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Elizabeth Kinder
Photo: Sophie Ziegler

The Elusive Ethnomusicologist

Elizabeth Kinder’s monthly column

Chatting recently with acclaimed film-maker and music writer Mark Kidel for this magazine (coming soon!), we hit on the topic of authenticity. He said that with music you could achieve authentic, honest communication, and that lying – the unauthentic – came with words.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Who hasn’t made noises of delight when opening a present (or even someone’s clothes) to find all was not as hoped for? And it’s not just humans that use sound to fib. Thanks to good friends and a recent trip to South Africa, I was able to dazzle with my recently acquired knowledge of the Drongo bird. We were near the Kruger national park where the song of the Drongo bird fills the air. Music to our ears, but to a meerkat or a mongoose, a warning sound that predators are near. So they leave off the insects they’ve unearthed and hurry for cover. The Drongo bird swoops in for an easy snack. It often ‘cries wolf’, but has learnt to give enough real alarm calls so that the animals trust his call.

And I was reminded that you don’t even have to make a sound to try and lie your socks off when a couple of male lions swaggered towards our jeep. It seemed they were just going to pass us by. But when he got to where I was sitting, the magnificent dominant male stopped and turned his head towards me. He stared at me with his big yellow eyes. I stared back.

For a moment I wasn’t afraid, though he was less than three feet away. I was in a jeep. It had an open top, but still, a jeep. Then the guide whispered “Nobody move”.

The lion turned his entire body towards me and kept staring. So did I. It began to feel a bit odd. I felt slightly uncomfortable. Maybe staring back was the wrong thing to do. Perhaps I was unwittingly laying down the gauntlet. Then my daughter’s words came to mind. “Mum, Dad says you’ll get eaten by a lion!” Maybe his joke was in fact a grisly premonition. Maybe the lion was thinking “Dinner!” I looked away. But what if that wasn’t right either? What if that was just submissive and asking for trouble. I was at a loss. My education to date hadn’t covered the correct etiquette of this situation.

Should I try to appear submissive, or dominant and unafraid? I had no idea. So I opted for both. I looked back at him trying to look unconcerned. He was still staring. This went on for some minutes, me covering my options with some insane eye-swiveling and his intense unwavering stare. Eventually he tilted his chin up, turned his head and sauntered off.

The guide said “He liked your perfume!”

No words. No music. But a bit of inter-species communication. He was authentic, I wasn’t. I know that lion saw right through my attempted nonchalance.

The interconnectedness of everything is in your face in the wild. We all pick up on what’s real and what isn’t. Music connects us all, but when it’s inauthentic, we can see right through it. Unless you’re a meerkat or a mongoose of course.

Elizabeth Kinder


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