"Women's Music and the Life Cycle,"

by Jane Bowers

as printed in the ILWC Journal, October 1993, pp. 14-20.

"Funerals are springtime for women." Thus a Druze villager in Lebanon around 1970 explained women's alacrity in rushing to the funeral site soon after a death was announced. Among the Lebanese Druzes, the tradition of funeral singing survived over many centuries as a secular practice alongside sacred rituals.1 Due to the conservative and mystical nature of their society, the Druzes, particularly the women, abstained from music, song, and dance except for singing at weddings and funerals, where women's talents were able to flourish. Funeral singing became a cultivated art with certain women specializing in it in every generation.

When Jihad Racy studied funeral singing in some twenty-one villages close to Beirut in 1970, he found that soon after a death was announced villagers would gather at the funeral site in sex-segregated groups. Women typically sat inside the house around the body of the deceased to sing, while men sang outdoors whenever the weather permitted. Generally speaking, men performed only if the deceased were a male, whereas women might perform at funerals of both sexes.

In the women's ceremonies, which went on intermittently for more than a day, the singing was usually led by a number of skilled soloists who were assisted by a chorus. Because women's funeral singing was usually much more emotionally involved than men's, it often displeased the religious initiate group, who believed that mourners should keep their voices quiet and refrain from crying, shouting, or wailing. Wearing large white scarves that functioned partly as veils, Druze women were allowed to expose their mouths only so long as they could not be seen by men. Women who went beyond certain limits were liable to punitive action. In one area, a number of female singers had been excommunicated by means of a type of religious probation which deprived them of the freedom to perform at funerals. Druze funeral singing was threatened by westernization as well, and thus by 1970 female funeral singing was dwindling in popularity in Lebanese villages.

Nevertheless, this example from Druze culture illustrates an important point: that women have been extremely active in controlling and performing certain verbal/musical genres connected to important transitional stages of the life cycle. Women, especially in relatively traditional, nonindustrial, and nonliterate or marginally literate societies, perform laments after the death of close kin, and, at the opposite end of the life cycle of close family members, lullabies after the birth of a child.2 In societies that elaborate the onset of girls' puberty, women often perform songs and dances as part of initiation rites. In connection with weddings, they frequently perform wedding songs and dances. As the American anthropologist Judith K. Brown recently observed:

The female life cycle, demarcated by a series of physiologic events and divisible into discrete periods, readily lends itself to cultural elaboration. Such elaborations, whether in the form of a celebration or the imposition of a taboo, appear exotic to us, since no analogous practices are observed in our own society. For us, no celebration marks the attainment of puberty; no particular restrictions are imposed on menstruating women; and marriage need not be legitimized by the elaborate exchange of property. A body of research has attempted to explain the cross-cultural variation in such customs. Curiously, this work has received little impetus from recent interest in the anthropology of women, possibly because the anthropological studies of women have been at pains to prove that biology is not destiny. Yet the variety of customs which pertain to the female life cycle offers strong support for this very position by demonstrating that culture shapes the physiologic aspects of womanhood.3

Fortunately, women's music-making in conjunction with the cultural elaboration of discrete periods of the life cycle has received some attention in recent feminist scholarship; together with earlier research, the amount of literature on the subject has become fairly large. Because it has appeared in widely disparate sources and in a variety of languages, however, it is not well known. In order to present information about these culturally and geographically widespread practices so that it can be more easily incorporated into teaching and research about women in music, I shall attempt here to (1) sketch the chief outlines of the subject, (2) discuss several specific examples of such music-making, and (3) elucidate some of the social, psychological, and biological reasons why women perform these genres more frequently than men. Further, I shall compare women's and men's music-making practices where both perform the same kind of music. Finally, I shall suggest some ways in which women turn culturally prescribed genres into individually expressive aesthetic forms.
Why do girls and women predominate in the performance of verbal/musical genres at these four stages of the life cycle: birth, girls' puberty, marriage, and death? Their performance of lullabies at and shortly after the birth of a child must certainly arise from their role as mothers, since in most cultures mothers have the primary responsibility for caring for children. Their performance of girls' puberty songs is also in part-although by no means exclusively-connected to their role as mothers, since through puberty songs pubescent girls are educated to assume adult status. As for wedding songs and funeral laments, the picture is complex. I want to take up each of the four life-cycle stages individually, beginning with women's lamenting practices.

