Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The World's Oldest Recorded Song?

I am not sure whether it was Frank Zappa or one Rolling Stone guy (the one who actually gathered some messy moss, not the one who got knighted) who said that in this Universe there is only one Ultimate, Mother of All Songs, and that Adam and Eve sang it, and that it probably had a master 3-chord key. The others, the ones we sing today in whatever tunes or forms, are just variations and permutations of that Mother song.

Well I do not regard anything that comes out from some overstayed, over-doped 70 year old rock stars as anything worthy to be listened to with half an ear, but then this cosmic idea deserves some thoughts: Why do Man sing? How long has he been singing? Did he sing to search for food, or did he do it as some ritual mating call? Did he sing to survive? Or did he, simply put  by M. Nasir, only "menyanyi kerana gembira"?. In fact was he ever happy in the first place, at all?

More questions. What were their songs like? The paleolithics and the neolithics: did their songs resemble any that we sing today? No? How do we know that? Could it be that whatever they sang was more rhythmical than even, say, that Bibir kid in his most soberest moment? Or could it be just that the series of unintelligible grunts and growls Og sang after clubbing Budbud on the head (for sex, obviously) were actually melodious croons in the ears of Budbud that made her just .... open up?

Thoughts, thoughts and more thoughts. Useless thoughts, in fact. But the following is an interesting thought I had in mind recently, and that led me on to a most interesting anthropological adventure (oh you know what we bloggers mean by that. It's an ARMCHAIR anthropological adventure) and its starts from a very simple question: what is the world's oldest recorded song?

Well now for POETRY there is no problem in researching on its chronological beginnings. Primitive people had been writing poems since time immemorial and if you ask me, really, in the history of mankind, I am of the opinion that poetry precedes prose. The Epic of Gilgamesh and some Mesopotamian and Babylonian mythology were written in epic forms and dated as fas as 2000 years BC. Religious and neo-religious scripts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Iliad and Odyssey and others were written hunderds of years BC. We know because these were inscribed manually and we can still get to read them till today.

But what about songs? Even if there existed songs tht accompany these poetry, what do they sound like? Nobody knows because recording mechanisms were only invented in the 19th century by Edison and the like, and the earliest forms of musical notations that translated musical tunes into written notations that could be produced elsewhere did not come about until the medieval ages, which gave opportunity for present people to listen to what the Baroque, Medieval and Renaissance tunes sound like.

Of course songs and music, and their notations, appeared much earlier than that. Excavations made by that Tubingen University team found a bone flute ooh... about 40,000 years old. So they were playing music back then, though almost definitely not Bouree or Fly mM to The Moon.But still the question lingers: what did they sound like? Can we get to hear a song, any song, sung by our ancestors?

My hunt for the world's oldest singable, recorded song brought me to this, where it is claimed that some cuneiform figures found in a tablet were actually notes to a music, and the researcher proceeded to reproduce its tunes, complete with MIDI-based transcripts. But I think this is hogwash. Just some burnt-out researchers trying to sell some tunes using synthesizers, complete with a form for your credit card numbers. Who is there to verify? Some of these claims are highly questionable. It's like finding  a small skeletal toe of Bracchiosaurus and concluding from thence its dietary needs, favourite sexual positions and its last Bracchiosauruette mate it was gallivanting with just before that meteor hit.

And then it hit me: an ancient song must be recorded tonally. If not via some media then at least through the memory, through the voice and sung generation after generation. And so it is that I could not help but conclude (and of course, please correct me as soon as possible if it shows otherwise) that the oldest tonally-recorded song would be none other than the famous Tola'al Badru sung by the Medinites 1400 years ago when welcoming the Prophet Muhammad's entry into the city for the first time. It was an impromptu poetry/song written by a resident Medinah poet.

This is how the song sounds like:-

The lyrics are are as follows:-

Tala'al-Badru 'alayna,
min thaniyyatil-Wada'
wajaba al-shukru 'alayna,
ma da'a lillahi da'

Ayyuha al-mab'uthu fina
ji'ta bi-al-amri al-muta'
Ji'ta sharrafta al-Madinah
marhaban ya khayra da'

In English, they mean:-

O the White Moon rose over us
From the Valley of Wada'
And we owe it to show gratefulness
Where the call is to Allah

O you who were raised amongst us
coming with a work to be obeyed
You have brought to this city nobleness
Welcome! best call to God's way

So yes, I believe that when you hear this song, you are actually hearing it just like it was sung 1400 years ago. In the course of time, there had been many variations to the song, some even completely changing the tune to a nicer one while preserving the lyrics as is done by some Indonesians/Malaysians here:-

And what's this Olivia Newton John also singing the Tala'al Badru?

Well anyway that's my conclusion. Please feel free to correct me.

Thank You.

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