A World of Sound, by Kyle Holton

Listening to the Yao

Men gather for annual dances during harvest season. Photograph by Kyle Holton
Men gather for annual dances during harvest season. Photograph by Kyle Holton

Listening to the Yao of Mozambique

For eight years, I lived in a village called Nomba among the Yao people in northern Mozambique. They were a semi-oral culture that used language like a tailor uses needle and thread. Conversations were stitched together with mythic allusions, parables, and aphorisms. Banter was an art form. Libraries of knowledge existed in the heads of the elders. Ancestral lines, wisdom, and folk stories were sung. The memory and knowledge of their culture was passed along through song recited during religious festivals and rites of passage. Specialized knowledge about farming, foraging, and medicinal and cooking recipes was archived through oral traditions. On so many days, I awoke to hear the rhythmical singing of women pounding maize—their chanting percussed by the driving of the pestle. Living with the Yao was living in a world of sound—of song, incantation, and articulation.

This body of knowledge was wealth. Local chiefs lived in ordinary mud huts, but they carried a power with them as they strolled through the village. Local bibis (Maternal Queens) did not have more money than anyone else in the village, but everyone knew they were vast reservoirs for cultural wealth.

But this cultural wealth was slipping into the maw of global capitalism. As their society merged into the nearby urban economy, the elders complained about lost songs, a lost generation, and greed. Young people moved to the city to find work. A bartering economy from these subsistence farmers broke down in the face of currency. The interlocking connections of an oral community within a subsistence agricultural community gave way to individual competition that autonomous currency provided.

Wealth has always been a cultural valuation of human endeavor. Since capitalism has become a global phenomenon, it can seem counterintuitive to think of wealth outside of money and what can be bought with money. But when we step back from the markets and stocked shelves, when we listen to oral wisdom that cultivates survival through memory, wealth resituates into the local traditions that celebrate this memory and into the landscape that holds this knowledge.

Archaeological evidence from around the world illustrates how wealth—defined as an abundance of possessions—coincided with a decline in oral memory and culture. Dr. Lynne Kelly’s recent work in this field clearly offers a historical narrative that delineates how oral culture maintained wisdom and knowledge through memory strategies embedded in the landscape. From henges, such as Stonehenge, to cavernous Kivas in southwestern North America, oral cultures maintained cultural centers as oral libraries of knowledge. Here among these ancient remains, we don’t find the accumulation of wealth, but the protection and propagation of knowledge through oral strategies still found among today’s modern oral cultures. What are these strategies? From aboriginal song lines, to Hopi Kachina dancers, to even the method of loci used by modern world memory champions, oral strategies bind local knowledge—from myth to survival skills—into the landscape. As Kelly notes in her book The Memory Code, the loss of power from elders who protected this knowledge coincided with the emergence of elites who maintained power through possessions. The archaeological record bears witness to this shift as oral memory—needed for survival and cultural production—faded with the advent of subsistence agriculture and the technology of writing.

How does this shift happen? What happens to a community when wealth-as-knowledge is replaced with wealth-as-possession-and-currency? While I lived in Nomba, the village was slowly being absorbed by the neighboring capital city with a robust wealth-as-possession economy.

Songs and dances of wisdom are part of Yao life. Though their historical record is pitted with colonial repression and now the dominance of global capitalism, oral traditions tenuously cling to Yao identity and practice. Of special importance to Yao culture, the unyago is the momentous coming-of-age ritual, celebrating the transition from child to adult. After boys and girls spend over a month in the bush with mentors learning oral wisdom through song and chant, the new adults parade into the village with great fanfare and celebration. Parents help officiate the ceremonies, food is in abundance, and prayers are offered by the elders. Historically, the time in the wild served as a period for members to learn a certain level of secret knowledge. This knowledge was encoded in song and myth. Out in this liminal space of temporary huts, initiates would practice singing and memorizing the chants. Because the knowledge was protected, elders allowed only certain ages to become initiates. However, many elders in Nomba complained of initiates who entered unyago and were too young and not ready. The fact that younger initiates were entering the rite of passage illustrated the slipping authority of the elders who maintained this oral wisdom. But what were the societal pressures for younger initiates to enter unyago? As elder authority diminished, younger voices with literate knowledge stepped into the spaces for mentoring and advising initiates. Consequently, the social structure of unyago was undergoing change. Fewer elders made it out to the bush to teach songs.

More important, the economic pressure for unyago changed. Before global capitalism brought cheap products from around the world to Nomba’s nearby capital, Lichinga, unyago required local coordination of resources. Sugar cane spirits had to be made from crops managed by village members. Maize for cornmeal had to be available and processed from local farms. Gifts for the initiates had to be made and clothes had to be sewn. As the economy of capital arrived with cheap goods, however, preparation became less social and egalitarian and more wealth-oriented. With the advent of accessible currency, goods could be more easily purchased. Less social planning and more individual purchasing flipped the logic of the ritual. Now the ending ceremony of unyago is marked by outside merchants arriving to sell large quantities of cheap liquor and food, marking the ceremony with fewer prayers and more inebriated festivities. In other words, the ceremony seems to be morphing from ritual to carnival.

