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Friday, May 06, 2011

Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present

BOOK REVIEW
Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present
by Chirstopher I. Beckwith
p. 2009
Princeton University Press


   In a certain sense, you could state that the entire pre-History and History of humanity can be described by depicting the fall in prominence of Central Asia from its position of shaper of all that was to come in pre-History, through the great Empires of the Classic and Medieval Periods down to Central Asia's present status as an economically depressed, under-educated, war-torn back water.

  So far has the geographic area described in this book fallen that it does not even register on the radar of most contemporary West European/Americans as a location at all.  Instead, Central Asia is known more for some of the nations that are located there- Afghanistan, for one, Tibet, for another then for its identity as a region.  That's a pity, because considering the amount of money we are shoveling into Central Asia, you would think, we, as a nation, would have a vested interest in knowing the history of the place.

  Beckwith starts with an abiding interest in the Indo European diaspora and does an excellent job describing the common characteristics of the daughter cultures.  Chief among the ideas is the "Comitatus."  The Comitatus is a group of armed, mounted warriors whose loyalty lay with the chief of the tribe (as supposed to with a specific people, empire or nation.)  The Comitatus was tied to their leader by blood and honor- the idea of a "blood brother" is specifically derived from Indo-European roots.  Although likely originated in the proto-Indo European morass, the Comitatus was not limited to PIE speakers- the Mongols as well as other non PIE descended speakers adopted it to great impact throughout history.  In the Arab world, the Turks brought Comitatus to the Middle East via the Mamaluk tradition.

  The primary pre-Historical dynamic that Beckwith illuminates is the role that agriculture played in pre-Historic times. The so-called "Nomadic" peoples of pre-Historic times farmed as well as herded, and Beckwith repeatedly makes the strong point that viewing Indo European and later expansion and diffusion through the filter of the desire to control trade makes just as much sense as any previous explanation.   He notes that the Scythians, a northern Iranian speaking barbarian people known to the Greeks for their wild ways and red hair, were setting up wheat farms specifically to export to the Greek colonies of the Black Sea and the main land in the period 300-200 BC.

    The historical diffusion of the Indo European speakers lasted from 2000 BC all the way to the edge of the Christian era, in three successive waves, after which remaining Indo Europeans in Central Asia (mostly the Iranians and their descendants) duked it out with peoples from the East: Tibetans, Chinese, Turks and Mongols, in a process that ended up with them being displaced out of Central Asia and taking their present day locations and merging with the peoples already in residence.

   Under the Turks and Mongols, Central Asia reached the height of prominence in the early Middle Ages, a time when other World Areas were struggling- Western Europe comes to mind.  Central Asians, particularly the little-known Sogdian people, influenced the rising Arab Caliphate as well as the Chinese Dynasties, and the intellectual achievements between about 300 and 800 AD were first class.  Under the Mongols, the Silk Road had a "pax-Mongolia" where trade and wealth rose to unmatched heights.  Mongol rule was disrupted by the plague, and after that Central Eurasia suffered a long term decline that was persisted up to today.

  The Silk Road was displaced by the "Maritime Littoral" otherwise known to Western Europeans and their progeny as the "Age of Discovery," starting in the 16th century.  That displacement was solidified by the 19th century partition of Central Asia between Russia and China.  Since then it has been "all downhill" as they say. It's almost impossible to imagine a return to global prominence for Central Asia.  Perhaps there is some grand world-historical lesson there, but I'm inclined to think not.

  Regardless of the present situation, the incredible success of the Indo European daughter languages makes those ancestor cultures of interest to anyone who's trying to "show how we are all one people,"  promote peace, global understanding, cross cultural communication etc.  Particularly when it comes to places like Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan this history bears directly on our experiences there and the lessons should be heeded.

The Three Waves of Indo European Migration in Pre-History

  The major error of Indo European studies is the FALSE equation of "Indo European Language" with "Indo European Race" or "Aryan Race."  The fact is that Race is a concept that doesn't really exist in any universal sense, whereas language is in many ways the very foundation of human culture.

 One of the issues with Pre-History is the lack of written history itself.  This limits sources to non-historical scientific fields like archeology and linguistics.  For Indo European studies, linguistics has proved particularly important because of a combination of twentieth century inaccessibility to archeological sites in Central Asia and the Middle East and the Greek/Latin/Sanskrit comparison itself being both a seminal moment in Indo European Studies AND the foundation of comparative linguistics.

  The main debate in linguistics as it concerns Indo European Studies is what the different Indo Euroepan daughter languages can tell us about WHERE "Proto-Indo-European" speakers CAME FROM.  For a looongggg time the debate focused on finding a "right" answer, but the debate was marred by errors made by earlier linguists.  Current linguistics favors a 'three wave model' of diaspora, with groups spinning off from the center at different times in (pre) History.

   Group A, the first language is Anatolian (present Turkey) and Tokharian (eastern Asia).  Group B is Germanic, Italic, Greek, Indic and Armenian.  Group C is Celtic, Slavic, Baltic Albanian and Iranian.  If you add in the archeological findings in places like the Tarim Basin, the departure/split for Group A is about 2000 BC.  Group B comes as early as 1600 BC and then Group C runs all the way into the "Christian" era.  There was also interaction among the different daughter languages, both between and in-between groups.  For example, Indo-Iranian is commonly referred to as a family, even though under this model Indic proceeds Iranian.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

White People in Kafiristan & The War on Terror

Kalash kids.

