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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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