Lamenting for the Dead

Laments can be found in almost all parts of the world; the tradition of lamenting has been traced back to the rites of prehistoric religions and was prevalent in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Israel, Greece, and Rome.4 Moslems, Jews, Christians, and other religious groups preserved the lament tradition, although official prohibitions emanating from both church and state contributed to the disappearance of the tradition in many areas. Normally, the lament is not a fixed poetic genre; rather, its contents are adapted to the occasion of performance and to the vision of the performer. Freedom of expression, however, has its limits: the lament closely follows certain stylistic norms and makes plentiful use of traditional imagery and terminology.5

In lamenting traditions documented in recent times, relatives or paid performers recount the life of the deceased and the loss that the death represents. Women may also use the occasion of lamenting for the dead to lament their own situation. Joel Sherzer points out that the lament for the dead provides a link to two other types of women's laments which focus directly on the problems of women's own situations, their grievances, and protests. One of these, the wedding lament, is characteristic of patrilocal societies and occurs at the moment of a bride's separation from her parental home and her move to the home of her husband and in-laws. The other type of lament complains about and protests her unfortunate situation, again typically in a new home, surrounded by unfriendly in-laws.6

Considering these various kinds of laments as a class, Sherzer suggests why it is frequently women who perform laments. For one, where social organization is extremely disadvantageous to women, lamenting provides for a verbal letting-off of steam and societal expression of conflict, as well as an individually expressive aesthetic form. For another, song or chant is the appropriate channel for women to express their complaints, because it furnishes both role distance and an overtly marked frame for messages that would otherwise be considered highly inappropriate for women.7
Several studies of rural Greece have explored possible reasons for women's domination with regard to lamenting. Anna Caraveli has suggested that women's capacity for reproduction makes them more vulnerable to pain and loss than men, and is thus recognized as giving them firsthand access to the realm of the dead.8 Susan Auerbach has pointed out that in some cultures women's option to sing songs or to lament may be prescribed by their mourning status. In rural northwest Greece, whereas men sing, dance, and play instruments throughout their lives, women must respond to changing family circumstances with shifts in vocal expression. Due to extensive migration of the young to the cities, elderly residents predominate and funerals tend to outnumber festivities. Thus, older women rarely sing; rather, they convert songs to laments in order to express their sorrow. While women ostensibly attend wakes and commemoration ceremonies to honor the deceased, participation in death rituals is also the main social and expressive outlet available to women mourners.9

Janice Jarrett has argued that in ancient times women in Greece became predominant in lamenting for the dead as their participation in officially sanctioned religious life, and hence religious music, declined. In this context, the lament was a dramatic example of the separate traditions women maintained when excluded from official acceptance, as well as the strength of their traditions when relatively uninfluenced by those of men.10 In the Finnish-Karelian lamenting tradition, the lament exhibited evidence of a female-centered religious system that co-existed or antedated the male system, according to Elizabeth Tolbert. The most prominent role of the lamenter-always an older woman-was as a mediator between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The pervasive elements of Finno-Ugric shamanism inherent in the Karelian lament tradition show that the female lamenter and the male seer together shared magico-religious power by dividing the role of the shaman between them. While confirming the dominant value system by allowing only sexually ambiguous women recourse to magico-religious power, the lament represented a system of values and access to power that was independent of male systems.11

Anna Caraveli has identified a number of different themes in women's lament texts from a village on the island of Crete,12 including the intention to commemorate someone's sufferings, praise or invocation of the deceased, the history of the deceased, the mourner's plight, invitation to share the mourning, guiding the deceased through the transition from life to death, and the plight of the deceased. Often the theme of the mourner's plight was employed as a means of airing grievances against relatives or society, a common category of grievances being the afflictions particular to women in male-dominated social structures, including widowhood and the ensuing loss of social status, desertion by the emigration or death of male relatives who had acted as protectors, and the sufferings wrought by childbirth or child raising.13

In another study,14 Caraveli reported on lamenting she observed past the five-year period usually prescribed for mourning, in contexts as diverse as visiting the cemetery, doing housework, working in the fields, and walking. Such extension of performance contexts suggests an expanded use of laments as instruments for airing grievances on an everyday basis.

