Primal Instincts

ON Stage brings you excerpts from the NCPA Quarterly Journal, an unsurpassed literary archive that ran from 1972 to 1988, and featured authoritative and wide-ranging articles. In the first of a three-part series on categories of music, musician and ethnomusicologist Ashok D. Ranade dissects definitions and dispels common misunderstandings regarding primitive music.

Musical categories are those fundamental classes in which the totality of the musical material available in society can be naturally organised. The categorisation leads to corresponding categories of kinds of experience of different musics. To gain an insight into musical categorisation is to become cautious in claiming universal validity for musical theories or judgements. In spite of inevitable and inbuilt overlaps, these categories denote distinguishable and valuable experiential contents. The categories pose differing questions and necessitate the construction of conceptual frameworks of varying philosophical import. If musical reality is to be construed in its entirety, all musical categories need to be identified and examined. The four categories sought to be identified against this background are: primitive or tribal music, folk music, art or classical music and popular music. These four categories do not and need not exist in all societies concurrently and in equal proportions. However, their presence or absence constitutes in itself a fact of cultural dynamics demanding an interpretation. In general, the more the number of existing musical categories the more the degree of sociocultural complexity in the society under consideration.

What are the criteria according to which these categories are differentiated? No identical criteria can be employed because the four terms and the corresponding concepts display inherently differing orientations. For example, the terms ‘tribal’ and ‘primitive’ are traceable to ethnological biases, while the term ‘foIk’ owes its origin directly to folklore. The two terms ‘art’ and ‘classical’ (interchangeably used in India), are clearly products of an aesthetising impulse while ‘popular’ is a term linked to cybernetic processes and operations of the mass media. However, irrespective of terminological sources, it is clear that in the present context the major thrust could only be the experiential content of associated musics.

Primitive or tribal music

The adjectival terms ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ are often used as near-synonyms in musical perspective studies. Though both terms represent attempts to categorise a particular kind of cultural manifestation, the term ‘primitive’ appears to be more accommodative in etymology as well as in usage. Besides, the term also carries a more qualitative (albeit a more general) connotation. On the other hand, the term ‘tribal’ suggests a narrower range as also a more direct linkage with anthropology. In its root-meaning, ‘primitive’ suggests ‘the most ancient phase’ while ‘tribal’ signifies ‘that which pertains to a group of clans under a recognised chief and usually claiming common ancestry’. Indian terms used as corresponding to ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ are adivasi, vanya, aranya, girijan and adim. While the first and the last terms draw attention to the aspect of antiquity, the rest refer to habitat (an ethnological criterion). In the present context, ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ allude to a type of musical expression genetically related to a particular body or group of people producing the music referred to. Further, the people described as ‘primitive’, etc. are generally assumed to denote those in the food-gathering, hunting, pastoral and agricultural stages of human development. The non-musical and the ethnographic orientation of the explanations offered for the terms ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ can hardly help in answering the question relevant to the present discussion: What is ‘primitive’ in music and why? As most of the data on music usually accepted as primitive has been the result of ethnographic and ethnological investigations, it is difficult to avoid equating primitivity in music with the music of the primitives.

Perhaps it might be useful to dwell a little more on dictionary sources to understand the shades of meaning that the terms have acquired. Through such scrutiny, chronological, aesthetic and sociological weightages become clearer and one can appreciate why the term ‘primitive’ is to be preferred to ‘tribal’ for the present discussion.


1 (a) not derived, primary; (b) assumed as a basis.

2 (a) of or relating to the earliest age or period; (b) closely approximating an early ancestral type; (c) belonging to or characteristic of an early stage of development; (d) relating to, or constituting the assumed parent speech of related languages.

3 (a) elemental, natural; (b) relating to, or produced by a relatively simple people or culture; (c) naive; (d) self-taught, untutored.

A further set of meanings refers to the qualitative aspect of the term with more directness:

1 (a) something primitive; (b) a root word.

2 (a)(1) an artist of an early period or a culture or artistic movement; (2) a later imitator or follower of such an artist; (b)(1) a self-taught artist: (2) an artist whose work is marked by directness and naivete: (c) a work of art produced by a primitive artist.

3 (a) a member of a primitive people; (b) an unsophisticated person. (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, G. and C. Merriam Co.. Springfield, Mass., U.S.A., 1981, p. 907.)

However, it is symptomatic that the same source does not define the term ‘tribal’ in any comparable depth. It merely notes: ‘of, relating to, or characteristic of a tribe’ (p. 1237).

It, therefore, seems safe to conclude that the term ‘primitive’ has a wider cultural connotation while the term ‘tribal’ has been chiefly employed to denote producers defined in a particular ethnographic context. At one point of time, the term ‘tribal art’ would not have been acceptable and it would not have appeared tautologous to use the phrase ‘primitive tribe’. It is obvious that during its semantic development, the word ‘tribe’ suggested a context and projected a content with the minimum value-overtones. This has also happened in India. In addition, the term ‘tribe’ has acquired a specifically Indian connotation. This is the reason why Nadeem Hasnain’s recent work refers to more than a dozen definitions of the word ‘tribe’ but finally lists the four major characteristics stated by D.N. Mazumdar as more relevant to Indian conditions. (Nadeem Hasnain, Tribal India Today, Harnam Pub., New Delhi, 1983, p. 17). The main features of Indian tribes, according to Mazumdar, are stated below in a slightly abridged form:

  • In tribal India a tribe is definitely a territorial group.
  • All the members of an Indian tribe are not linked by ties of kinship, but, within every Indian tribe, kinship appears as a strong, associative and integrating principle.
  • Members of an Indian tribe speak one common language, their own or/and that of their neighbours.
  • There are other distinguishing features of Indian tribes such as dormitory institutions, absence of institutional schooling, a moral code different from that of Hindus and Muslims, etc.

