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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


 
The Essay
Show #321
The Human Ululation Module
David Gunn

Three hundred and seventy barely hitchhikable road miles southeast of the northcentral Mexican cantina in which Ernest Hemingway gave birth to a musicological life form six-fifteenths of a century ago (see essay #312 for particulars), there lurks a second cantina of import in the annals of both music history and digital communications. This taberna, however, is much older: its furniture and, some would say, waitstaff hail from July, 15 BC. Located in Teotihuacán, a Mesoamerican settlement on the northern shore of Lake Mexico City, Café Maya was, like many cantinas of the day, a hub of commerce, sorcery and vehicular rentals. Its clientele mostly consisted of nomadic hunter-gatherers, though a dozen or so Teotihuacánian regulars stopped by intermittently for the synchronized darts tournaments. In those days, communication was primitive and unregulated, consisting of rudimentary charades that featured a lot of gesticulating with lips and tongues -- but no vocal sounds. One day, two Teotihuacánian rabbis stood facing each other in the great tribal circle at the intersection of the Street of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Moon. They had just performed the sacred bee ritual, an homage to their nectar-sucking insect god wherein they don fabulous costumes woven from bee hair and dance nonstop for three hours, simulating the pollinating maneuvers of the king bee. They were pooped, but consuetude dictated that they remain upright for another 30 minutes. However, one of them, dizzy from exhaustion, tried to sit down -- and sat on his very lifelike stinger. Muffled by the colorful bee mask, his yelp of pain came out sounding like mmmmm, the spitting image of a bee on the wing. The other rabbi, eager to proclaim his own devotion to beedom, sat on his stinger, and was instantly able to approximate his comrade's vocal ululation. Other clergypersons, drawn to the sounds like narwhals to rusted-through tins of oleomargarine, followed suit, and soon all of Teotihuacán was emitting a continuous low droning sound, a sound that would become that settlement's cultural hallmark. In fact, at the All-Mesoamerican Hunter-Gatherer Conference of 14 BC, the Teotihuacánian's was far and away the most popular booth. Each time a savvy rab-bee demonstrated the sound -- termed the hum, after "human ululation module" -- scores of well-heeled shamans besieged him with requests, and pesos, to franchise the technique. (Today, a visitor to the northern shore of Lake Mexico City can see polychrome murals on the east wall of the Pyramid of the Elves that depict in anatomically explicit detail ancient peoples engaged in these vocal histrionics.) While the basic hum spread to the four corners of the world before falling off, the Teotihuacán priest caste endeavored to refine the original sound. By keeping their lips closed, they eliminated the problem of what to do with the bees when they flew in and tried to establish colonies on their pharynxes. This also produced a much richer mouth sound, which simply begged to be modulated, a technique not discovered until a priest sat on stingers of different lengths and produced differently pitched hums. Experimentation led to the "temporally ululating note environment," or tune. Later, expert mouthsounders ingested a smooth mixture of mashed chickpeas, tahini, oil, lemon juice and garlic -- again without opening their lips -- and took the hum to the next level, the hummus.

Oh, and the digital communications thing? Well, one day -- and this was well into 13 BC by now -- two Teotihuacánian clerics were sitting in the great tribal circle facing each other. They had just performed the sacred pedicure ritual and were still barefoot. Cleric A, the friskier of the two, extended his foot and grasped the others' toes with his own. Shocked, Cleric B recoiled and tried to pull his foot to safety, but Cleric A hummed comforting assurances and hung on tightly. Gradually, Cleric B relaxed and allowed his toes to be co-opted by Cleric A. Cleric A then hummed a little bee song to his compadre that instructed him to keep an open mind, like a one-way street might keep an open manhole cover. Cleric B did so, and soon he felt several exotic and erotic thoughts trickling from his lower digits up through the latissimus dorsi into his Mesoamerican hippocampi. His toes buzzed in concert with his brain. A row of corns on the phalanges burst into flame and fell off. It was the first documented instance of digit-to-digit communication.

Digital communication plays an important role in this 321st episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, for without it, our radiophonic signal would be stuck here in this dull room and you, our listening audients, would miss out on the attendant hums and harrumphs of Kalvos.