Primitive Music

Date: 1893

Primitive Drama and Pantomime

We have seen in the former chapters how intimately music and dancing are connected. Primitive dances have in the most cases a special meaning: they have to represent something and have therefore a position among the other arts quite different from the modern dances. At such representations no words are spoken, but mimicry and gestures are not less a language, far better fitted to explain the action than the primitive language of words. These pantomimes, as we may call them, are indeed a primitive drama, and as music is always connected with dances one may judge how great the importance was that music had on these occasions. Dramatic music, or musical drama, if you like, is not an occasional union of two different arts, it is originally one organism, and at the same time the earliest manifestation of human art in general. Therefore, Richard Wagner’s artistic genius again correctly defined the essential character of the drama when he said: "Long before the epic songs of Homer had become a matter of literary concern they had flourished among a people as actually represented works of art, supported by the voice and gesture, so to speak, as concentrated, fixed, lyric, dancing songs ("verdichtete, gefestigte, lyrische Gesangstänze"), in which the poets’ fondness of resting with the description of the action and the repetiton of heroic dialogues prevailed." In one word, the historical order of all the branches of poetry does not begin with the epos—as frequently taught—but with the drama, lyric coming next, the epos lastly. This is the order the ethnologist can trace, this is at the same time the most simple and natural way in the development of poetry. The epos requires for all its psychological details so much polish of language, so much grammar and refined style to follow all the different shades of expression as to render very difficult our expecting this from very primitive people. For the dramatic representation mimicry and gestures are not only quite sufficient but the only effective means for explaining the action to an audience of different tribes, which sometimes do not understand their respective dialects and are accustomed to converse in gesture language.

Unfortunately Richard Wagner lost his advantageous position (just as in speaking of dance and music) when elaborating his intuitive idea. Then he called those dancing songs "a middle-way station from the ancient lyric to the drama," although the pantomime cannot possibly be the very beginning of poetry and a middleway station at the same time. Wagner constantly overlooks the fact that the primitive drama is pantomime only, not poetry as well, no words being spoken in it. It is not until later on that other arts, poetry among them, begin to show their genius, which they unfold and develop in the same proportion as they become independent and separate themselves from the common trunk. This done it would be contrary to all laws of development that the accomplished arts should once more form an organic union as they might have formed in their primitive state. Therefore, the attempt to unite the accomplished arts in equal rank to a single art work is theoretically a contradiction and practically an impossibility. The result of such an attempt was always that the composer either spoiled his art by a theoretical prejudice or practically acted contrary to his rules. Wagner’s artistic genius was never in doubt for a single moment which way to go, and therefore his theory has remained an intolerable chaos, while his art has flourished in unrivalled splendour.

Thus we have reached the most recent phase of the drama before speaking a single word of the original pantomime, a proof how far-reaching and important it is to settle its character, of which we are now going to give a few examples.

The dances of the Damaras consist mostly of mimic representations of the movements of oxen and sheep. The dancers accompany their gesticulations by monotonous tunes, and keep time by clapping the hands and striking the ground with their feet. In the Ngumbi forest in Africa the gorilla is the object of mimic representations, during which an iron bell is rung and a hoarse rattle mingled with the other sounds. Then the measure grows quicker and quicker, a drum is beaten, sticks thundered on the log, until the whole hunting and rolling of the gorilla is performed with great truth to nature.

Among the Fans, who are cannibals, the dancers are fond of all sorts of mummery, in which a man disguises himself as any animal by putting on some cloth and mats, performing all kinds of grotesque movements amidst the jubilating shouts of his fellow-tribesmen. Such mummeries as occur on all the continents seem to be the origin of our masques, which are in great favour with savages and occur in very characteristic shapes. Thus the primitive animal pantomime is in some sense the original of our fancy-dress balls. Another kind of pantomimes is that in which the dancers closely imitate all the movements they are accustomed to perform in a real war, as do the natives of Mahenge. These representations are evidently based on the principle of employing that overflow of vigour and energy which is necessary for the struggle of life (war, hunt, work), without, however, being in appropriate use for a time. Mr. Lander saw at Katunga a pantomimic performance in three acts. The first was a dance of twenty men wrapped up in sacks; the second represented the capture of a boa constrictor, which was imitated by one of the dancers as well as circumstances permitted it; the third, which caused the most laughter, was a caricature of the white man who was, however, very badly represented by a white-painted dancer. During the "entr’act," which was very short, there was a concert of drums and pipes and national songs of the women, whose choruses were joined by the whole people.