Even after obtaining an idea of the Indian definitional deviations the question remains: Is it inevitable that a category of music carry a definition which is producer-oriented and not product-oriented? Are there no qualities in the product which need to be described as ‘primitive’? Without facing the question squarely it will be impossible to identify the presence or absence of primitive qualities in the music produced by non-tribal societies. It is necessary to define musical categories with a focus on the experiential content of music. To follow the submerged Darwinian trail instead and to regard primitive music as the original music of less ‘cultured’ man is to deny that the primitive in music is a legitimate channelising of an authentic musical impulse of human sensibility. In other words, what is primitive in music is to be determined by using musical criteria. Further, it is not to be assumed that primitive music is music produced by people categorised as ‘primitive’. Being directly related to human experience, and not social hierarchy or allied factors, the primitive in music is found to produce recurrent pervasive and legitimate moulds relevant to a particular human musical experience and expression. If music is not to be equated with a body of sweet sounds acceptable to an anaemic aestheticism, it is imperative that all musical categories be treated with adequate seriousness. This does not lessen the importance of the ethnographic evidence and data on tribal music. However, it means that the data is to be treated as providing a basis for conceptual discussion of the categories of music and the experience associated with it. To put it differently, features of ‘tribal’ music are to be noted so as to facilitate the detection of their existence in urban literature and sophisticated societies. Their appearance in such a setting justifies their being described as ‘primitive’.

Characteristics of primitive music

Primitive music and dance are so closely connected with the day-night and seasonal cycles of the concerned people that they can hardly be separated as music and dance respectively. Music is for everyone, everything and for almost every occasion. All critical phases in the human life cycle find their expression in music. Almost everything causes music. To that extent, music enjoys a high degree of cohesive relationship with the process of living.

As a formulation, a song is more important than music in the primitive way of life. It is symptomatic that a majority of primitive societies have a word to denote a ‘song’ but many lack a word to indicate music. However, ‘song’ as understood in primitive parlance is a very different entity. Every manifestation of an undifferentiated performing impulse becomes a primitive song. On the other hand, non-primitive usage allows music a wider application than song.

Primitive music is highly ritualistic. It is ritualistic even when it is not a part of any ritual. In other words, one senses a pervasive ritualistic charge in every performance. The type of rituality suggested is detected through an atmosphere of intense preoccupation of the participants with every detail, a certain elevated psychological stance among the performers and an air of inner compulsion communicated by them. Alert attention is paid to psycho-physical aspects seemingly unconnected with the act of performance. It is, therefore, next to impossible to arrange for the performance of primitive music without or outside the framework defined by the general rituality described earlier.

‘Audience’, as is normally understood, has a very unusual role to play in performances of primitive music. Almost everybody participates though to varying degrees. At the same time, it is also true that performers seem to direct the music to some entity external to them. Music does not take place for its own sake or for viewers or listeners and yet it has to reach out in order to complete itself.

On the whole, the ‘primitive’ in music relies more on rhythm than on melody. Primitive rhythms become manifest through instruments, movements, percussive speech or a similar mode of vocalising. Rhythm (as contrasted with melody) controls primitive music to such an extent that instruments conventionally employed for melodic purposes are also pressed into rhythmic service. In addition to its overall preponderance, rhythm in primitive music also possesses definite structured and substantive qualities that need to be discussed separately.

Melody in primitive music is primarily characterised by a marked indifference to the quality commonly described as sweetness. So much of the non-primitive and the non-folk music is avowedly made sweet or melodious that the resulting qualities are (mistakenly) considered to be musically obligatory. It is symptomatic that the performers themselves, while rating performances, seldom apply the criterion of sweetness.

The role of language and literary expression in primitive music needs separate consideration. Here, language is not regarded as indispensable. Meaningless syllables and sounds appear in abundance. In other words, phonetic patterns rather than linguistic patterns receive more scope. Half-formed sentences, proverbs, slogans or similar formulations and other literary nonentities earn legitimacy in primitive musical compositions. Lack of ‘literary’ quality is thus closely linked with the general anonymity prevailing in primitive music.

As a matter of routine, the ‘composer’ remains unnamed in primitive music. More importantly, collective composing is allowed definite scope. Alternatively, it has often been pointed out that even though a particular tune is crystallised or consolidated into actual use by a single person, the tune partakes of many existing ones and, to that extent, it could be said to have been hovering in the air. That the same available corpus of tonal and rhythmic moulds is often linked with new phrases and occasions suffices to create a ‘new’ song. This interpretation of the concept of creation or originality is unlikely to gain acceptance in other categories of music.

Music, so closely linked with the human life-cycle, can hardly be expected to have direct relationships with all its referrents. As a result, symbolism becomes an important characteristic of primitive music. In fact, the act of performance as well as its peripherals embody symbolism. Symbolic processes and objects are numerous  and both are employed at various levels of prominence and intensity.

Primitive music makes a generous use of non-musical resources and this is often achieved through symbolistic operations. Special reference needs to be made to the varied use of musical instruments. They are often regarded as non-musical objects and their simultaneous existence on two planes adds to their evocative power. Their unusual shapes and sizes as also the techniques of sound-production can be traced to the non-musical content of the musical instruments. In spite of the overall multipurpose character of musical instruments, their musical roles are precise to the degree of being firmly associated with affective states of mind and definite music-making events. Their being equated with emotional states increases their general potency as agents in communication processes considered in a larger context.

This article was originally published from the Archives section by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the July 2021 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.