Indian Music Of The Pacific Northwest Coast - Page 3

Notes by Dr. Ida Halpern


The music of the Kwakiutl Indians, one of the most important tribes of the Pacific Northwest, is based on strict sociological rules, which pertain especially to the performance and ownership of songs. For these reasons, Kwakiutl music has always presented a problem to the collector.

Indian chiefs have never been impressed by the social or professional status of non-Indian people who come to hear them sing. No collector could obtain their songs without first winning the complete confidence of the Indians through close personal association and tokens of genuine interest and goodwill.

Songs are literally "given," for they are "owned" by individuals or families who have paid for them in full. The songs then become hereditary, according to special tribal laws. Therefore, the collector who is permitted to record this music receives not only a great personal privilege, but an actual gift.

After the coming of Christianity, they were reluctant to relinquish, or even reveal their songs, which were part of their true heredity, along with emblems and possessions. So strong was this feeling of possession, that no chief or member of his family would sing a song belonging to another; by doing so, he would be treated as a thief, shamed and scorned by his own people. The chief might inherit a song, acquire it by marriage or commission it for some important occasion in order to give himself and his proud clan added prestige.

The songs originated with the song-makers of the tribes and were conceived in a state of spiritual trance, in visions and dreams. The members of the tribes believed that in learning the song and ritual they could reproduce the vision. Therfore one could buy visions in bundles. One bought a ritual and a vision in beaver bundles, medicine bundles, etc.

Dreams held great significance for the Indian, especially on important occasions, and in cases of necessity or emergency. He would, for instance, not go hunting if unfavorable dreams had been reported. He derived great strength from his songs, turning to them for superhuman help whenever he felt the limitations of his own power. Singing was, for him, no trivial matter.

Originally the power of songs was bestowed only upon chosen people. Indian mythology tells of many heroes who were given songs in dreams and visions as a special reward, indicating that the song-maker was an important and highly esteemed individual. For this reason, also, they were reluctant to allow outsiders to hear their songs.

A strict oral tradition was kept in the teaching of songs. If a singer were to make a mistake, the consequences would be very serious for him. Mungo Martin said that he "would have to pay very much for one mistake. At times cannot speak any more, only sing-great responsibility."

Songs were used in the treatment of the sick. The spiritual strength gained through song in summer or a ghost song except at the time cure people, for the dreams and visions experienced gave mystic powers. Certain songs were believed to ensure success in war, in hunting, and for any purpose requiring supernatural force. The Indian believed that supernatural power resided in man as well as in nature, and that to be one with nature meant a fusion of power into one being, resulting in the creation of the song. The people were, however, realistic! They did not depend solely on the power of song. Even though a medicine man was taken along on attacks against the enemy, warriors were rigidly trained for fighting. Indians were a very musical people. They had a song for everything. They considered certain songs only fitting for specific occasions. They would not sing a Winter dance song in Summer or a ghost song except at the time of death. Love songs, crest songs, and some Hamatsa songs are of a hauntingly beautiful quality, while potlatch songs are declamatory. Yet all reveal great dramatic impact and an impeccable sense of timing. Indians were also masters of make-believe and showmanship; both are intrinsic in their dramatic ceremonies.

Kwakiutl music is the most artistically important on the Pacific Northwest Coast, apart from that of the Haida. According to informant George Clutesi, Nootka and Kwakiutl music are somewhat related, with the Nootka in a subordinate and imitative style.

The songs, preserved by oral tradition, have one thing in common. They are monodic, unsophisticated, and essentially an amalgamation of words and melody, with a minimum of instruments. Most of them are interwoven with dancing and dramatics and some have profound religious meaning. The melody often consists of microtonic intonations and embellishments. In a sense these are examples of heterophony (playing with and around one tone, the use of glissandi, and ornamentation in smaller fractions.

In Indian songs of the Pacific Northwest coast one can always feel a certain tonic, or predominant note around which the melodic pattern is built. Tonality seems to exist but in no direct relation to any specific existing system. There are primitive patterns. A few are pentatonic. Some scale formations are quite similar to the pelog system, as understood by comparative musicology. There is the same clinging to the third, sometimes a major, mostly, however, a minor. A tetrachord can be established with a major or minor third above, and a semitone below.