In Australia, too, there are pantomimic gestures connected with some songs which are passed on from performer to performer, as the song is carried from tribe to tribe. The aborigines of Victoria have their war dances before and after fights, dances appropriate to the occasion of "making young men," dances in which the women only take part, and dances in which the movements of the kangaroo, the emu, the frog, the butterfly are imitated. Mr. B. Smyth tells us that the perceptive faculties of the natives are very clear, and their power of observation and imitation sometimes quite extraordinary. Monotonous and harsh as their chants may be, the natives are by no means unsusceptible of the power of music. The young people readily learn how to sing and how to play on instruments. The natives at the Lake Albert imitate in their dances the actions and movements of a frog, the hunting of the emu, the voice of a bird.

The New Zealanders, too, invariably accompany their dances with gesticulations. Their most exciting dance is the war dance, performed before a battle commences with the purpose to excite their warriors to the highest pitch of fury. The dances of the ancient Tasmanians were imitations of animal movements.

The dance Hewa (in the South Sea Islands) is an accomplished pantomime in which the abduction of a girl or the birth of a boy is represented. The Dyaks of Borneo have different kinds of dances representing the movements of animals, or a pantomime representing the hunting. All these dances are opened with music, to which excellent time is kept, and not seldom concluded in drunkenness. One of their pantomimes represented a sham fight in which one of the warriors was apparently killed, while the victor discovered too late that he had killed a friend, whereupon he showed unmistakable signs of regret and sorrow. Suddenly the slain warrior got up and began a frantic dance. Thus even in this state of culture there seems to be a general desire for the story to end well. The Papuans imitate in their dance the minstrelsy of birds, and always like to display some symmetry in their movements. Of two dancers standing next to each other, the one is always anxious to make the same movement with the right leg or arm which the other is performing with the left.

The dances of the Chukchi closely resemble those of the Indians. The men dance quite nude, having only the feet covered and the hair ornamented with feathers. Their movements consist of wild imitations of hunt and fight. The women sing to this and again imitate the movements of their own daily occupations, such as carrying water, collecting berries. Thus these dances become natural mimic ballets. The dancers of the Kamchadales are pantomimic, while the music to them is sung with always increasing passion. The rhythm is a system of six trochees (bachia-a). The fish-Tunguses have the same rhythm but without the division into strophes. With unvaried monotony it is repeated to perfect exhaustion. The Ostiaks on the Ob (main river of W. Siberia) have similar dances at their religious feasts, whence Mr. Swan concludes that a religious purpose must have formerly existed in the dances of the Kamchadales as well.

Besides these dances of the kamchadales Mr. Langsdorf mentions the sea-dog dance and the bear dance, at which they go from the gentlest, softest motion of the head and shoulders to the most violent motions of the whole body. Mr. Lesseps mentions the partridge dance. Of course they are all accompanied with music, and it is almost painful to see with what great exertion, especially of the lungs, they are carried on. Mr. Krebs saw similar dances on the Island of Spierken (Kurile group, south of Kamchatka, formerly belonging to Russia, since 1875 to Japan). The inhabitants are Ainus.

The dances and games of the Indians in California represent scenes of war, hunting, and private life. In the Rocky Mountains the natives have the calumet dance, lasting from two to three days and always performed with the expectation of receiving presents; another dance represents the discovering of the enemy; again, others are repeatedly described by travellers as the bear dance, beggar dance, bison dance, ox dance, sun dance. Speaking of the Sioux Indians Mr. Keating mentions the dog dance and the Chippewa scalp dance, of which the music is low and melancholic but not unpleasant. The performers stand in a circle each with the wing of a bird in his hand (origin of the fan?), with which he beats time on his gun, arrow, or something that would give a sound. The Indians in Guiana also have animal dances at which they keep up a monotonous chant, every dancer stamping the ground in strict time with the others. As they danced they uttered alternate cries which resembled the note of a certain bird often heard in the forests. Two pieces of wood, rudely carved, had to resemble the bird itself, others to represent infants.

It is no doubt a sign of further progress in those performances when the spoken word comes to the aid of the representation, and from this moment we may speak of the drama proper.

