The Origins of Musical Instruments
and the Legacy of Dance and Music
By Ismail Veli…….
To say that music, dance and films have not affected human behaviour and to one degree or another even changed the course of our lives would be an understatement. Instruments dance and music have no doubt changed dramatically over centuries but essentially the excitement and thrill has not. In the last century or so this has taken the form of movies and records, tapes and CD’s have revolutionized availability to the poorest household like no other period in human history. But how did it all start? Not an easy question to answer. It’s not known with any certainty but one of the earliest known form of chanting was known as the ‘Vedas’ written in the ‘Rig-Veda’ which was written in the 4th or 5th century AD, but this was believed to originate from a collection of Hindu sacred verses originating as far back as the 2nd millennium BC and incorporated into the religion much later on. The early Christians sang their prayers in unison with simple melodies that originated from Greek and Hebrew musical tradition. Pope Gregory I ordered a review of Church music in the late 6th century AD which took the form of plainsong and named after the Pope who introduced it and was known as the ‘Gregorian chant,’
Unlike sounds and chants which naturally leave no archaeological evidence, musical instruments seem to go back much further. The oldest known instrument is the straight pipe flute found in Slovenia, this was made from a bears thigh bone with finger-holes drilled into it, and is estimated at a whopping 40-50.000 years old. The German’s dispute this as another bone flute estimated to date around 42-43.000 years was found in southern Germany in 2008. Proof that humans enjoyed sounds and music long before urbanization and developed farming. Sculptures and pottery paintings dating to 3000 BC show a wide range of wind instruments including reed pipes. These instruments became very popular in the Near East and the Greeks later adapted and improved these instruments into the double-reeded aulos. The Chinese adapted the transverse flute an instrument which is blown sideways across the mouthpiece. This dates to around the 9th century BC. This eventually reached Germany around the 12th century AD. In 1690. Johann Christophe Dennet a German instrument-maker developed this into what we know as the clarinet.
Long before this the ancient Egyptian priests and soldiers used long trumpets and a cylindrical tube. In fact two trumpets were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. One was made of bronze and gold the other from silver. The Romans called the trumpet the ‘tubas’ but also used a J shaped model called the ‘Lituus’ and a G shaped one called the ‘Cornu,’. These were used in battle. In ancient times officers found it difficult to instruct their troops therefore these instruments played a vital role in instructions, and rallying their men in the middle of fierce hand to hand fighting. Both the Lituus, and the Cornu are believed to have originated from the Etruscans, an advanced group of people believed to have settled in Italy after the destruction of Troy around the 12-1100 BC.
Harps seem to have been used in Mesopotamia nearly 5000 years ago. Bow harps can be seen in tablets originating from the Sumerian city of Ur as far back as 2800 BC. Lutes are known to have existed in Babylonia and are depicted on seals around the period 2300 BC.
The Greeks organised plays in advanced forms of drama which became such an important part of their ancient culture that theatres still surviving show the brilliance and innovation in this field that few have matched. The plays of the Greeks are just as well known today as it was in the classical period. Another form of song was the Greek classical adventure stories. The Iliad and Odyssey written by Homer around the 8th century BC have yet to be surpassed.
Perhaps some of the most enduring dances of recent centuries may have their origins from Africa and the Roma (better known as Gypsies) people who moved from India to many parts of the world, in particular Europe. Among my favourites are the Flamenco and many other Latin dances. The Flamenco may be a corrupt Arabic name of ”felag-mengu” (labrador huido in Spanish or labrador fled). The origins of the amazing musical and dance culture of the Roma people is now recognized as having contributed to European culture and is undisputed by many non-prejudiced historians. Due to their unique lifestyle and culture they wrongly aroused suspicion, faced immense persecution and even genocide in WW2. It’s no secret that the Roma peoples losses in Hitler’s concentration camps as a percentage of their population was one of the highest of any group of people. Estimates are no less than a quarter of their population. This issue however is outside the scope of this article.
Though the word Flamenco seems to be of Arabic origin it seems to have originated from the region of Andalucia. until the 18th and 19th centuries anything connected with the Roma people was often ridiculed and met with scorn, but as the passion and liveliness of Flamenco grew it was accepted by the Spanish and has now become an integral part of the whole Latin culture. The African slaves brought into North and south America have almost dominated many aspects of the dance and music of these continents and helped spread their immensely exciting styles to the four corners of the world. In historic terms the cha cha cha and salsa are very recent introductions originating from the Cuban-African groups and even the Latins of New York. Many however believe that the style and energy of the cha cha cha were known to the Cuban Afro people long before they hit the international stage. If one thing is certain however it’s that the former African slaves in the Americas either by origin, invention or combination of both have left an immense legacy and have helped shape the world of the music industry like few others. Can we imagine a world without Jazz, Rumba, Flamenco, Salsa, cha cha cha or even tap dancing.
Perish the thought!