Sunday, March 22, 2009


Words have a strange power over us. Anyone can appreciate this who has been to a Death Metal concert or an opera, major sporting event, heard an orator like Martin Luther King, Jr. or witnessed Tibetan monks chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Though most religious beliefs and scientific theories about the origins of the universe favor light at the beginning, there are some that don’t see, but hear the beginning in the form of the First Sound.

The science of Hindu “mantras” or sounds of power is one living example from the Sanskrit tradition that is thousands of years old. This tradition which also figures in Buddhism is based on the ancient development of certain words, syllables, sounds or groups of word that are distinguished by having the ability to create transformation as tools of power. The respect that the specific use of sound had in these Eastern traditions is no better borne witness to than in the early use of music and sound as a weapon that was regarded as capable of being terminal—a feature, perhaps, that some Death Metal fans secretly wish for.

Marshall McLuhan observed that Hitler’s rise can be attributed in large part not only to the dire economic circumstances of 30’s Germany, but to his absolute command of the radio. Had he lived during the Age of Television, McLuhan points out, his frenzied, frothing at the mouth, mad-eyed delivery wouldn’t have lasted a second.

Given the unique power of sound, it’s no wonder that the notion of its connection to the origin of the cosmos entered the realm of modern music as well. Pete Townshend incorporated the idea at core of The Who’s “Lifehouse” project with the song “Pure and Easy” which proclaimed, “There once was a note, pure and easy…” Maestro and 20th century classical composer, Frank Zappa, was more expansive in his expostulating of “The Big Note” in his early masterwork, “Lumpy Gravy”: "Everything in the universe is ... is ... is made of one element, which is a note, a single note. Atoms are really vibrations, you know, which are extensions of THE BIG NOTE...Everything's one note. Everything—even the ponies. The Note, however, is the ultimate power, but see, the pigs don't know that, the ponies don't know that..."

Zappa continued the dialogue in “A Different Octave” in his “Civilization Phaze III”:

Spider: We are ... actually the same note, but ...
John: But different octave.
Spider: Right. We are 4,928 octaves below the big note.
Monica: Are ya ... are you trying to tell me that ... that this whole universe revolves around one note?
Spider: No, it doesn't revolve around it; that's what it is. It's one note.
Spider: Everybody knows that lights are notes. Light, light, is just a vibration of the note, too. Everything is.
Monica: That one note makes everything else so insignificant.

As a great American satirist and sociologist in the tradition of Lenny Bruce and Robert Crumb, it’s hard to separate Zappa’s work from its milieu and the hippie scene that was often subject of his mordant critique. Still, he also said famously: Remember, Information is not knowledge; Knowledge is not Wisdom; Wisdom is not Beauty, Beauty is not love; Love is not Music; Music is the best.”

Or as Germaine Greer said in a 2005 article in The Guardian, “In Frank's world, every sound had a value, and every action was part of the universal diapason, a colossal vibration that made energy rather than reflecting it.”

In our personal lives—as well as in the world of branding—sound is no more refined and focused than in names. "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet," says Juliet in Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy of “star-crossed lovers”. Unfortunately, these teenagers are from warring families, and she is telling poor Romeo that their family names don’t amount to a hill of beans compared with their love for one another. But, names do matter and harshly as they were to find out by play’s end. Fast forwarding to the 21st century, history surrounds us no matter where we live in the place names that we often ignore or are oblivious to. Names are key to understanding not only because they provide a clue to our own identity as individuals, but because place names can provide us a better sense of who we are by locating us in time and space.

After I first moved to LA, one of the things that amazed me was how close history was just in the passing freeway signs that beckoned in English, Spanish, and sometimes odd names like Malibu, Cahuenga, Azusa, and Cucamonga. Curious, I started trying to locate old maps and records to trace names that had this distinctly non-European flavor to them. I mean, growing up in New York, I knew that Manhattan was named after a tribe called the Mannahatta and that Wall Street was named after…well, the wall of a fort. But, maybe it’s just all the tall buildings and pavement that seem to have removed the past so entirely from the landscape—though there is now an interesting project called surprisingly enough, The Mannahatta Project, that was recently profiled in the New Yorker, and is recreating what the New York Island looked like prior to contact by Europeans.

But, it was so easy to squint my eyes somehow in the San Fernando Valley and look at the mountains, washes, and hillsides still intermittently decorated by chaparral and imagine what it was like only a century or less ago. History is close here relative to the Old World. The last full-blooded Chumash Indians died in the Santa Barbara area around 1900. I have a photo of an Indian village in Riverside (which is about half an hour from my house), that dates as recently as 1920. I say “recently” even though it’s almost 90 years ago, but the past seems more present here to me for some reason. Perhaps it’s just that Hollywood has made its mark by adding more ghosts even if they are frozen by artificial light to add a layer to the ancestral spirits and ghosts of the conquistadors, padres, prospectors, cattlemen, and railroad barons that seem to lie rustling just under the cover of the Santa Ana winds and coastal morning fogs. And I guess it was one of those coastal names that started a fascination and study that has lasted to this day with the Chumash people who lived here. I got hold of a Rosetta stone of sorts in the form of notes from an anthropologist named John Peabody Harrington who logged place names and other priceless ethnographic data from the few surviving Chumash during the early part of the 20th century. One such location was “Humaliwo” which in the original language meant to describe the place “where the surf crashes loudly”, a fact that would be appreciated by surfers at the same approximate location where 3000 villagers lived known today as “Malibu”.

