Music and the potato

The potato is central to the structuring of musical expression.

—Henry Stobart 
(To be fair, he wasn’t claiming this as a universal of human musicking.
Cf. The life of Brian sermon: ““Blessed are the cheesemakers”
Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally.
It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”)

*UPDATED!*

Being highly partial to a good potato, I’m well up for an article on its relation with music.

  • Henry Stobart, “Flourishing horns and enchanted tubers: music and potatoes in highland Bolivia”, British journal of ethnomusicology 1994.3,

makes a tasty hors d’ouevre for his 2006 book Music and the poetics of production in the Bolivian Andes; note also his Introduction to The new (ethno)musicologies (2008)—a volume that includes many thoughtful chapters, such as those of Michelle Bigenho. and Nicole Beaudry. For me, Stobart’s discussion of a rural Andean hamlet marks a rare excursion to south America.

Music is not the universal language that many people have often claimed it to be. This does not prevent us from deriving great pleasure and inspiration from the musics of other cultures, but the structural principles, aesthetics, and perceptual bases of our appreciation are likely to be radically different from those of the performers themselves.

In another instance of the exclusive, culturally-based meanings of the term “music”, the Spanish word musica is used to refer to either urban brass bands or sometimes sikura panpipe ensembles. As conversations veer off into agriculture, he learns that performance revolves around cycles of agricultural production.

Flutes and guitars, or panpipes, are played for rainy and dry seasons in turn. The wooden pinkillu flutes, considered “alive”, with their “eyes”, are strongly associated with the potato, whereas the panpipes of the dry season, lacking fingerholes, are unable to regenerate. The flutes are “enclosed” by women in the qhata circle dance, and released at Carnival preceding the dry season.

As Stobart notes, “the lives of humans and potatoes overlap and are sometimes compared with one another”. Instruments are considered to “weep”. The pinkillu is also associated with the sirinus, demonic and enchanting beings, who are said to provide players with new melodies between the feasts of San Sebastian and Carnival. The flutes are then hidden away until the following November—which according to a recent survey in The Strad was also voted one of the “best possible things you can do with a viola“, among other popular items covering the entire annual cycle.

For my hosts the potato is no mundane staple, but is an enchanting and magical being whose life is seen in many ways to parallel and enable their own. Potatoes must be loved and cared for, just like human children. This sentiment is expressed through music, song, poetry, and dance which in turn are some of the ultimate expressions of human feeling. For the people of this highland hamlet, it would seem that the potato must count among the most important organising principles of musical performance. Or rather, might it be more accurate to say that music is one of the primary expressions of the potato?

As one often finds, this cyclical relation between agriculture and performance is being impoverished by migration and changing patterns of labour. But this account makes a welcome antidote to all those (alas, perennial) panpipe bands that clog high streets worldwide, bless their alpaca socks.

* * *

To introduce a meretricious interlude on Li Manshan, I can offer the classic headline

Oh my gourd! (cf. these other silly article titles).

LMS potatoes

For more, see The history and social influence of the potato. Though “Daoist ritual and the potato” is a yet-unploughed field, for some reason I always think of Li Manshan when I’m peeling potatoes at home in Chiswick—which I do remarkably often, if impressionistically. While potatoes (shanyao 山药 or yangyu 洋芋 rather than standard tudou 土豆) feature rather sparingly in the local cuisine, which (as generally in north China) is based on noodles, he has a cool underground store in his courtyard, occasionally using a wicker basket to dredge up some potatoes for his wife to incorporate into various succulent recipes. For Li Manshan’s relationship with the earth, see my film, from 6.20.

See also You say potato, You say tomato, and Alan Partridge‘s confident, tasteless comments on the Irish famine.

* * *

“Flourishing horns and enchanted tubers” belongs to Stobart’s early career. In a fine recent update,

  • “Potato music revisited and the rise of a worldly music studies: perspectives from the UK”, in Gerd Grupe (ed.), Recent trends and new directions in ethnomusicology: a European perspective on ethnomusicology in the 21st century (2019),

he puts it in a wider context, reflecting wisely on the changing scene in UK musicology, as WAM scholars have fought a rearguard action against the growing trend for studies of folk and popular music, jazz, and film music.

On his early article, he notes that if he had written it a decade later,

it would probably have included explicit references to (post)colonialism, modernity, class, race, politics, violence, gender issues, migration, or new technologies; themes, among many others, that I would go on to explore in subsequent work.

But that’s not the main issue he needs to address here. Like other ethnomusicologists, Stobart is eminently sympathetic to the study and practice of WAM. Conversely, as Bruno Nettl already observed over half a century ago, the WAMmies are anxious about the perceived threat to their status (a regular theme of my blog, e.g. under Musicking, and What is serious music?!), fearing that “the ethnos are taking over”. So Stobart’s chapter is mainly a careful, equanimous response to belated, misleadingly simplistic critiques by J.P.E. Harper-Scott and Ian Pace.

Is Harper-Scott suggesting that by glancing beyond, what he calls, a “Eurocentric focus on Beethoven” and asking bigger questions, students’ minds might somehow become contaminated?
Alternatively, is he worried about the legitimacy of what he studies and teaches, where we might interpret his attack as an attempt to shore up this music’s value though negative assessment of others?
[…]
The ‘noble savage’-style “essential authenticity” Harper-Scott reads into the article is largely a product of his own imagination.

Moreover,

According to Harper-Scott, I should be berated for failing to condemn these Bolivian potato farmers for their misogyny and pro-natalist attitudes from a universal moral position. Quite how he manages to read the text , and interpret the symbolism of this dance, as evidence of these people’s misogyny is hard to fathom. […]

Of course, a global economic order which enables certain populations to live in poverty is immensely troubling. As Harper-Scott would know if he read my 2006 book, I am painfully aware that the musical expressions I have documented in this rural community have been maintained in large part because of the precariousness of people’s lives. However, it is hard not to be annoyed by the dismissive way in which Harper-Scott seems to propose that, rather than listening to these people and trying to understand their values and way of life, I heroically barge in with scientific knowledge to miraculously bring them out of poverty.

That’s just a taster—do seek out the whole article, as well as reading Music and the poetics of production in the Bolivian Andes!

While Bach did reflect exotic imports with his Coffee Cantata, a Potato Cantata has not come to light. Indeed, potatoes were not grown as a field crop in Germany until the 1770s; considering the malnutrition from which Bach’s ancestors suffered, John Eliot Gardiner (Music in the castle of heaven, pp.23–4) laments that “they had no access to the common spud”.

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