The Music of Many Lands
IT HAS often been said that music is an international language. Proof of this is the folk music of the world. Enjoyment of it is not confined to the land of its origin. People can and often do enjoy hearing the music of lands other than their own. Getting acquainted with the music of other lands can be a delightful experience.
If you were to travel to every section of our earth you would find that each nation or group of people has its own characteristic songs and dances. Each one has contributed its own “accent” to the “language” of music. And this “accent” is generally so distinctive that a person can identify the land in which a certain song or dance originated, in much the same way that he can tell a foreigner’s nationality by his accent.
Most folk music was not composed by professional composers. Some of it has existed for thousands of years. In early times tunes were made up by musically inclined persons and these were handed down from generation to generation. The words of songs dealt with love, peace, war, drinking, fictional characters and amusing incidents. And people danced to the tunes, each group developing its own style.
So when people got together on social occasions in village marketplaces, in homes or around campfires, they sang and danced to music that had been handed down from their forefathers. Of course, the topography and climate of their land as well as their history, language, customs and temperament helped to mold their songs and dances. And these are the things that give each group’s folk music that peculiar “accent” that identifies it as belonging to them.
The Music of Europe
Much of the greatest music of the Western world was produced in Europe. From the seventeenth century onward a number of outstanding musical composers wrote a great quantity of music both for instruments and the voice. Their orchestral music called for many stringed instruments, as well as the wind and percussion types. Their beautiful concertos featured a solo instrument with an orchestra for accompaniment. And there were moving works that called for a large chorus of voices along with an orchestra.
Europe is known for its operas. As the play is acted out on a stage, with sets and costumes, the presentation is made more moving because the words are usually sung rather than spoken. An orchestra accompanying the singers adds dramatic effect. Operettas, like operas, have plots, but they are lighter and the music is gay.
Oratorios began in this part of the world. These compositions usually deal with Bible history. No stage props and costumes are used. Soloists sing the various parts, and a chorus and orchestra are employed. G. F. Handel wrote great Biblical oratorios dealing with Joseph and his brothers, Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, Joshua, Deborah, Jephthah, Samson, Saul, Solomon, Athaliah, Belshazzar and the fall of Babylon, Esther and the Messiah. In many of these thrilling masterpieces the divine name Jehovah appears.
At times these composers dug into the treasury of European folk music. They would either use a folk tune outright or would compose a melody having the distinctive characteristics of a nation’s folk music. At the beginning of their composition they often indicated that it was in the style of the music of a certain land.
As for the folk music of Europe, the most distinctive is that of Spain. The Moorish occupation of this land from the eighth to the fifteenth century C.E., as well as Gypsies, left their imprint on Spain’s music. Perhaps no other people have as many different kinds of dances as do the Spanish, yet that Spanish “accent” of vitality is evident in all of them. Adding to this “accent” are the instruments used by their folk musicians, namely, the guitar, the tambourine and the castanets with their clacking sound.
The Western music of Europe might be said to find a basic representative in the German. It stresses the bright-sounding major scale and is rich in harmony. Italian music is generally more melodious than is German, and is much lighter. The folk music of the French is also very melodious; however, the emphasis in their music is usually more on rhythm.
The Oriental flavor in European music is especially apparent in that of Russia. This could well be due to the Mongols who overran that country in the thirteenth century. Also, the deprivation of the people under the despotic czars no doubt helped to give Russian music its minor, sad strain. Further, the long, bleak winters there contributed to this melancholy “accent.”
Scandinavian music might be said to lie somewhere between that of the Germans and that of the Russians. Finnish music seems to have an Oriental tinge about it. However, many folk tunes of Denmark and Holland are quite similar to German folk music. Polish folk music shows both Russian and French influences.
Today it is usually the Europeans living in the country who do not merely listen but sing and dance their folk music. Those living in the cities are more inclined to go to concert halls and to listen to music on the radio.
That Latin-American “Accent”
Latin-American music is a combination of Spanish, African and, depending on the country, native Indian music. In this music the African influence is especially noticeable in the greater use of drums, the strong stress on rhythm and on variety in rhythm. Examples of these characteristics are found in such dances as the conga, the rumba, the samba and the beguine. In these dances, as well as others, the rhythm is sharply defined, being highlighted by drums and other percussive instruments. It is this quality that makes this music so catchy and moves one to want to dance to it.