The Chumash Indians of Southern California were extraordinary in many ways. They had the only ocean-going canoes in the Western hemisphere outside of the peoples of the Northwest Coast of the continent. They had a working knowledge of astronomy, a complex social system, trading culture, and were world class artists as evidenced by the rock art that still lies hidden to amaze the lucky beholder in sandstone outcrops, caves, and other secret places in their territory between Malibu and Morro Bay.

The Chumash believed that dolphins, a close aquatic relation of the porpoise, were guardian spirits who literally served to hold up the world. It’s no wonder that the Hollywood film industry found its center here for what better description of the artist? The dolphins accomplished this feat by swimming around the earth and weaving a web of salty spray in their looping up-and-down motion between the worlds of ocean and air.

According to local Indian legend, sympathetic spirit beings took pity on the lonely dwellers of the ancient Channel Islands and built a rainbow bridge to the mainland, thereby making way for the first pilgrimage of humans. Unfortunately, not all the humans in this exodus were able to maintain their balance on the bridge of colors; those were the “unlucky ones” who tumbled off before reaching land and transformed into dolphins when they hit the wild currents below.

Today, a curious vernacular adoption of the word “porpoise” employs the term as a verb to illustrate an up-and-down motion similar to the movement of these aquatic mammals. This particular usage is meant to describe periodicity in the life cycle of human beings, societies and even corporations. In this perspective, one’s life “porpoises” as we navigate the highs of comedy and lows or “slings and arrows” of tragedy. One role of drama and the arts is to provide human beings with a method to penetrate this mysterious cycle of time, and to create the absolute that is possible in the moment that time stops and we are part of the whole. “Porpoise” then can become twisted as a sound alike like a Marx Bros. routine to suit our agenda here to mean “purpose” at this intersection where the creative act defines space and time.

It is not recorded whether dolphins or porpoises accompanied the first European explorers who first sighted the area now known as Greater Los Angeles. What is known is that these earliest explorers who were part of the Spanish Cabrillo Expedition in 1542, recorded on Sunday, October 8, their arrival at “the mainland in a large bay” (most likely Los Alamitos or San Pedro Bay) which they named “Baia de los Fumos” or “the Bay of Smokes”. This namesake was given to commemorate the haze that even then covered the landscape in an unreal, mysterious curtain comprised of vapors from campfires of the several dozen Indian villages that dotted the region as far as the eye could see. On the approximate site of one these villages (belonging to the Gabrielino or as they called themselves, the Tongva or “people”), and immortalized in old maps of the desert padres as the town of “Puvungna”, now sits the sprawling campus of California State University at Long Beach.

Though the record of what the village name means is shrouded in haze like the Bay of Smokes, it said to have an association with the word for “crowd”. We do know that the suffix, “gna” means “place of”, for example, as used in other Los Angeles area place names like “Cahuenga” --“place of the mountain”--or “Tujunga” --“place of the owl.” Even so, if Puvungna or “the place where crowds gather” is of uncertain province, it is still regarded as the most significant village documented by one of the most famous missionaries, Father Boscana.

The village of “Puvu” or Puvungna was known as the place where, according to Tongva legend, a great gathering took place to commemorate the creation myth of these local Coastal Shoshonean people. It is said that so many people would show up to the council from afar, that they would have to sleep outside the village limits, keeping warm by crowding together “in a ball.”

Father Boscana documented the shamanic religion of the local Indians in dramatic detail and drew parallels between the Tongva Creation myth and Genesis, citing similarities in their descriptions of the formation of the elements. Other sources have spoken about links between the Tongva narrative and Greek creation story as related by Hesiod, where the archaic Greeks, like the Tongva ancestors, were “acorn eaters” and animals who could talk and came out of the darkness. So, in the same place that ancient ancestors celebrated their stories of creation, the Academy now stands.

California poet Robinson Jeffers’ poem “Hands” memorializes an Indian rock art site deep in the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur where a ceremonial cave is decorated with several hundred white handprints. He describes the aboriginal artists as speaking to us through time: “Look: we also are human; we had hands, not paws. All hail you people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters in the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down and be supplanted, for you also are human.”