Successful lament couplets or entire songs composed by various village women were remembered and circulated orally. Skilled lamenters were highly respected by their peers for their creative skills. Their composition of lament poetry so powerful that it could "crack the hardest rock," as the women said, raised them to a high, near-magical status. In such poetry, the death of a specific person was utilized to affirm kinship ties, to cement bonding among women, to heighten the meaning of female roles, and to reinforce survival strategies. The symbolic associations of the subject matter of "female suffering" transformed the lament into a communicative event.

Musically, each area Caraveli researched, and each culture group within an area, had a set melodic pattern to which laments were sung. The lament melody characteristic of the Zagori province, for example, used microtones, stylized interjections of wailing sounds, and leaps at the end of each half line to induce a state of pathos. A lamenter from a different cultural group living within the same village, however, would use a completely different melody and sing in such a different style that each woman's performance would leave the other indifferent.

Recorded examples of laments are not easy to find, but brief excerpts from two funeral laments sung by Albanian women living in Calabria in 1954 are relatively accessible on the Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. In the first lament, a young woman mourns the death of her protector and recalls certain events in his life:

(Translation:) O son . . . , what road have you taken? O so long, so long that I won't see you. You were a hard worker, O son, son, how loving you were . . . .
In this lament, a basic four-note melodic pattern is repeated for each line of text. Such a pattern would allow for the unrestricted improvising of new lines of text as they occurred to the singer. The second lament, sung by a group of women, begins with well-known formulas; then the group bursts into hysterical lamentation:

(Translation:) Let us sing for the dead. Victoria, our daughter, what have you done now? What a storm have we endured? Four doctors have we called for you, but there was no cure, neither doctor nor medicine. Victoria, our daughter, our queen, we have cleared away the table, we have put aside the chair, we have cleared the hearth . . . .15

Wedding Music

In connection with weddings women's music has been prominent although not necessarily predominant. Particularly in those societies where ceremonies marking marriage are very colorful, women's music-making has often played an important role. In some places where female musical activities are otherwise highly restricted, weddings form the chief ceremonial occasions on which women make music. In such societies, indeed, women seem to make the most of their few occasions to indulge legitimately in music and dance and to stretch the ground rules of their ascribed musical role by maximizing their opportunities in socially acceptable ways.

In the city of Herat, Afghanistan, Veronica Doubleday has reported that in the mid-1970s women typically remained in strict purdah and spent most of their time within the confines of their homes.16 The traditional values of Islam pronounced it sinful for a mature woman's voice to be heard singing. Though while young a little girl might develop a passion for music and dancing and spend hours at this pastime, as she approached puberty, she was forced more into the house until she eventually became completely secluded with the rest of the women. As she developed into a woman, music could no more have a suitable place in her everyday life but must be reserved for occasions of celebration and merry-making.

When there were occasions for celebration, however, then singing, dancing, and playing the daire, a frame drum like a tambourine, were valid and correct for women. Most of the occasions for celebration were associated with marriage. After a bride's family had accepted a marriage proposal, a party of women from the groom's family processed to the bride's house, playing the rhythms of traditional wedding songs or dances on the daire and joining women from the bride's family to celebrate and make music with them. Following this, there were many opportunities for informal celebratory gatherings with music-making among the women, as well as engagement and wedding parties, which involved separate parties in the evening for men and women. In the women's parties, music and dancing continued nearly non-stop until the following evening, while the men's parties ended around midnight.

In the absence of a professional band, the musical entertainment was provided by the women of the groom's family or by guests. The groom's mother, sisters, and sisters-in-law were expected to do much dancing, since they were acquiring a new family member and must show their gladness. If the families were well off, they employed professional hereditary female musicians (sazande) to play at engagement and wedding parties. These women came from an ethnic group (Gharibzade) which occupied a low position in society, and they were heavily censured because they did not observe the strict rules of purdah-men from outside their family could see them singing and sometimes even dancing. Nevertheless, as entertainers, female sazande were very popular, providing fashionable and exciting music and sometimes singing vulgar songs and cracking coarse jokes. Leading processions with the bride and groom at wedding parties, drumming loudly on their daires, playing the harmonium and tabla (an Indian drum pair), and singing traditional wedding songs, they tried to create an atmosphere of excitement. Each band was made up of a family group, and babies and young girls were usually taken along with their mothers; the young girls provided an occasional song-and-dance act to entertain the guests.