This classical major third is used all over Java in what we now believe is Java's oldest scale, the pelog, older than slendro. (See Gambling Song, Side 4. Song 7.) Slendro softens China's pentatonic grades without semitones by compensating whole tones, creating equal intervals of 5/4. Dr. Mantle Hood is doing further research on these scales.

In West Coast songs one finds a strong feeling for the mediant (the third up or down) falling into the octave. Different combinations of this device, in different rhythmic patterns, are prevalent. Semitones are profusely used in their melodic patterns, with a jump into the third above or sixth below, resulting in a range of a full octave. Some patterns show advance by a semitone, a jump up into a third, playing with it in variation technique as mentioned previously, occasionally falling into a sixth or the octave. Sometimes the jump is more of a fourth, but always close to the range of the octave jump. An extensive use of 2nds prevails in the pattern of their melodies. We can even speak of "2nd clusters." These occur with such frequency that it could be considered a main characteristic of this music. Some melodies are already in triad formation. The scale should be written in the descending form, for as long as people are still in the vocal stage, their scales show a downward trend. Later on, as instruments are added, the scales begin to move upward. The range of the scale varies from a fourth to an octave or in some cases to a tenth. (In the Gregorian chant of our own civilization the intervals did not exceed a fourth. Even in old European folk music (until about the 16th century), the fifth was the range limit).

There are slight polyphonic tendencies noticeable. However, to speak of polyphony when there is a slight discrepancy of pitch for about a second should not be considered polyphony but an unintentional joining of voices. Some of the Nootka songs, however, have a truer polyphony than the Kwakiutl.

Most of the songs have a definite structure with well-defined phrases. The melodic material is worked out, enlarged and diminished in variation and by rises, changing the pitch by microtones, gradually. (See Side 3, Song 2, Hamatsa Songs, Assu N20.) The melody is repeated on -a, +a, b, C, +C, c sharp. A throughout-composed song can be heard on Side 3, Song 6, Little Woman Doctor song, sung by Medicine Woman.

Our Western musical notation is not suitable for the transcription of Indian music, for we cannot indicate through it the pitch of Indian songs. These songs, therefore, were transcribed with the understanding of the Ellis system (Cents), augmented by Dr. Halpern's notation, especially developed for the songs of the Kwakiutl. The transcriptions can be read and reproduced by singers and instrumentalists as long as they can reproduce microtones. When a note is raised less than a semitone, it is indicated by a minus (-) sign.

The music may be considered melogenic (melos-melody). Sometimes it is logogenic (word-bound, logos-word) as when the chief sings his potlatch song and recites some parts. Sometimes it can be pathogenic (pathos-full of emotion) as in a medicine man's song. Often, however, it passes these two primitive stages, blending already into the melogenic style which is the style of our western culture.

Each category of song has its own singing style e.g., in a love song the tempo is always slow, the tone tender and soft; in a potlatch song the tempo is animated, the tone is excited, declamatory, with recitative and melody interspersed), The style changes within totem or in animal crest songs which are programmatic and melodious.

The individual songs are also characterized by specific properties. One can distinguish the various types of songs by the manner of singing, rhythm, voice quality, intensity, vibratos, tremolos, glissandos.

The tone quality of each voice is distinctive the attack different. The performing characteristics of the singers are varied: Mungo Martin, brilliant, dynamic; Assu, more lyric and expressive; Fred Louie, very dramatic; Stanley Hunt, beautiful sonority.

