World Music: Documenting Cultural Extinction – John Marshall’s !kung Series

Since the 1960’s, ethnographer John Marshall’s lens has documented the destruction of the South West African Khoisan culture.  In early films he brought the viewer to eye level with the women’s circles in N/um Tchai: The Ceremonial Dance of the !Kung Bushmen (bw).  We watch the arrhythmic fire flicker through male dancer’s legs from their ground level point of view.  The sound track blends women yodeling a polyphonic tune as they clap; lending their percussion to the men’s rustling leggings and pounding feet.  The camera aims from above, showing a stamped palimpsest – a kind of figure eight looping between two different groups of women.  Marshall shows the Trance-Dance and the narrative tells us that the N/um Tchai ceremony is a healing ritual.

A later film in this series documents the 1986 !Kung San: Resettlement after diamond are discovered in their territory.  An old woman remembers a time before people suffered from TB.  When they “Could leave sickness behind…”  In this film, the people look sad and malnourished in their stripped watch caps.  The woman will continue to tell us that the hunting and gathering territory has been reduced by the government and Khoisam stay in cramped camps to receive food.  Their cosmogony and culture have been reworked by an army chaplain.

My response when first watching the clips was to think of the physiology of trance and how anthropologists and philosophers enumerate and speculate on the diverse means and reasons why humans seek altered states.  I was wondering how brainwaves can be altered by near starvation, monotonous song and asynchronous flickering.  As I watched these few clips over and over I came to realize that Marshall’s work had only frozen a 20,000 culture and after years o “resettlement  it could never be revived.

Author: diane e. dreyfus

on the road until they put the lid down

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