Kids at play

  These are  photographs is of native children who lives in northwest Pakistan.  It comes from a photo set labelled Kalash, Chitral.  The Kalash language is from an obscure branch of the indo european language family.  The Kalash live in the part of Pakistan known as the "north west province."  I will guarantee you a million dollars that when most people think about islamic terrorism and the impact our behavior is having in that part of the world, they are wholly unaware that people who look like this- i.e. white- live in THAT part of the world.

  Here is another one:

Kalash Girl Pakistan

  Check out this entire photo set.  Pakistan, people. Pakistan.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Ennis Diamond & The Eighth Stream: Important Relationships in American Popular Music

     In his awesome, The Seventh Stream: The Emergence of Rocknroll in American Popular Music, author Philip Ennis describes the relationships common to all "streams" of American Popular Music.  He describes it in the shape of a "diamond" thus "Ennis Diamond" because each corner of the diamond has a relationship with the corresponding corners.  The four tips of the diamond are:

  Artists
  Audience
  Critic
  Distributor

     Each stream of Popular Music (Pop, Country Pop, Black Pop, Gospel, Folk, Jazz, Rock) can be described in terms of the Ennis Diamond, and one can show how Streams can have similarities and differences, both in terms of the tips of the diamond, as well as the relationships between the tips.

   On a personal level, the Ennis Diamond comports with some of the topics I've covered on this blog- particularly the characteristics of the Audience as one of these important "tips" of the Ennis Diamond.

    Using this terminology, a critic could also hypothesize an "eighth stream," perhaps consisting of "electronic pop" or "foreign pop."  You can also use the Ennis Diamond to describe the impact of a specific technological change among Artists of each stream, or how that same technological change allows specific Artists to "cross" the streams.

The Seventh Stream: The Emergence of Rocknroll in American Popular Music

BOOK REVIEW
The Seventh Stream:
The Emergence of Rocknroll in American Popular Music
by Philip H. Ennis
Wesleyan University Press
p.  1992

    A note on vocabulary- Ennis uses the term "Rocknroll" to refer to the formative period of "rock and roll."  He distinguishes rocknroll from the later period of "rock."  Basically, rocknroll is what happened before 1965 and "rock" happened afterwards.  It's not a usage that has caught on in any significant way since the publication of this book in 1992, and perhaps that is unfortunate, because I, for one, happen to agree that "everything changed" in the mid 1960s, and that the changes weren't for the better.

  Eninis' main thesis is that rocknroll was the synthesis of the six pre-existing "streams" of American popular music:  Pop (Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building), Black Pop, Country Pop, Gospel, Jazz and Folk.  In the first section of The Seventh Stream, Ennis focuses on the "assembly" of the six distinct streams against the back drop of technological change between 1900 and 1940.  His insightful, distinct division of American Popular Music into six "streams" is paired with a turgid, obvious recitation of the pre-World War II struggle between the publishing industry and the broadcasting industry.  To his credit, Ennis does clearly demonstrate how this struggle influenced the development of the "six streams"  (In a nutshell, the rise of radio favored Black Pop and Country Pop at the expense of Traditional Pop.)

  The lasting contribution that Ennis makes to "rock history" comes in his tour-de-force of a second section, where he describes the emergence of rocknroll in the post World War II period.  Perhaps his most important insight is the manner in which he describes the reflective relationship between Charts and the Record Labels who sought to profit from that information.  The concept linking the two is the "crossover" i.e. a song that appeared simultaneously on two or more of the three major post War charts: Pop, Country & Rhythm and Blues.  Ennis makes the case that it was the goal of the actors in the period immediately preceding the emergence of rocknroll to CREATE a sound that would "chart" on all three charts at the same time.
  This was certainly the goal of Bill Haley, whose "Rock Around the Clock" was the first rock "hit" in 1955.  Haley, a long time musical journeyman, had been tinkering with different stylistic combinations in a concentrated attempt to "cross-over" BEFORE he recorded rock around the clock.  This was also the case for the man who would embody the emergence of rocknroll: Elvis Presley.  Before Elvis arrived, Sam Phillips was LOOKING for someone LIKE Elvis- a white guy who could sing like a black guy.  It's an analysis that very much gibes with my own reading of the same books that Ennis relied on.  In this analysis, the technological changes that preceded rocknroll's emergence (the 45)) were a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence.  Rather, it was the effort of specific individuals to "solve the problem" of cross-over appeal, as based on their analysis of the Billboard/Cashbox charts.  This effort was largely undertaken by the independent effort of small scale record label owners- not- repeat- not- by the major labels of the time.
    Like other books about rock that were published prior to the mp3 revolution, Ennis' section covering the mid 60s to the "present" suffers from the absence of the internet. Certainly, one is reminded of the "End of History" type books that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall and failed to anticipate the rise of Islamic radicalism.
     One theme that emerges from the Seventh Stream is the way in which dominant streams become creatively "exhausted" and then look to outside influences from less popular streams.  Ennis also tips his cap to the importance of demographics- it's hard to divorce the emergence of rocknroll from the post World War II "baby boom" and concomitant rise of "Youth Culture."  All in all, the Seventh Stream is easily the BEST book I've ever read on the roots of rocknroll.  It's a must read, especially for young musicians or would be cultural critics.  GO GET IT.

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