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Music and Power

It is a well-known fact that objects cannot be reduced to their materiality or their technical nature. Because they have a range of meanings, their original purpose sometimes becomes an accessory role.

— Éric Montbel,
Les souvenirs du sens : cornemuses, miroirs, mémoire —
Souffler, c'est jouer

(Paris: Musée des arts et traditions populaires, 1999),
p. 57, translation.


The theme of music and power links music to musical forms that refer to certain values inherent in a given community. Music is not an end in itself; it is a means of representing a hierarchy or expressing an ideology.

Confrérie des chasseurs / Photo: Musée national du Mali

Music that is associated with hierarchical power requires specific instruments, and the context in which it is used is strictly defined. It can only be played with the consent of a person representing the top of the hierarchy — a nation's sovereign or a group's spiritual leader, for example — and only in that person's presence.

There is a very ancient tradition behind the musical instrument that accompanies the voice of the griots when they sing or narrate epic stories, sing songs in praise of heroes or proclaim the glory of great warriors. The musical pieces that in the past spurred chiefs into battle in search of new conquests are now played only at festivals and celebrations.

The history of sport also demonstrates how violence is glossed over. We have gone from the brutal jousts of the Middle Ages to sports events that offer the spectacle of "domesticated civil war". The rules that apply to sports, designed to control violent confrontations, are the result of a long civilizing and peacemaking process.