At Zleetun (or Zuletin, or Ziliten, or Sliten, North Africa) Mr. Lyon heard the negro women singing a national song in a chorus while pounding wheat, always in time with the music. One of the songs, sung by three girls, dealt with the return of the warriors, when suddenly they beat without measure and sang as if for one who was dead, endeavouring to comfort the girl who was supposed to have lost her lover. Then a goat was supposed to be killed and the entrails examined until a happy sign was discovered which indicated that the lost lover died nobly. They then resumed their pestles, winding up with a beautiful chorus. The master of the girls, however, forbade their singing any more, saying it was unholy and displeasing to their Lord Mohammed, the Prophet of God.

The dramatic narratives of the negroes are on the whole remarkable. So true to nature is their action that they even indicate the space of time which elapsed between two events by producing a sound like r-r-r-r. In ancient Egypt there was, however, no public show which would resemble a theatre, nor pantomimic exhibitions nor scenic representation. The priests succeeded in forbidding this noblest and highest outcome of the human mind in order to use the mere rudiments of art for their own religious purposes. In consequence of the absence of a drama in Egypt, Mr. Wilkinson came to the conclusion that the stage was a purely Greek invention, and the pantomime a Roman. I think that the ethnological examples sufficiently prove a much earlier origin.

One of the most interesting forms of a primitive drama is the Australian corrobberree. The performers decorate themselves in some grotesque style, marking each rib by a broad stripe of white paint over the black skin, thus making the chorus look like a number of skeletons "endued with life by magic powers."

The festivities began by the dancers intoning a plaintive song, to which the old men and women joined in at times. The words to this were simply: "Junger a bia, mati, mati," which they always repeated. They commenced in a loud, shrill tone, gradually sinking in pitch and decreasing in force until the tones were so soft as to be scarcely distinguishable from a gentle breath of air that rustled in the bush. During the song the dancers remained in a bent position, and marked the time with their feet, lifting them from the ground in short movements. At the same time plucking the long ends of their beards, they suddenly changed the music to a loud "ha hei, ha hei," striking their spears and wameras against each other and stamping the ground vigorously with their feet. Then they got up with a sudden jerk, shouting a terrific "garra wai." Again they assumed the first motion, but in twice as quick time; now the whole row moved sideways up and down, shoulder on shoulder; now they danced in a circle, all with the same music and the same stamping of feet.

In another corrobberree, which Mr. Lumholtz saw, the music was performed by one man only, the others dancing in a chorus. A single woman was allowed to take part in dancing, which was considered a great honour to her. The music, in strict time with the movements, was quick and not very melancholy. The monotonous clattering, the hollow accompaniment of the women, the grunting of the male dancers and the heavy footfall of the men, reminded Mr. Lumholtz, especially when he was some distance away from the scene, of a steam engine at work. While all took great pleasure in the performance, the musician only apparently had no interest in what was going on, and, beating time, he sang With his hoarse tenor voice without looking up. lie had already been watching the exercises for weeks, and knew them all by heart; but even he sometimes seemed to be amused. However primitive a corrobberree may appear to us, it is a well-prepared and elaborated dance, which it takes both time and practice to excel in.

Speaking of the tribes on Mary River or of the Bunja Bunja Country, Mr. Edward Curr mentions two kinds of corrobberree, the dramatic and the lyric. The intelligence that a new corrobberree had been composed was received with pleasurable excitement by the surrounding tribes. The poet having introduced his work to the neighbouring tribes, these in turn invited their allies to witness it and aid in the performance. In this manner a corrobberree travelled, and was sung with great enthusiasm where not a word of it was intelligible. The story of the drama appears to have been exceedingly short and simple, and rarely free from obscenity. Besides, there was an amazing simultaneousness of action, and excellent time was beaten by the women.

The corrobberree music—says Curt—is much like a chant. A string of words often runs to the one note. All the parts are variations of one tune, sung in different kinds of time, and at various rates of speed. There is a peculiar tendency to slide in semitones from one key into another, and the effect of the music is almost invariably minor. A favourite practice is to raise the pitch suddenly an octave, and in order to effect this it is sometimes necessary to allow it to slide to a low pitch before. Instead of intimating the conclusion of one part of the piece by two or three yells, as the singers do at times, a more musical practice is often followed by trilling the sound of r at a high pitch.

