Children who grow up in oral musical contexts such as the families of hereditary musical specialists commonly learn the body-language of music before they learn music itself. Throughout infancy and childhood they absorb the mannerisms of performance practice and the physical and social graces befitting of musicians. Learning music is accomplished largely by osmosis and imitation, often without a great deal of conscious intent. Children develop an unselfconscious musical confidence born of inherited or deeply-nurtured authority. Very little has been written about the processes of childhood music acquisition in the oral traditions of non-European cultures. The three-year AHRC-funded Growing into Music project arose in response to a pressing need to study these processes before they are overwhelmed by the institutionalisation of music-teaching and globalisation. T
Since January 2009, we have been documenting oral music acquisition and transmission, conducting a detailed exploration of the processes by which children in diverse cultures become musicians, beginning with passive exposure in infancy and culminating in adolescent participation in public performance. We are considering our findings in the context of the belief, widely-held in such cultures, that these learning processes are intrinsic to the strength and depth of these highly-specialised traditions, which in all cases are central expressions of regional/national identity.
We are a team of four ethnomusicologists, each of whom specialises in particular geographic areas and ethnic groups. Each of us also has qualifications and experience in other relevant disciplines including music education, cognitive psychology, psychotherapy, film-making, popular music studies, music production, and broadcasting—perspectives which contribute to the comprehensiveness of our study. Two of us are also bimusical—adept performers in the musical traditions which we are studying.
We have been studying musical childhoods amongst: Mande jeli (griot) musicians of Mali and Guinea; Langa and Manganiyar folk musicians of Rajasthan; musicians and dancers of the art music tradition of North India; ashiq bards and classical mugham musicians of Azerbaijan; Rumba and Afro-Cuban religious musicians of Western Cuba; and the Música llanera musicians of Venezuela, an oral tradition which both contrasts with and feeds into the more formal pedagogy of Venezuela’s world-famous El Sistema youth orchestras. We have been observing and filming the same children ‘growing into music’ over two and a half years, having made three fieldwork trips to each country.
These cultures have been chosen because they all have strong, relatively intact, oral traditions. They present fascinating differences with regard to the centrality of hereditary transmission, their positions on the continuum between art and folk music, the relative proportions of active transmission and passive acquisition, the balance between memorisation and improvisation, and the degree of mediation by musical literacy, institutionalisation, and globalisation.
During the course of the project there have been many preliminary film-showings and lectures in the UK, the US—and also in the countries in which we are working. Perhaps Growing into Music’s most significant impact has been in promoting these endangered oral traditions in their own countries.
The project has also resulted in a follow-on project forging musical links between Mali and Cuba: see www.mali-cuba.com.
As the project nears completion, we are now editing our final films which will be released as DVDs as well as in full high definition on this website. We are also producing a scholarly volume which both addresses the project as a whole, taking a comparative approach in a co-written introductory chapter, and addressing the six cultures individually in chapters by each of the researchers.