive. Although still per­for­mances, this music opens us up to others and recon­nects us with huma­ni­ties that are not vir­tual. Accor­ding to the Huang­di Nei­jing, the oldest trea­tise on Chi­nese medi­cine : “Those who unders­tand the world and its rhythms, will also unders­tand humans and the rhythm of their lives, and those who unders­tand these har­mo­nies will no lon­ger need to know any­thing”. The pla­ne­ta­ry bat­tle for cultu­ral excep­tions joins the fight to safe­guard eco­sys­tems and other­ness, and, first and fore­most, for food sove­rei­gn­ty. The right of popu­la­tions to be on their land, the rejec­tion of the com­mo­di­fi­ca­tion of the living and the pas­teu­ri­sa­tion of cultures, as well as the recog­ni­tion of the cultu­ral (lin­guis­tic and musi­cal) rights of peoples are the chal­lenges of this archi­pe­la­go of dis­si­dent imaginaries.


Frank Tenaille

© Bill Akwa Betote
© Bill Akwa Betote


Journalist, Frank Tenaille has been following world music since the beginning of the Seventies, with a focus on communication and memory, often in partnership with the photographer Bill Akwa Betote. He has been editor-in-chief of several magazines, including pan-African monthly newspapers. He is the author of books on music including: Le Printemps de Bourges, histoire des musiques d’aujourd’hui; Chant et polyphonies corsesLe Swing du caméléon, panorama des musiques africaines; Le Raï, entre bâtardise et reconnaissance; Musiques sans visasMusiques et chants d’Occitanie; Le Cabaret sauvage : liberté, cabaret fraternité, Vingt ans d’un lieu ouvert au monde.

A founder member and former president of Zone Franche, he was the artistic director of several festivals including Radio France Montpellier. The art director of Le Chantier (Center for World Musical Creation), he coordinates the world music jury for the Académie Charles-Cros.

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