Typical styles and characteristics are:

1. special voice production
2. manipulation and repetition with emphasis on single tones
3. glissandi
4. sharn contrast between long and short tones
5. forceful accents on sustained tones produced by guttural pressure on long notes
6. long sustained tones separated by pulsations
7. nasal quality, no falsetto
8. ornamentation
9. unusual simultaneous sounds, as though the singer were reproducing two tones at once, which in transcription might be expressed by two notes together, such as e,f (see Raven Song, Billy Assu, A5, Side 1, song 6)
10. prolongation of tones at end of verse (Ex., Hamatsa, Side 3, Song 2)
11. beginning of polyphony in Grizzly Bear song (Fred Louie and Ella Thompson, Side 1, Song 3). Quite rare
12. octave leaps common, also leans into the 5th and 6th
13. melody pattern based to a great extent on 2nds
14. extensive use of clusters of 2nds
15. an extensive use of vowels, in a way similar to our vocalization, to be found in the most important part of the melodic material Text of song on connective musical material
16. extensive use of microtones
17. clearly defined melodic lines
18. descending melody
19. microtonic rises in variation
20. intentional breath-taking as part of a melody, and for descriptive purposes; a stretto in breath-taking
21. a slight variation of single tones in beating (rhythm) or melody, when the original subject is repeated
22. dramatic drum beat changes from many small beats to slower beats with some tremolo effects
23. changes in dramatic sense and intensity built up also by drumming without singing and by singing without drumming

Most of the songs consist of recitative and melody. Four types of recitative can be distinguished. 1) excited high tone recitative; 2) natural speaking voice on medium tone; 3) fast recitatives, and 4) singing recitatives.

In a spontaneous performance the recitative is used in the following manner: the composer or leader recites the text first, in order to acquaint the singers with the words they are expected to sing. The same words of the recitative are carried over to the part of the song which has a melody.

In Kwakiutl music there in evidence of a distinct variation principle, not in our sense, but in an idiomatic Indian one. After the first melody has been sung the repetitions show slight changes of pitch in a persistent upward direction. In one song, a Headress song, the singer repeats the tune four or five times, but the entire gradual rise amounts to only one tone, e.g. it starts on a c sharp; next we have a c sharp, plus (+); next c sharp plus, plus (++); then d minus (-); followed by d; then d plus (+); and the d plus, plus (++); and finally, d sharp. This raising of pitch is, however, a common characteristic of primitive song--one tone is held as long as possible and the melodic pattern is raised by the increasing excitement of the singer, while diminishing excitement brings a lowering of pitch, often resulting in a primitive portamento.

Kwakiutl music consists of melody with accompaniment. The accompaniment is provided by handclapping, drum-beating, beating with sticks, beating on planks, rattles, and shells. In a song we have two definite rhythms the rhythm of the accompaniment, which is completely different from the rhythm of the melody. To try to establish a relationship between them is impossible. The melodic part of the voice and the accompaniment each has its own rhythm. The generally accepted belief of syncopated accompaniment is wrong. Parallelism of the two rhythms results in incidental combinations. What we find here can be understood as polyrhythm.

To express the rhythm and timing accurately and adequately is an impossible task. The music is not measured by our accepted rules and cannot be indicated by time signature. It was found easiest to express the rhythmic beats with the help of modes, analogous to our modal notation, using stressed and unstressed beats. Thus it was found that the rhythm of the accompaniments falls into the following categories:

1. Iambus
2. Dactyl
3. Trochee
4. Anapaest
5. and modified Anapaest

Even beats in quick or slow succession could be expressed thus. Noteworthy were a seven-beat rhythm and a six-beat rhythm.

The beating never begins simultaneously with the singing. The voice sets in before or after the beat. If a singer were to start on the beat inadvertently, he would be considered uneducated, uninformed, and ill-mannered. Mistakes in ceremonial singing are punishable by fines; the singer loses face, and the tribe, prestige.

To quote Mungo Martin, who always tried to explain "the clapping never comes together with the voice. It comes before the voice sets in or after. Beating can be quite regular, even if the voice has different timing." Actually, according to Mungo Martin's songs there are three different ways of beating which can be summarized thus: (1) voice out, beat after; (2) voice out, beat regular; (3) beat first. voice after. In Women's Dances, according to him, all the beats were even. Drum solos could be quite elaborate.

Billy Assu said "Clapping of the hands is according to the different songs and adapted to the words, not the music. Proper clapping is arranged by the composer of the song."

