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Blacking, Professor John

Category: Scientist

 

John Anthony Randoll Blacking (1928 – 1990) was a British ethnomusicologist and social anthropologist. 

He became a professor of social anthropology at the Queen's University of Belfast, Northern lreland and in 1970 was appointed professor of anthropology at Western Michigan University, where he first taught courses in anthropology and ethnomusicology. 

He spent most of his later academic career at Queen's University Belfast, in Northern Ireland, where he was professor of social anthropology from 1970 until his death in 1990. 

John Blacking House was named in Belfast, in honour of his involvement with the Open Door Housing Association.

...we may be able to prove conclusively that all men are born with potentially brilliant intellects...and that the source of cultural creativity is the consciousness that springs from social cooperation and loving interaction...the majority of us live far below our potential, because of the oppressive nature of most societies

 

Tshikona is lwa-ha-masia-khali-i-tshi-vhila, "the time when people rush to the scene of the dance and leave their pots to boil over." Tshikona "makes sick people feel better and old men throw away their sticks and dance." Tshikona "brings peace to the countryside...." It is an example of the production of the maximum of available human energy in a situation that generates the highest degree of individuality in the largest possible community of individuals [Blacking]

Life

 

Born in England on October 22nd 1928, he was educated at Salisbury Cathedral and Sherborne schools, where he received his early musical training.

During a period of compulsory military service, he was commissioned in H.M. Coldstream Guards and spent the year 1948 in Malaya. He learned the Malay language and, while on military operations in the jungle, visited settlements of the Sakai and Senoi tribesmen who lived there. These experiences, together with many encounters with Malay, Chinese, and Indian people and their cultures, changed the direction of his career and forced a gradual reassessment of his own culture and its values.

We must ask why apparently general musical abilities should be restricted to a chosen few in societies supposed to be culturally more advanced. Does cultural development represent a real advance in human sensitivity, or is it chiefly a diversion for elites and a weapon of class exploitation? ....... if a composer wants to produce music that is relevant to his contemporaries, his chief problem is not really musical, though it may seem to him to be so; it is a problem of attitude to contemporary society and culture in relation to the basic human problem of learning to be human.

In 1957, Dr. Blacking graduated from King's College, Cambridge, with a bachelor's degree in social anthropology. During the summer of 1952, he had studied ethnomusicology at the Musee de l'Homme, Paris, under Andre Schaeffner.

 

An appointment as Government Adviser on Aborigines in Malaya lasted six days, until he was dismissed after a disagreement with General Sir Gerald Templer in November 1953.  Thereafter, he did some anthropological research, taught at a secondary school in Singapore, broadcast on Radio Malaya, accompanied Maurice Clare on a concert tour, returned to Paris for piano lessons in June 1954, and went to South Africa as musicologist of the International Library of African Music.

He worked with Dr. Hugh Tracey on recording tours in Zululand and Mozambique, and transcribed and analysed music in the library's collection. During 1956-58 he undertook fieldwork among the Venda of the Northern Transvaal, and in 1959 he was appointed lecturer in social anthropology and African government at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Dr. Blacking carried out ethnomusicological fieldwork among the Gwembe Tonga and Nsenga of Zambia, and in parts of Uganda and South Africa, as well as anthropological research in and around Johannesburg.

He was awarded his doctorate by the university in 1965, and at the end of the year appointed professor and head of the department. In 1965, he was also visiting professor of African Music at Makerere University, Kampala. ln 1966, he was appointed chairman of the African Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand.  At the end of 1969,  he left South Africa.

Dr John Blacking – How musical is man?

I am a musician who has become a professional anthropologist, ….. ln 1952, when I was devoting far more time to music than to my courses in anthropology, Meyer Fortes sent me to Paris to study ethnomusicology under Andre Schaeffner during a summer vacation. But another five years passed before I began to glimpse the possibilities of an anthropology of music. Even after a year's intensive fieldwork, I tended to regard African music as something "other”; and this attitude would be reinforced when I listened to a tape of Wozzeck or some of Webern's music in my tent, or whenever there was a piano available and I could immerse myself in Bach, or Chopin, or Mozart.  It was the Venda of South Africa who first broke down some of my prejudices. They introduced me to a new world of musical experience and to a deeper understanding of “my own” music…………..

The Venda taught me that music can never be a thing in itself, and that all music is folk music, in the sense that music cannot be transmitted or have meaning without associations between people.

Distinctions between the surface complexity of different musical styles and techniques do not tell us anything useful about the expressive purposes and power of music, or about the intellectual organization involved in its creation. Music is too deeply concerned with human feelings and experiences in society, and its patterns are too often generated by surprising outbursts of unconscious cerebration, for it to be subject to arbitrary rules, like the rules of games.

Many, if not all, of music's essential processes may be found in the constitution of the human body and in patterns of interaction of human bodies in society. Thus all music is structurally, as well as functionally, folk music.

The makers of " art" music are not innately more sensitive or cleverer than "folk" musicians: the structures of their music simply express, by processes similar to those in Venda music, the numerically larger systems of interaction of folk in their societies, the consequences of a more extensive division of labour, and an accumulated technological tradition.

 South Africa, Venda, June 2001. Venda women wearing Mwendas doing the Tshigombela dance that honours King Tshivhase

 

References

photo by John Blacking

Dr. Blacking was the author of many publications on Venda initiation rites and music and on the relationship between the patterns of music and culture.  The observations appertaining to these can be found under the source African tribal.   His books include:

  • How musical is man? - Many of Blacking’s ideas about the social impact of music can be found in his 1973 book How Musical is Man?. In this highly influential book, Blacking called for a study of music as "Humanly Organized Sound", arguing that "it is the activities of Man the Music Maker that are of more interest and consequence to humanity than the particular musical achievements of Western man", and that "no musical style has 'its own terms': its terms are the terms of its society and culture
  • Black Background: The Childhood of a South African Girl
  • Venda Children's Songs: A Study in Ethnomusicological Analysis (1967), - ), one of the first ethnomusicological works to focus directly on the interpenetration of music and culture
  • Process and Product in Human Society.
  • Anthropology of the Body (London:Academic Press,1977) and
  • A Commonsense View of All Music: reflections on Percy Grainger's contribution to ethnomusicology and music education (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

The Callaway Centre in University of Western Australia holds an archive of his field notes and tapes, the John Blacking Collection.

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