Primitive Music of the World

by: Henry Cowell

Not so long ago scholars used the word "primitive" to describe all music from the non-Western world. They viewed it as rudimentary, simple, and backward. From their ivory tower perspectives, it was Western classical music that represented the apex of musical evolution. When composer Henry Cowell compiled Primitive Music of the World for Folkways in 1962, he was operating under this kind of musical prejudice. Despite his anachronistic slant, Henry Cowell's stellar selections for the album betray his great appreciation for non-Western music. Primitive Music of the World starts off with "Murut Music of North Borneo." Sounding somewhat similar to Native North American music, it consists of an all-male chorus chanting in unison around a single tone. Percussive sounds are produced as the chorus dances on a flexing floor. Other extraordinary tracks on the album include Pygmies singing a complex contrapuntal elephant-hunting song, Australian Aborigines singing with didgeridoo and clapstick accompaniment, Navajo Night Chanters alternating between relaxed and falsetto vocal tones, and East Indian Trinidadians playing music that draws upon both Hindustani and West African traditions. The only thing primitive about this album is Cowell's use of the word. It's an outdated term that now refers to a long forgotten worldview. Though put together by Cowell long ago, the album is hardly antiquated or dull: it is vibrant, creative, and sophisticated. And it's still available from Folkways, as is everything in their vast catalog. ~ John Vallier

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