Tribal peoples recount that the ancestral spirits are pleased when they hear song and witness the dancing and dramatic performances of human beings who still wear bodies. Our hands differentiate us from the four-leggeds. We are described in dated anthropological texts as “man the tool maker.” When we use our hands to create art, music, dance and poetry, we recreate the world. We also have the opportunity to consciously pay homage to those who came before. If our lives are creative, then we can be driven by a purpose that honors the spirits of Puvungna, now known as Cal State, Long Beach or Yangna, as the place now known as the City of Los Angeles was called by the people who lived her first. For in all of these places, the creation story is ongoing.

According to ethnographic sources, there is now a worldwide crisis of native languages going extinct. Linguist Michael Krauss who has dedicated his career to making the public aware of how language is threatened, estimates that the number of oral languages assured of being around by 2100 is 600 or just 10% of the present number. He further cites that about half of the 6,000 languages spoken on earth today are “moribund” a status due to the fact that “they are spoken only by adults who no longer teach them to the next generation.” The loss of a language is as catastrophic as the disappearance of a species. With it, we lose a piece of the whole.

Like the ancient Indian languages that are disappearing with the death of elders who are often the only remaining speakers, there are many place names whose meaning is now completely lost in time. So, one purpose that we can find in our lives, then, is to define meaning once again for these places by making sure that we amuse, engage and serve the spirits who were here first. Only then, is there the possibility that they will take pity on us and return the gesture by answering with inspiration to light our unique moment in time.


thepicklebarrel said...

hey-there, hi-there, ho-there, kevin...

sheesh..i've had a hell of a time logging back into blogger!

your intellectual energy is boundless. i suggest we tap that resource while somehow preserving its host. if not whole, at least in a semi-vegetative state which might be a nice vacation!

RE your last post, i'm a passive student of the primal scream. sounds and emotional/visual connections have always been a part 'the tribal experience'.

it's funny, i was watching a show on the travel channel last night that showed a group of swedes camping 'round a fire in the dead of winter. they have a form of primal chanting to cope with their state that is uncannily similar to native american indians. (i wonder if the members of ABBA are inhabited by the spirits of long gone chanting swedes?)

on another topic, i'd like to pose a question for the "ask dr. tribal media" section of your blog:

what do you attribute the current trend in advertising that has corporate representatives in media consist of the awkwardly maladjusted, somewhat neurotic and mildly disturbed?

i believe this started with GEICO and their 'neanderthal' campaigns. now, we have the weird interaction of the GEICO gecko and his boss, presumably the GEICO CEO, the Progressive Insurance overly perky sales rep, the Orbit gum Anglo-blonde-model with stepford undertones, the downright psychotic interventions of William Shatner for Priceline travel service and the mild obnexia of the ORBITZ hovercraft driver?

all of these ads seem to amuse more than give the consumer confidence in the company and its product. if it's simply amuse, i could understand. Mr. Bush, for all his failings gave SOME people the warm feeling of wanting to knock back some suds with him.

instead, here, we have disturbed individuals that give you the sickly sub conscience feeling of standing on a listing ship.

in the words of one ricky ricardo, "Please s'plain?"

Silvanus Slaughter said...

Wonderful entry. Each column enriches; I never feel like I whiled away more hours on the Net and unlikely to remember a thing. Keep this up.

Ha! Remember we first met when you turned to me - in the HBO screening room in the middle of screening you my first film - upon seeing the oddly placed copy of Carobeth Laird's book, "Encounter with an Angry God," in the hands of the female protagonist and asked "Who are you?"! Well, gosh, I had no idea at the time you were ALSO an anthropologist!

Kevin Stein said...

DR. Pickle Barrel, first of all, thank you for taking the time to comment at such pithy length. I am reminded by your comment of Yoda's that "Some of the Questions are bigger than the Answers!" Taking aim at the Advertising business at this stage of its decline is like...well shooting pickles in a barrel. But, let's take your notes in some sort of order.
The Swedes may have been yoiking which is an ancient Nordic shamanic trance form of singing--"Yoiks" are what the actual songs are called. They originated with the Sami or so-called Lapp people who have a deep enough shamanic tradition such that the first thing the invading Christian missionaries destroyed were all their drums. Even though I have never heard their music, I agree with you that this ABBA group of whom you speak would be much improved by incorporating some shamanic beats.
With respect to your observations on the ad sector of the mediasphere, the agencies are competing the same way all of us are for attention in the chaos of short term, :30 second spot memory that is our current operating system. What do marketers promise their potential clients, "We will figure out how you can rise above the noise?" I'll take the white noise any day and that, with the notion of silence as a commodity will be the subject of a future post. That said, I think that a "One nation, Under beer" strategy may be the way to go when the ship of state is listing. Have you been able to see the name on the bow of the boat? Or is it the bow on the fiddle. Either way, It's better in the original Latin. Or as the Zeppelin pilot once said, "Stand by to crash!"

Kevin Stein said...

Silvio, I didn't know I was an anthropologist when I was working at HBO either! Little did I know that it was going to be my first corporate ethnography--it should have been my last!