Unlike their male counterparts, female sazande underwent no formal training in music; rather, they picked up everything they knew through repeated contact with music from a very early age. Their harmonium playing was relatively simple and repetitive, and they knew nothing of musical terminology nor of the elaborate Indian system of hand strokes that men used to play the tabla. Indeed, their drums were in poor condition, and they did not know how to tune them. The musicians were aware of their own technical deficiencies, and marriage alliances might be proposed with the express purpose of attracting a talented performer into a band.
Hindu women have also played important roles in the performance of wedding music. The American musicologist Bonnie Wade has reported that, in four communities in the vicinity of Delhi, music for the various ceremonies in the Hindu cycle of wedding rituals was always provided by women, especially members of the families of the bride and groom. Perhaps one clue to the extensive activity of Hindu women in singing for marriages lies in its uniqueness as a religious rite in which women can participate. According to Wade:

Marriage in India is a sacrament and is one of the most important, if not the most important, of all Indian socio-cultural institutions. It is a social obligation to the family and the community, with little idea of individual interest .... For a woman marriage is absolutely necessary, because since post-Vedic times it has been the only religious rite that can be performed for her.17

Certainly, women's music-making in connection with marriage ceremonies has been widespread among women of many religions and regions.18 However, in some places where both women and men perform wedding music, ordinary women may sing ritual wedding songs while professional male musicians are hired to perform instrumental music. In the southwestern Turkish villages described by Susanne Ziegler, both men and women professional musicians (usually Gypsies, who are outsiders in the society) are hired.19 However, while the male musicians are engaged according to their ability, price and availability, the women musicians, usually close relatives of the men musicians, are just included in the bargain. The women sing and accompany their songs in the women's tent for women only. There is a marked difference between the women's and men's musical styles, as well as their special ways of musical performance. The women's music is strictly vocal, accompanied only by the frame drum. The songs are sung in a strict and monotonous way. The women who are listening seem to feel that this kind of music is not beautiful or nice to listen to, but is necessary for the wedding. The men's music, on the other hand, is not sung but is played purely instrumentally on the davul, a big double-headed drum, and the zurna, a double-reed shawm. Since the texts are not cited, the musicians are free to follow or to vary the sung version, even to the point of obscuring the essential melody. The men's style is more individualistic, developed, varied, and brilliant than the women's style.

Formerly, women also sang laments in connection with weddings, and this on a wide geographical scale, from Finland and Russia in the north, through Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and into the Far East as well as parts of Africa. As mentioned earlier, in those places where patrilocal customs prevailed (that is, where the bride was to move from her parental home to the home of her new husband and in-laws), if her new status was to be less fortunate than her former one and she would have to learn to face difficulties and criticism in her new environment, wedding laments functioned as rites of transition.20

From a body of texts collected in a village in the Sai Kung market area of the Hong Kong New Territories in the early 1970s, Fred Blake was able to reconstruct the following marriage customs.21 During the three days and nights prior to the bride's departure for her new home, other unmarried young girls of the village with whom the bride had formed strong emotional attachments sat by her. Her separation from them in marriage seemed like dying; while she sang of her "sisters" remaining in the East, symbolic of the rising sun, dawn, spring, youth, and life, she saw herself as situated in the West, the direction of the setting sun, autumn, demise, and death. Towards her mother, the bride recalled tender loving memories but also accused her of having "sold" her into marriage, in such lines as "How can you be so hard-hearted to sell me at such a tender age?" and "Even your cabbage and livestock are fully matured before you sell them." Many laments included apologies for having been born female, but sometimes the bride called attention to all the work she had done for her parents and, reviewing her father's household budget, pointed out that the family could easily afford to keep her several more years. While most of the feelings the bride expressed were tender and sad, in almost every lament she included curses. Most ubiquitous were her denunciations of the groom, his mother, and after that the marriage broker. She imagined the groom as a little runt or rascal, like a street urchin, and described her mother-in-law as simply "the bitch," as in this example:

