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No. 36 (September 1961)
– 24 –

SONGS WERE MAGIC

In their desire to control forces they did not fully understand primitive peoples the world over have invented various forms of magic to bring about all kinds of desired effects. The magic rites of the priest, the tohunga, the witch doctor or the medicine-man have taken the form of incantations, charms, spells or ritual songs by the aid of which those tribal leaders claimed to control the weather, the growth of crops, to cure the sick, to foretell the future, to bring success in war, hunting or fishing and to break the spell of evil spirits. Very rigid rules had to be observed in the performance of magic rites to make sure that the charm or spell would work. This secret power was not entirely “phoney”, to use a popular expression. Behind the “hocus pocus” of many magic rites there existed a fund of good psychology, intuition, acquired and even occult knowledge.

[The effect of such binding rites on the musical culture of a tribe or race was to hold it static for long periods at a time. The only possibility of change would lie in a major revolution in ways of living and thinking such as overtook the ancient Maori culture at the coming of the white settlers to New Zealand, 150 years ago.]

It will be seen from this brief discussion that a primitive musical culture can only be judged by its power to express the racial character and way of life of the people who have created it. One of the early Pacific explorers who accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage to the South Seas saw the intimate relationship between the racial character and temperament of the Maori people and its expression in the emotional language of their music.

“The taste of the New Zealanders for Music,” wrote Forster, “and their superiority in this respect to other nations of the South Seas, are to me stronger proof in favour of their hearts than all the idle eloquence of philosophers can invalidate.”