Certain rhythms are used for certain songs.

The Rhythm is abundant, often shifting from one type to another with baffling swiftness but in a fully disciplined manner.

In examining the stability of rising pitches in variation and stability of microtones the question may arise if this is a performance characteristic of an individual singer or a basic trait. Experiments were carried out by Dr. Halpern in which Chief Billy Assu was asked, after a lapse of one month, to repeat a song which had previously been recorded. The distribution of microtones was identical, as were the rises in variations.

The melodic impact of the single repeated note (this pulsating accented note) with its hidden potential, has a dramatic impulse which gives character and highlights the concepts. This device is used extensively in Indian music. A common factor is the tendency of the melodic line to move towards one long sustained note. The musical material gravitates and climaxes toward it. Specification of songs is not by title but by type. One can distinguish and refer to songs such as Hamatsa, potlatch, love song, etc. but not, for instance, to a specific Hamatsa.

The voice production of the native Indian is noticeably different from that of western man. Their intonation might appear to us out of tune but is certainly not so. It is not simply a fixed intonation but, once begun, follows in strict melodic pattern and variation. They vary their melodic material by a slight raising or lowering of pitch, a consistent feature of their singing. This raising of pitch continues several times in a song, often three or four times, though it may, in our system, amount to only half a tone altogether. We should never, however, assume that they are out of pitch. (Experiment by the collector has proven this.) These slight raises of pitch represent their variation technique.

One of the characteristics of primitive songs is the use of syllables instead of entire words and texts. Usually the syllables are referred to an meaningless or nonsensical. In the Indian music of the Pacific Northwest Coast one finds text and syllables interspersed. During this research an interesting and differing conclusion was arrived at concerning the so-called meaningless and nonsensical syllables. The generally accepted understanding is that these syllables have no meaning or connection with the song. On the contrary it was found that the syllables have a specific relationship to the song. They represent part of the meaning and content and are meaningful abbreviations of words referred to in the song.

The proof for this conclusion was derived from the following examples:

1. In Grizzly Dear songs syl1ables used are NA-NA or HI-HO-HU. NA-NA means "grizzly bear" in the Nootka and Kwakiutl languages. HI-HO-HU is the sound the bear makes. (See Side 1, Songs 3 & 4.)
2. In Raven songs the syllables (KA-GKA are used extensively. representing the cry of the Raven (similar to the crow). (See Side 1, Songs 6 & 7.)
3. In Hamatsa songs (songs of the Wild Man of the Woods, sometimes referred to as Cannibal songs) the syllables HA-MA, HA-MA-MAI are related to "Hamatsa." (See Side 3, Songs 1, 2, 3, & 4.)
4. In the Wolf songs the sound JI-HT is the descriptive howl of the wolf. (See Side 1, Songs 1 & 2.)
5. In the Mourning songs the syllables A-NA-NA and A-NA-NA-11 are derived from the word ANANA which means hurt and is an expression of sorrow and grief. (See Side 3, Song 5.)
6. In the Ghost song one hears JACHA-ANA-NEI, (See Side 3, Song 8.)
7. & 8. The same idea prevails in the Cradle and Baby songs. (See Side 4, Songs 4 & 5.)

Another proof to justify the viewpoint that the so-called meaningless syllables are not really meaningless occurs in the Hamatsa songs (Side 3, Song 1), when the syllables HAMAI HAM are heard. HAM indicates for the Hamatsa dancer, when the beak of the Hamatsa mask should be opened and closed. Thus, one sees also a direct relationship between the so-called meaningless syllables and the content of the dance.

On the question of form, one finds very well-balanced musical phrases and a clear-cut structural organization as, for example, in the Hamatea song. Exceptions also can occur, as in the Medicine Woman song. (Side 3, Song 6.) Here a rhapsodic looseness of form structure appears to express the function of that song much more magnetically than strictness of form might. The flexibility of the song lends itself to expressiveness, just as looseness in Romanticism compares with formal discipline in Classicism.