Among Latin Americans there are many who like to have music all the time—and loud. So it is not unusual for them to have music on the radio all day long and frequently far into the night, with the volume turned up full blast. Cafés with jukeboxes and shops with radios add to the sound that can be heard by a good part of the neighborhood. At social affairs a band may be hired, or a phonograph turned up to full volume may provide the music. Of course, preferences vary. In some sections, people will pick up a guitar or accordion and provide their own music, singing or dancing together.
African music is used chiefly to accompany singing and dancing. There are several styles of singing prevalent in this continent. In some regions it is nasal; the singing is high-pitched with greatly embellished melodic lines, which music is usually without harmony. The accompanying rhythms are not very involved. Then there is in some parts of Africa the full-throated singing of simple melodies. With these there also goes harmony. Here the rhythms are very complex, in fact, often several rhythms being used at the same time. Rhythm is the most distinctive element of much of Africa’s folk music.
A Tanzania, Africa, newspaper carried a refutation of the charge that Tanzanians should have nothing to do with modern “soul” music ‘because it is Western and decadent.’ On the contrary, the writer argued: “Soul is a dance which originated in Africa. . . . The black people developed soul to what it is now from their Negro spirituals.” According to this writer, “no white artist can sing soul like a black man.”
The chief African musical instruments are drums. Often these are merely barrel-shaped instruments with skin over one end. Among other instruments popular among natives in Africa are the xylophone, musical bows, harps and such wind instruments as reed flutes and animal-horn trumpets.
The Subtle Music of the Orient
Among the Orientals, there are as many different kinds of music as there are nations. Above all else, the music from this part of the world is distinguished by its subtleness. It may sound quite strange to Western ears because it uses quarter tones and even smaller distinctions of pitch. As for its rhythms, some are far more involved than any rhythm found in Western music. By and large, Oriental music ignores chords and harmony. Concerts are given mostly by soloists with their accompanist, or by groups of three, rather than by groups of one hundred musicians, as comprise the Western symphony orchestra. Oriental music is most highly developed in India.
Folk music of the Orient is quite different from their cultural music. However, the cultural music is more representative and better known. Performing artists of classical Indian music have to be composers as well as players. Improvisation (but only according to certain rules) is the chief accomplishment of the performer.
Oriental music is believed to have a bearing on the destinies of people and is closely related to their religion, their philosophies and even to magic. The instruments used in the East include stringed instruments like the sitar, which are plucked with a piece of ivory or metal called a plectrum, and various reedlike flutes, as well as different kinds of drums.
America’s Musical Idiom
What is American folk music? It is an amalgam of many kinds of music, even as its population is an amalgam of peoples of different nationalities. There is no doubt about the basic European influence. The varied “accents” of Europe’s folk music appear in many American songs and dances. Even traces of orientalisms can be heard every now and then.
Prominent is the Negro influence, represented in the Negro spiritual, in “blues” and in jazz music with their sharply defined syncopation or stress of the after-beat, and a certain kind of harmony employing what is known as the flatted-seventh chords. American Negro music has its main inspiration from Africa, even as noted by the Tanzanian writer quoted earlier.
In large American cities music lovers go to concert halls to hear musical performances by symphony orchestras as do the Europeans. And they pack out these halls to hear and see folk musicians and performers from Russia, Africa, Mexico, India, the Philippines and other lands when such travel to America. In their leisure hours many listen to recordings of all kinds of music on stereophonic sound-reproducing systems or on FM radio broadcasts.
Today the leading American form of popular music is “rock ’n’ roll.” Recordings of it sell by the millions. In fact, the recording of serious music in the United States is facing a crisis, as it is being done at a financial loss, whereas rock ’n’ roll music is immensely popular.
Basically it might be said that rock ’n’ roll is strong on rhythm but weak on melodic appeal. This rhythm coupled with its lyrics is appealing to rebellious youths. Many of its songs encourage drug addiction. And it has been shown that this music also plays a prominent role in sexual immorality. Not only in America but in many lands youths have become infatuated with its insistent beat.
American music also includes the so-called “Western” or cowboy music, a distinctively American type of folk music. It developed along with the settlement of the western part of the United States. The subjects of its songs feature the cowboy’s way of life out west, as well as the history of this region. This music for both singing and dancing is immensely popular.
One’s own taste in music depends to a considerable extent on the surroundings in which one grew up and the type of music to which one has been exposed. But if one stops long enough to listen to some of the music of other people, one will find that it has fascinating characteristics. And he will note that it reflects interesting things about the way of life of the people themselves living in other parts of the world.