It’s funny what happens when you read a book for the right reasons. Too many showtunes and Fank Loesser anecdotes lately, I thought, so last year I plumped for Daniel Everett‘s Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes. It’s the tale of a Christian missionary learning the language of an obscure Amazon tribe, the Pirahäs (Pee-da-HANS). The Pirahäs have no discrete terms for colour, no complex sentences and they learn new skills and words with great reluctance.
And everything was going well: Everett learned the language, befriended the people, undermined Noam Chomsky’s dominant theories of language and culture, and lost his faith. All good, non-musical fun.
Except that, as the title of the book implies, Pirahäs keep odd hours at night. They sleep for a few hours at a time, and after they have a dream, they tell it to the rest of their community, narrating it across the river in a kind of sing-song voice. They believe, as they adopt the voice of the god or spirit they encountered in their dream, that they are not relating a fictional event, but something that really happened. Their dreams are real experience, and what’s more, when they adopt the sing-song voice of a spirit, the Pirahä believe that they are the spirit.
This is a people who, if you take a month or so to teach them dug-out canoe building, will forget it later. They don’t keep anything they don’t need, but they sing and they improvise song for each other, as a way of keeping their community close-knit and up to date with what’s going on in their dream lives, which are not separate from their real lives.
So now, when I see something like this …
… what fascinates me is the behaviour of the audience. It’s partly cultural, obviously, to form a polite crowd and play your role as observer, but I wonder if it doesn’t go deeper. There are schools of thought that suggest we sang before we spoke, that our pitch-inflected spoken languages are actually the dull remains of a richer sung language; Homer (whoever he/she was) probably sang/chanted the whole Iliad and Odyssey.
So when singers appear out of nowhere and perform, do we somehow know, deep down, that we’re being told a story, and that our job is to participate by not getting the way? And do we know that what we’re seeing is simultaneously true and not true? Were the first songwriters vital to the tribe, preserving stories of the day, the hunt, and everyone’s dreams?
Oh, and isn’t that bit with the umbrellas fabulous?