But as I am dying in Hell, / I become ever more sordid; / As my dress is soiled, / There is no place to wash. / When I ask the bitch where to wash, / The bitch bids me to wash in the fields; / When the wash water is finished, / I must walk through the pig's piss. / When I ask the bitch where to dry it, / The bitch summons me to where three roads part; / As I dry it up high, / The bitch calls out not so high; / But as I dry it down low, / I fear the little rascal's dirty affections.

Some of Blake's informants dismissed these laments as pure form having little substance, and some argued that the bride secretly yearned to marry but that she dared not lose face by admitting as much. But Blake believes that the laments had much deeper symbolic significance. In spite of the fact that the bride gained face by lamenting her sadness at departure, Blake sees the lamenting process as part of the bride's journey through the three stages of the ritual process described by Van Gennep and Victor Turner. In the first stage the bride took leave of her old status as a daughter and a sister. In the second stage, which Turner calls "liminality," she was secluded from the mundane world as she was carried, in a red sedan chair, from her father's house to her father-in-law's house. In the third stage she was reintegrated as she assumed her new identity as a wife and daughter-in-law.

In the period of liminality, the bride was neither a daughter nor a daughter-in-law, neither a sister nor a wife, and this accounts for her anxiety expressed in idioms of dirt, cold, disorder, and so forth. But another property of liminality is license and "freedom." As the bride was being bound into a new life she was first removed from the normal strictures of her childhood. In the process of removal she was permitted to say things with little regard for normal social proprieties; she was licensed to vent her feelings.

Girls' Puberty Ceremonies
Although descriptions of girls' puberty ceremonies or rites of passage reflect a wide geographical spread-indeed, the initiation of girls has been reported for societies on every continent except Europe22 -the majority which record significant musical activity are concentrated on Africa. In considering women's music-making in connection with girls' puberty ceremonies, let me begin with a few general points:

1. Songs were often introduced into puberty ceremonies to impart information and to reinforce lessons that were being taught pubescent girls about taking on adult social and sexual roles.
2. While the main purpose of the music was educational, or to impart cultural authority to lessons already learned, music was sometimes introduced for enjoyment and entertainment as well.
3. There is cross-cultural variation in the degree to which women and men are or were the principal music makers in girls' puberty ceremonies.

In some societies females were predominant, in some both females and males made important contributions, and in others men were the chief musicians. However, the majority of the literature suggests that girls and women most frequently perform or performed the bulk of the music in girls' puberty ceremonies.

While girls' puberty ceremonies have dwindled or become obsolete in many places, sometimes the music that formed part of those ceremonies has been absorbed into other kinds of music-making when the ceremonies became obsolete, and the music has taken on new meanings for women. One study that looks at this kind of change is Barbara Schmidt-Wrenger's Rituelle Frauengesange der Tshokwe: Untersuchungen zu einem Säkularisierungsprozess in Angola und Zaïre ("Ritual Songs of the Chokwe Women: Investigations of a Process of Secularization in Angola and Zaire").23 At one time, girls' puberty rites among the Chokwe involved a three- to six-week period of seclusion for the menstruating girl. At the onset of her first menstruation, the girl left the house where she was growing up and hid herself in the nearby bush. Her mother, sisters, and friends then went out to search for her and brought her to a small hut. At this point, an older woman who was a family member or friend of the family took over the task of attending to and teaching the initiate during her time of seclusion, remaining near her day and night. The older woman gave the girl instruction in four main areas: (1) "correct" sexual conduct (this was the most important from the point of view of the time spent on it); (2) necessary magical and medical knowledge regarding pregnancy, birth, pregnancy prevention, and abortion; (3) correct conduct during menstruation, including which taboos were valid; and (4) the social roles of the adult woman, especially her relationships with her husband and the group.