The Kuri dance is another kind of primitive drama. Mr. Angas described one that was performed by five different classes of actors: I. A body of about twenty-five young men, including five or six boys, the dancers. 2. Two groups of women, merely taking the part of supernumeraries, and beating time with their feet during the whole performance. 3. Two remarkable characters of the play. 4. A performer distinguished by a long spear. 5. Two singers—two elderly men in their usual habiliments.

The man in group four commenced a part which called forth unbounded applause; with his head and body inclined on one side, his spear and feathers behind his back, standing on the left leg, he beat time with the right foot, twitching his body and eyes, and stamping with the greatest precision; he remained a few minutes in this position, and then suddenly turned round, stood on his right leg, and did the same over with his left foot.

Mr. Bonwick heard at Port Jackson what he called a "speaking pantomime;" it dealt with the courtship between the sexes, and was performed with very expressive actions.

On Cook’s second voyage Mr. Foster saw a "comic opera" on the Society Islands, the first act of which concluded with a burlesque beating of three of the participants. The performance of the Hurra, the festival dances on O-Waihi, called forth Mr. Chamisso’s admiration. The singing of the dancers, accompanied by the drum, begins slowly and softly, gradually quickening and increasing, while the dancers proceed and play in a more lively manner. At Gresek in Java Mr. Tombe saw a Malayan comedy. "It was precisely what we call a Chinese shadow-play" and had to represent a war. The music to it consisted of kettle-drums, gom-goms, and the Javese violoncello, while the manager and thirty young dancing girls sang the praise of the emperor and his ancestors. Mrs. Ida Pfeiffer witnessed at Bandong the performance of a Javese pantomime in three movements, representing a fight, where the noisy and discordant music changed to a soft, plaintive melody as soon as one party was defeated. The whole performance was really pretty and expressive. The dancers cers kept their eyes constantly fixed on the ground, as is customary among most non-European nations, to express profound respect for the spectators.

The most complete description of the Javese national drama is given by Mr. Raffles, who reports two different kinds of it, the "topeng" (characters represented by men), and the "wayang" (represented by "shadows"). In general the performers have only to "suit the action to the words," which are spoken by the "dalang," the manager of the entertainment. The gámelan accompanies the piece and varies in expression according to the nature of the action or the kind of emotion to be excited. The whole of the performance has more the character of a ballet than of a regular dramatic exhibition.

In Sumatra the custom prevails during their dances that a young lady ("gadis") sometimes rises and, with her back to the audience, begins a tender song which is soon answered by one of the "bujangs" in company. Professed story-tellers are sometimes raised on a little stage and attract the attention of the audience by buffoonery, or mimicry, and keep the company in laughter all night long. The young men frequent these assemblies in order to look out for wives, and Mr. Marsden remarks: "The lasses set themselves off to the best advantage." From this we may see how near the Javans come to European civilisation.

A savage opera of the more advanced kind is performed by the Khyongthas, wild tribes in South Eastern India. The performers, male and female, each had a cigar, which, at emotional passages, was stuck either behind the ear or through the pierced lobe thereof. The instruments were a "shawn" (a cross between the clarionet and the trumpet), "a battalion of drums" tuned up with screws in the most scientific style, and arranged in a circle in the middle of which the player was sitting. The opera, a happily ending love story, with a "primo corifeo tenore," a grumbling bass king, and a romantic soprano, was performed in the most exact style. Mr. Lewin really did like the music; it had distinct rhythm and time, while the choruses were sometimes very quaint and jolly. The drums, too, with their different and mellow tones were employed most judiciously, varying in expression and "tempo" to suit the dramatic action of the piece.

The climax of realism seems to be reached by the Chinese drama. Mr. Görtz tells us that one of his companions saw a performance where a woman actually tore out the heart of her female rival and ate it before the very eyes of the audience.

