Music and research

Music is an important expression of one’s identity and cultural belonging. It forms part of celebrations, language and communication, as well as it connects people together. Music could “pop up” in many ways during research. Not only to provide relaxation to a burned-out mind when writing scientific articles and grant proposals but also to remind the researcher of specific cultural settings, events or experiences, many of them related to conducting fieldwork.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in her book The harmless people devotes an entire chapter to the so-called mood-songs of the Ju/hoansi San people:

“…a song of pure music without words, a song composed to express a feeling the composer had had, a mood, or an emotion. The mood songs do have names or titles, but these only tell the subject of the piece, the minute incident that may have inspired the composition.”

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas – The Harmless people

The musical instrument used for these mood songs were the very same hunting bows, that hunters used to get meat. The person set one tip of the bow on a dry melon shell, used a reed to tap the string, making a sound while also humming a melody.

I came across a similar type of mood song during my fieldwork among the Khwe San in Namibia. It happened in one of the smaller villages, where I could see and hear everything around me from my own tent. One night, I was almost asleep when I heard an intriguing melody from not that far away. I got up, switched on my torch, and followed the music. Soon, I found myself in a courtyard, where a number of people sat around the fire, and one of the elderly men was playing a mouth violin. This is not the same instrument that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas described, but it could be a modern version of it or an adaptation from another tribe’s musical instruments. Anyhow, it was mesmerizing listening to the melody, while sitting around the fire, under the night sky. I went back the next morning and asked permission to take a photo:

A Khwe person playing on a mouth violin in 2017, during my fieldwork.

Not only the local music of the Khwe San people I worked with in Namibia played a crucial role in my research, but other indigenous artists’ or musicians’ songs about indigenous issues too. It might not come as a surprise, but the lyrics of a song written by a contemporary Australian musician with Aboriginal roots, could have been written in Asia, Africa or the Americas by a variety of Indigenous peoples. Issues and challenges are strikingly similar. Hence, a great inspiration for me was the song Spirit Bird by Xavier Rudd (listen on youtube). Whenever I lost my motivation to focus on my research, this song reminded me why is it important to continue. Although, it tends to shed tears in my eyes. It contains a strong message related to the rights of Aboriginal people to their land and traditional lifestyles. This message can be generalized to the circumstances of other Indigenous peoples worldwide. The publishing company of the song (Sony/ATV Music Publishing Australia Pty Ltd.) kindly allowed me to include part of the lyrics of this song in my thesis. It provided a frame for my dissertation, as I quoted from the lyrics at the very beginning, to set the scene, as well as at the very end, to support the conclusion section:

“Soldier on, soldier on my good countrymen. Keep fighting for your culture now, keep fighting for your land…”

Xavier Rudd – Spirit Bird

Another inspiring music video was released by Charlie Simpson in 2016. This piece is about the southern-African hunter-gatherers, the San. Again, the relationship to the land is featured in the lyrics:

“Walking with the San, we are nothing but strangers to this land
Yet we keep it in our hearts until we can”

Charlie Simpson – Walking with the San

One could reflect in so many ways on the lyrics. As many of the contemporary San groups have been relocated from their ancestral land, it could be said, that they are strangers to the land they are currently living on. Nevertheless, still, they are the ones who know the smallest of details of a particular area. The land is a central topic to every indigenous group out there. As an example, feel free to read the Our land they took from the Namibian Legal Assistance Centre regarding the Namibian San’s experience with land rights.

And there are so many other inspirational musicians and songs to listen to. One final suggestion: Walking the land by Murray Kyle (listen at Bandcamp). Yet again, the central theme emerges: LAND.