Special value was placed on the sexual abilities of the Chokwe girl, which were taught through the jerking pelvis and hip movements of the ukule dance, which the initiate practiced for several hours a day. At night the women of the village would gather nearby and dance the ukule with the girl. She was also taught countless songs by the women of her own clan and neighboring places. The songs were sung antiphonally, the soloists (who alternated with the chorus) being chosen because they knew the texts perfectly, a practice that demonstrates that the main purpose of the songs was pedagogical. Through daily practice in singing and dancing, within only a few weeks the initiate learned the songs and dance well. (And throughout the course of her later life, she would acquire further familiarity with them through her participation in the puberty rites of other girls.)

Schmidt-Wrenger believes that learning the ukule songs and dance had an extremely positive personal effect on the initiate: it linked the development of her personality to what was "right," and she was able to prove herself by showing her zeal and perseverance. Performing the ukule songs and dance also benefitted the other women who took part. All the restraints and limits that were normally imposed on married women fell away for a time, and the experience of this freedom was extremely important both for the individual and for the solidarity of the group. Themes that could not be spoken about could be discussed in detail in song, and songs were thus used to express aggression, grief, anger, and repressed wishes.

All of this changed in response to threats to traditional society. Patrilinearly erected laws of European provenance collided with the matrilinear structure of Chokwe society. New values transmitted in the schooling that was made available to both girls and boys led to a total collision with women's traditional concept of themselves. Because early and frequent births came to be regarded as unimportant, fertility rites were rejected as meaningless. Girls' initiation rites had for long been opposed by the church, and they were finally forced into the background. However, in rural areas, the rites were secularized rather than being abandoned altogether.

Schmidt-Wrenger outlines three phases in the secularization of the secularization of the Chokwe rites; during the third phase the ukule songs were taken over by men as solo songs. For women, the secularization of ukule suddenly opened up new possibilities that brought music to the foreground at the expense of the meaning of the songs. A new, freely swinging, soloistic song style developed, and song texts were no longer the most important element but took a back seat to melody. A new freedom in the presentation of both text and melody developed, and instead of strict antiphony, voices joined together in variable ways. Aesthetic criteria came to play a role in the choice of soloists. Thus, as a result of ukule leaving the province of ritual song, it developed into a living song form in which the artistic capabilities of its interpreters were able to develop more freely than in ritual song. Nevertheless, the original meaning of the songs was lost, and perhaps, as Schmidt-Wrenger believes, their contribution to the social and psychological development of women diminished.24

Lullaby Singing

Finally, women's music-making around the birth of children, or in connection with the early stages of children's lives, has also been prevalent in many societies. In Herat, for example, women engaged in lullaby singing, singing and playing the daire for a mother after the birth of a baby in order to frighten away evil spirits, and singing and dancing for the circumcision of a boy.25 Across many cultures, lullabies are used not only to put a child to sleep, enumerate a child's personal beauties and charms, and prophesy a child's glorious future, but also to complain about the mother's weariness and hard lot, or of the father's absence, neglect, or drunkenness. Lullabies are used to teach young children social customs such as family duties, social position, gender roles and relationships, and family and ethnic heritage. They are used to pass the time of day and night as women sit together with their children. In American lullabies, many of which do not mention sleep at all, Bess Lomax Hawes found that mothers sing as much to themselves as to their babies, trying to separate themselves from their babies by making them independent, while at the same time remaining in physical proximity to them.26

In a study pertaining to the Hazaras, a Shi'a Muslim ethnic group living principally in the high mountains of Central Afghanistan,27 Lorraine Sakata found that the lullabies of those women also sometimes performed a double function: besides putting the baby to sleep, some sent a message to the singer's (mother's) lover to pay a visit:

Baby's father went hunting / He went to the Marghozar Mts./ The door latch is straw / The rooster stands at the door / Come by the tobacco field path / Come to the bed on the platform / Lalui lalui mother's father.