Speaking of the Aleutian Islanders (Indians) Mr. Choris mentions a pantomime in which a sportsman shoots a beautiful bird; it suddenly revives, however, into a beautiful woman with whom he at once falls in love. The ancient Nahua, which belong to some extent to the civilised nations of the Pacific States, always had great preparations for the public dances and dramas, with music, choirs and bands generally led and instructed in many rehearsals by a priest. When one set of dancers became tired another took its place, and so the dance continued through the whole day, each song taking about one hour. The drama scarcely equalled the choral dance, although in this respect, too, the Nahuas showed considerable advancement. The play generally had the character of a burlesque. The performers mostly wore masks of wood or were disguised as animals. Singers appeared on the stage, but no instrumental music is mentioned. The ancient writers unite in praising the perfect unison mad good time observed by the singers both in solo and quartette, and they mention particularly the little boys of from four to eight years of age who rendered the soprano in a manner that reflected great credit on the training of their priestly tutors. Each temple, and many noblemen kept choirs and bands of professional musicians usually led by a priest, who composed odes appropriate to every occasion. The art of music was under royal protection, and singers as well as musicians were exempt from taxation; an academy of science and music was founded where the allied Kings of Mexico, Tezcuco, and Tlacopan presided and distributed prizes to the successful competitors.

The Indian singer often acts while he sings or dances, representing at the same time a certain scene from life. Sproat describes one of those dances, where a man appears with his arms tied behind his back with long cords, the ends of which are held by other natives, who drive him about. The spectators sing and beat time on their wooden dishes and bearskin drums. Suddenly the chief appears, and plunges his knife into the runner’s back. Another blow is given, a third one, until the blood flows down his back, and the victim falls prostrate and lifeless. Mr. Sproat adds he never saw acting more true to the life. And yet the blood was only a mixture of red gum, resin, oil and water, the same that was used in colouring the inside of canoes. In ancient Mexico and in Guatemala there were ballets at which rarely less than 400 people, but sometimes more than 2,000, performed. During the great feast of Toxcatl the music was supplied by a party of unseen musicians, who occupied one of the temple buildings. The Maya nations in Central America had dramatic performances under the leadership of one who was called "holpop," or master of ceremonies. Women were not allowed to take part in the mummeries, and the plays had a historical character with songs in the form of ballads founded upon local traditions and legendary tales.

Messrs. Spix and Martius tell us of a pantomimic scene of the Coroados in Brazil, which was a kind of lamentation, saying: "They had attempted to pluck a flower from a tree, but had fallen down." The scene is interpreted by the above authors as the loss of Paradise.

Of a peculiar character are the scenes in those theatres where the audience consists of white and black, where civilisation and originality each react in its own way on the impression of the drama. At Quito, Indians with their wives and babies, and negroes were admitted to the theatre, together with a party of ladies and gentlemen in evening dress. At the most important moments the audience, in its excitement, rose up and stood on the benches. In one of the tricks a pistol was fired, and then all the babies set up a squall simultaneously, so that the actors had to stop until the mothers could manage to hush the babies to sleep again. This is perhaps a counterpart to Mr. Schlagintweit’s narrative of a representation in California, where the performance was interrupted by babies’ cries, in consequence of which the male audience—there were very few females there at that time—commanded the actors, not the babies, to be silent.

It has often been asked why our dramatic performances frequently assume a tragic character, although we are at liberty to choose any other—perhaps more satisfactory—subject. A desire for tragical events, however, seems to be deeply rooted in human nature, and always points to a freshness and originality of feeling which, not being entirely used up in every-day life, still press to the surface to unfold their full emotional vigour in the most precious and noblest part of our mental life—in our fancy. Only he, whose life itself is a mechanism or a tragedy, has no need for serious play of fancy. Savages do not yet seem to be in this state of mental decadence. Mr. Buchner once said: "Everywhere among the so-called savages we come across the custom to allow oneself to be shuddered at as a sort of devil." Among the women of the Maoris the desire for "fear and dread" —the two dramatical requirements of Aristotle—seem to be still more prevalent. Their chief amusement is the "tangi," or crying. The ladies do it in the most affecting way, tears are shed, hands are wrung, and the most heart-rending cries excite the sympathy of the company. Yet it is but a "mockery of woe." It is scarcely possible to express a strong psychological impulse in a more simple and natural way.—R. WALLASCHEK n/a n/a, , 214–29. (Longmans, Green and Co., 1893.)

Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Primitive Music

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Primitive Music

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Primitive Music in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. Thomas, William I. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909), 594–605. Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2023,

MLA: . Primitive Music, in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, edited by Thomas, William I., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1909, pp. 594–605. Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Primitive Music. cited in 1909, Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. , University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.594–605. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2023, from