Jerome Lewis

Why the Bayaka sing so much: Music, social aesthetics and cultural transmission

We all have our own favourite musics, and in some way they say something about what sort of people we are. This talk seeks to unravel some of the reasons why music does this. Just as a speech-act is composed of linguistic and gestural components, so a musical-act necessarily includes a gestural component, in this case a rhythmical movement of the body we may call ‘singing’, ‘dancing’, ‘percussion’ or ‘playing’ an instrument. 
The concepts associated with what English speakers recognise as music and dance are not shared cross-culturally. In some societies there are no general terms for music and dance, but rather specific names for different performances that involve music and dance. While this conflation by people in other cultures could be interpreted as lacking sophistication, actually it is a profound insight into the nature of music. As Gerhard Kubik succinctly put it, ‘Music is a pattern of sound as well as a pattern of body movement, both in creating this sound and in responding to it in dance’ (1979: 228).
My discussion uses this insight to focus on modes of participation in music as well as the structure of the music itself in order to show how and why the distinctive vocal interlocked hocketing polyphonic music of the BaYaka Pygmies in Congo serves to transmit a particular BaYaka cultural aesthetic that organises society. It inculcates characteristic economic, political and ritual ways of interacting, establishes a context that embodies key values such as sharing, and creates a special world of time where the deep structure of myth and BaYaka cosmology can be experienced by each generation. 
Jerome Lewis lectures in Anthropology at University College London. He began working with Pygmy hunter-gatherers and former hunter-gatherers in Rwanda in 1993. This led to work on the impact of the genocide on Rwanda’s Twa Pygmies. Since 1994 he has worked with Mbendjele Pygmies in Congo-Brazzaville researching child socialisation, play, ritual and cosmology; egalitarian politics and gender relations; music and language. He is co-director of the Extreme Citizen Science Research Group ( and UCL’s Environment Institute. He is currently co-editing a volume on the Social Origin of Language with Chris Knight and Dan Dor.
Kubik, Gehard. 1979. ‘Pattern Perception and Recognition in African Music’. In John Blacking and J. W. Kealiinohomoku (eds) The Performing Arts: Music and Dance. The Hague: Mouton.