Lullaby singing among the Hazaras is especially interesting from another point of view as well: Hazaras performed two kinds of lullabies-"functional lullabies," called lala or lalu, and "stylized lullabies." Functional lullabies formed a significant body of women's songs and were sung unaccompanied with the primary purpose of helping soothe babies and put them to sleep. Stylized lullabies, on the other hand, were sung by men as social entertainment, often to the accompaniment of a dambura, a two-string, fretless plucked lute.28 While both stylized and functional lullabies displayed many of the same musical characteristics, functional lullabies were not considered "real music." Even though they exhibited the intervallic content and other stylistic features characteristic of the Hazara "prototype melody," a melody type which formed the basis for all songs inextricably associated with Hazaras, it was only men's stylized, accompanied lullabies that were considered legitimate music. Sakata therefore concludes that the Hazara situation seems to have followed a common tendency in many societies to allow the contributions of women to go unrecognized, because so often the cultural definitions of music and musician focus solely on male traditions. Nevertheless, the essential features of the prototype melody as well as other Hazara melodies owed much to Hazara female repertories and style, to which lullabies were central.


To sum up, women across a great variety of cultures have developed linguistic and musical skills especially to mark important transitions from one stage of the life cycle to another. Through their use of these skills, they have taught others as well as themselves new social and psychological roles. They have provided entertainment for themselves and built networks with each other. They have aired their grievances, vented their feelings, and found support from each other for their difficult, often subordinate, roles in society. Without special training and with their musical roles and activities limited by many societies, women have utilized the freedom accorded them to celebrate important life cycle transitions to develop their verbal and musical abilities.

Ethnomusicologist John Blacking has asked, "How musical is man?"29 I agree with his premise that the presence of so much music in the world makes it reasonable to suppose that music, like language and possibly religion, is a species-specific trait of "man," and therefore present in almost every human being. But I would choose to emphasize that woman is musical. We haven't as yet collected as much evidence about women's musical abilities as we have about men's, both because of cultural restrictions imposed upon women's music-making and because of cultural blindness as to what women have done. Nevertheless, women's music-making around important transitions in the life cycle demonstrates that women frequently turn culturally sanctioned and prescribed genres into individually expressive aesthetic forms. Their work in such traditions hints at their capacity for musical creativity in cultures where few women have a professional identity.