The members of Nomba village protect memory from the acidic nature of wealth in other ways, however. For a satellite village near the provincial capital, like Nomba, the landscape long ago lost the forest cover. As new barrios from the city expand toward the village, the miombo grassland disappears as well. So Nomba’s Kumalembe stands out on the landscape. A small two-acre plot of forest, the area is a wild country of sleeping owls, small nocturnal predators, and diverse tree species. The forest is a forbidden place. Children are not allowed to enter it, and many people have a natural hesitation of the place. It is a spiritually wild woodland. Scattered throughout the forest are burial mounds. Here the village of Nomba bury their dead. And here, throughout the year, village members visit and sing to the dead.

To ask an individual of Western culture, “Where are you from?” usually receives a response of birth place. The Yao will respond in a similar way, but the detail would be marginal to the greater understanding of origin in Yao culture. For to be from a place is to have your ancestors buried there. Consequently, “Where were you born?” and “Where are you from?” are two distinct questions. The Kumalembe of every village marks the place of origin. No matter how far a Yao individual may wander, home is back in the wild woodland of his ancestors.

One morning years ago, I walked over to my neighbor’s compound for a visit. I called her Anganga, since “grandmother” was not only the respectful way to address her, but a true description of her role in my life. As I entered her compound through a gate made of elephant grass, the sound of chanting filled the air. Anganga was seated with a local sheikh, and they were chanting names. As I took my seat and listened, the words flowed over the compound, settled, whirled, and drifted with the wind that curled over the compound’s swaying grass fence. Anganga was naming her ancestors. Calling them, blessing them, and remembering their lives. Embedded in the memory of her deceased clan were stories of survival, teachings about local flora and fauna. The village of Nomba had decided that on this day, the elders would enter the Kumalembe to pray, chant, and sing. Families were remembering their clans, their origins, and many women were preparing a ceremonial meal to help conclude the day’s work.

I had been invited to attend the visit to the Kumalembe and gave my leave of Anganga to walk with others who were aggregating into small bands along the periphery of the cemetery. All of us brought a tool for cleaning. Some carried brooms of stiff grass while others carried traditional farm hoes. As we entered the cemetery, the elders took a position in the heart of the woodland on an elevated termite mound. The rest of us waited silently. After a few minutes of whispering, the elders began to chant. Their incantations shifted the air until their rhythm settled into a smooth flow of sound. The birds shifted nervously in the branches, but then settled as the sound blanketed the area. At this point, all of us began to work in earnest. We swept, weeded, and cleared pathways. As we worked, it was as if the words themselves ordered the woodland.

Weary from hours of chanting, the elders concluded the ceremony with prayers and incense. The cemetery-as-woodland had been cleaned but remained wild. The chanting had ordered the landscape into visible signs of memory. Deceased relatives had been identified, trail lines branching through the woodland had been demarcated. The memory of the village had been reestablished within the forest. The chanting had (re)memorialized the space through blessing, prayer, and the rhythm that kept our working bodies in sync.

Hours later, families gathered around warm cooking coals and celebrated their ancestral life—a life informed by remembering the knowledge and wisdom of their people.

Yao children listening to stories. Photograph by Kyle Holton
Yao children listening to stories. Photograph by Kyle Holton

Today, printed text surrounds our conscious world. Readers skim through thousands of words a day. Little sticks. For many semi-oral peoples, by contrast, words are events—actual dynamic happenings like rain storms, village meetings, planting days, and family meals. The weight and power of words—as incantation—is an idea embedded in many ancient religious perspectives.

From a Western cultural perspective on language usage, words must behave properly with their neighbors. Syntax is a one-way street with clear rules and codes of conduct. Words have power only as logical flow. The pitch of a sentence rolls meaning down in flows of causation. Each memo, email—each retort and verbal excuse—must have its own internal gravity. This is why we don’t chant anymore. Incantation isn’t socially acceptable from a logic of linear causation because chanted words aren’t gears in a machine of linear process. Rather, chanted words are energy flows in the ecology of human culture and landscape. One way to discern the unique morphology of oral speech is to see how power sits in the sound patterns. Syllogistic syntax builds power only through inter-symbolic connection. Power emerges as mindful meaning and coherence. Oral speech-as-chant holds power in the word, isolated and seated within the sound, instead of between the words. For this reason, oral speech is a force, a gravity itself, a kind of kinetic annunciation. As solar wind vibrates Earth’s atmosphere into aurora borealis, incantation—indeed oral speech in general—vibrates our landscapes into images and patterns of memory that we can discern from the blindness of time. The world is a place of sound. And sounds are waves of energy flowing through thickets of human culture and landscape and pooling along thermodynamic pathways that collect cultural memory.

We can still learn from semi-oral cultures like the Yao. In our age of distraction, where knowledge is supposedly archived in digital cyber-vaults, but nothing is actually remembered, knowledge has been commodified. We can resist an economy of amnesia that threatens to devalue human wisdom by selling it. For knowledge sold is knowledge that will be forgotten. I believe we can restore and innovate new oral traditions that will give our memory back. And in the process, we can reawaken not only an ancient way of being human, but a way that is tied to the landscapes that surround us. ♦

From Parabola Volume 43, No. 1, “Wealth,” Spring 2018. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing

By Kyle Holton

Kyle Holton spent nine years in Mozambique living with the Yao people and working as a consultant for an indigenous-led nonprofit, Malo Ga Kujilana. More recently,  he has worked as an educator and consultant for local food economy in the United States.