All over the world musical instruments are an essential part of cultural life; as well as making music, they serve specific purposes related to non musical contexts. In many religious rituals, for instance, musical instruments are indispensable. Made from solid material they enable man to touch the immaterial. As a means of communication they bridge the gap between this world and the other; their sound invoking a deity or giving voice to the spirit of an ancestor. During agrarian festivals and seasonal rituals, musical instruments are often used to renew and confirm a cosmological harmony, thus averting damage to a community and promising a rich harvest.
And of course, the use of musical instruments is also embedded in the ceremonies that mark the key stages of an individual’s life, with music playing a central role in the various celebrations that follow us from birth to death.
The purpose and meaning of musical instruments differs from region to region and from one culture to another, so it is impossible to sketch a general picture. This section of the exhibition will give a few examples to illustrate the important role that musical instruments play in religious and agricultural ceremonies, in the rites of the human lifecycle.
Remembering ancestors is still a current practice in many cultures, including in the West. Ancestor worship however is very specific for Asian cultures, while in traditional African cultures ancestors are thought to have the power to work both good and evil on a descendant’s life. Ancestors and elders must therefore be pleased through music. This can be realised during festivals, sometimes lasting for several days – as it is the case in Yoruba tradition, one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa - or through specific rituals. Some musical instruments have a huge symbolic value as “voice of the ancestors”, bull roarers for example.
Agrarian & Rural Rituals
Life in agrarian societies and rural communities is bound up with rituals related to the succession of the seasons. Fertility rites and hunting ceremonies with songs and the use of musical instruments are found in all cultures worldwide. Most of these rites are only performed during festivals or at festive occasions. Other musical customs survive mainly for practical reasons, such as in the use of whistles by pygmies during hunting.
Birth, Weddings & Funerals
Rituals around birth, weddings and death are part of the so called rites of passage - a term that includes also rituals of puberty. They mark the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage to another over time, or from one role or social position to another. As a rule, they are accompanied by singing and dancing and/or the use of musical instruments. In many cultures the birth of twins, for example, is associated with very specific rituals, sometimes with rattles, sounding sticks and even xylophones. In some funeral rituals, an anthropomorphic musical instrument is used to represent the deceased person.