1. This discussion is based on two sources by Ali Jihad Racy: "Funeral Songs of the Druzes of Lebanon" (M.M. thesis, University of Illinois, 1971), and "Lebanese Laments: Grief, Music, and Cultural Values," World of Music 28, no. 2 (1986), 27-37.
2. Joel Sherzer, "A Diversity of Voices: Men's and Women's Speech in Ethnographic Perspective," in Language, Gender, and Sex in Ethnographic Perspective, ed. Susan U. Philips, Susan Steele, and Christine Tanz (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 112.
3. Judith K. Brown, "Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Female Life Cycle," in Handbook of Cross-Cultural Human Development, ed. Ruth H. Munroe, Robert L. Munroe, and Beatrice B. Whiting (New York: Garland STPM Press, 1981), 581.
4. See especially Ernesto de Martino, Morte e pianto rituale nel mondo antico: Dal lamento pagano al pianto de Maria (Turin: Edizioni Scientifiche Einaudi, 1958).
5. Lauri Honko, "Balto-Finnic Lament Poetry," Studia Fennica 17 (1974), 10.
6. Sherzer, "Diversity of Voices," 113.
7. Ibid., 112-114.
8. Anna Caraveli-Chaves, "Bridge Between Worlds: The Greek Women's Lament as Communicative Event," Journal of American Folklore 93 (1980), 146.
9. Susan Auerbach, "From Singing to Lamenting: Women's Musical Role in a Greek Village," in Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective, ed. Ellen Koskoff (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), 25-26.
10. Janice Carole Jarrett, "The Song of Lament: An Artistic Women's Heritage (A Study of the Modern Greek Lamenting Tradition and its Ancient West Asian and Mediterranean Prototypes)" (Ph.D. diss., Wesleyan University, 1977), viii. In both Jarrett and Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), there is detailed information on women's lamenting traditions in the ancient and post-ancient world. Alexiou also discusses state legislation restricting funeral lamentation in ancient Greece, as well as the antagonism of the early Christian church towards ritual lamentation. Through comparison of ancient practices and texts with modern ones, her work clearly demonstrates that the Greek lamenting tradition has retained a cultural continuity through the centuries.
11. Elizabeth Tolbert, "Magico-Religious Power and Gender in the Karelian Lament" in Music, Gender, and Culture, ed. Marcia Herndon and Susanne Ziegler (Wilhelmshaven: Florian Noetzel Verlag, 1990), 41-56.
12. Caraveli-Chaves, "Bridge Between Worlds," 129-57.
13. A somewhat similar study of Irish women's lamenting, which appeared after the present article was completed, is Angela Bourke, "More in Anger than in Sorrow: Irish Women's Lament Poetry," in Feminist Messages: Coding in Women's Folk Culture, ed. Joan Newlon Radner (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 160-82. Bourke focuses on the woman lamenter as protester of men's violence and miserliness and on the ways in which she disguises her subversive messages so as to protect the protesting victims.
14. Anna Caraveli, "The Bitter Wounding: The Lament as Social Protest in Rural Greece," in Gender and Power in Rural Greece, ed. Jill Dubisch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 169-94.
15. The Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, Vol. XV: Northern and Central Italy and the Albanians of Calabria, collected and edited by Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella (Columbia 91A-02023), nos. 34 and 35. Several other laments are found on Laments of Lebanon, recorded by Ali Jihan Racy (Ethnic Folkways FE 4046), and on the cassettes accompanying Jeff Todd Titon et al., Worlds of Music (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), nos. 25 and 26 (Rumanian).
16. The following information is taken principally from Veronica Doubleday, "Women and Music in Herat," Afghanistan Journal 9, no. 1 (1982), 3-12. Some of it also derives from information based on the research of Doubleday reported in John Baily, Music of Afghanistan: Professional Musicians in the City of Herat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
17. Bonnie C. Wade, "Songs of Traditional Wedding Ceremonies in North India," Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 4 (1972), 57.
18. Several beautifully sung ritual wedding songs by Jewish women of Tetuan, Morocco, can be heard on Ballads, Wedding Songs, and Piyyutim of the Sephardic Jews of Tetuan and Tangier, Morocco, recorded and annotated by Henrietta Yurchenco (Folkways Records FE 4208, 1983). The recording accompanying Titon's Worlds of Music (see n. 14) includes a wedding song from the White Sea region of Russia (no. 23).
19. Suzanne Ziegler, "Gender-Specific Traditional Wedding Music in Southwestern Turkey," in Music, Gender, and Culture, ed. Herndon and Ziegler, 85-100.
20. On the latter point, see especially Honko, "Balto-Finnic Lament Poetry," 51-52.
21. C. Fred Blake, "Death and Abuse in Marriage Laments: The Curse of Chinese Brides," Asian Folklore Studies 37 (1978), 13-33; and idem, "The Feelings of Chinese Daughters Towards their Mothers as Revealed in Marriage Laments," Folklore 90 (1979), 91-97.
22. Brown, "Cross-Cultural Perspectives," 582.
23. 3 vols., Annales 98-100 (Tervuren: Musée royal de l'Afrique Centrale, 1979).
24. Some Chokwe women's music appears on Music and Musicians of the Angolan Border: The Tschokwe, recorded by Barbara Schmidt-Wrenger (Lyrichord LL ST 7313).
25. Doubleday, "Women and Music in Herat."
26. Bess Lomax Hawes, "Folksong and Function: Some Thoughts on the American Lullaby," in J. H. Brunvand, ed., Readings in American Folklore (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979), 202-14.
27. Hiromi Lorraine Sakata, "Hazara Women in Afghanistan: Innovators and Preservers of a Musical Tradition," in Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective, ed. Koskoff, 85-95.
28. Afghani women generally do not play any musical instruments except for those thought not to be "real" instruments, such as the daira (tambourine) and chang (jew's harp).
29. John Blacking, How Musical Is Man? (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973).

Jane Bowers, professor of music history and musicology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, was co-editor of the landmark anthology Women Making Music (University of Illinois Press, 1986) and has written extensively on the subject of women's history and feminist musicology. In the College Music Symposium 29, 30 (1989, 1990), she surveyed music periodicals' coverage of women musicians. In the present essay, which is excerpted from a much larger study still in process, she surveys and analyzes the literature about women's music in some of the world's oral traditions. Dr. Bowers is now completing a book about the blues singer Mama Yancey.

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"Women's Music and the Life Cycle," by Jane Bowers

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