African Archaeological Review

, Volume 31, Issue 4, pp 675–703 | Cite as

Using Diverse Sources of Evidence for Reconstructing the Past History of Musical Exchanges in the Indian Ocean

  • Roger BlenchEmail author
Original Article


Although the Indian Ocean has long been recognised as a fertile zone for cultural exchange, reflecting both trade routes and colonisation, it is only now coming into prominence in terms of its significance for the past history of the continents around its rim. It is now accepted that economic plants, animals, diseases, trade goods, languages, religion and cultural elements all moved around and across the Indian Ocean, often transforming the societies and environments into which they were introduced. The paper explores one specific aspect of cultural exchange, music and musical practice in the Indian Ocean. Case studies are used to assess the value and significance of different categories of evidence for the reconstruction of musical history and the resultant chronostratigraphy. These include the history of two types of zither which occur on both sides of the Indian Ocean and which attest to the significance of geographical distributions of material culture. A related issue is the vexed question of the similarities of the xylophone in Southeast Asia and Africa and the role of morphology in resolving the historical direction of transfer. Slavery and the African diaspora in the Indian Ocean have only recently been the subject of in-depth scholarly examination, and the paper summarises current literature and begins the process of categorising the exchange of musical subcultures. This throws into focus an important aspect of maritime transfers in the Indian Ocean: the low profile of some of the great trading nations, such as the Sassanians and the Chinese, in terms of cultural influence, despite their importance in overall trade. The paper suggests that disease and a focus on trade to the exclusion of other activities may account for this disparity.


Indian Ocean Music Archaeology Material culture Exchange 



Before Common Era


Before Present


‘000 years ago


Island Southeast Asia


Mainland Southeast Asia


Néanmoins que l’Océane Indien a été longtemps reconnues comme zone fertile pour les échanges culturelles, réfléchissant les routes du commerce et colonisation, ce n’est que maintenant qu’il commence a devenir plus connu pour son signifiance pour l’histoire des continents autour de sa bassin. C’est reçu que les plantes utiles, les animaux, les maladies, les religions et des éléments culturaux ont étés transferts autour et au travers l’Océan Indien, souvent transformant les sociétés et environnements dans laquelle ils sont introduites. L’exposé est une exploration d’un élément spécifique de ces échanges culturaux, la musique et la pratique musicale dans l’Océan Indien. Les études de cas sont fouilles pour les évidences pour la reconstruction le l’histoire de la musique et le chronostratigraphie qu’on peut déceler. Ces études incluent l’histoire de deux espèces ce cithare qu’on observe sur les deux rives de l’Océan Indien et qui attestent à la signifiance des distributions géographiques la culture matérielle. Une sujet étroitement lie est la question épineuse des les similarités entre les xylophones de l’Asie sud-est et l’Afrique, et le rôle de la morphologie en résoudront la direction historiques de ces transferts. Ce n’est que récemment que l’esclavage et la diaspora Africaine dans l’Océan Indien sont devenus le sujet d’analyse des chercheurs et l’exposé synthétise les recherches récents et commence le processus de catégoriser les échanges dans les cultures musicales. L’analyse met la lumière sur un aspect signifiant dans les transferts maritimes dans l’Océan Indien, le profil réduit de quelques grand nations de commerce, comme les Chinois et les Sassanides, de la point de vue des influences culturelles. L’exposé propose que les maladies et un intérêt très fixé sur la commerce a l’exclusion des autres activités peut expliquer cette disparité.



A first version of parts of this paper was presented at a special workshop on Madagascar, held in the Musée Royale de l’Afrique Centrale, Tervuren in 2009. I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me and for the audience discussion. Thanks also to Philippe Beaujard and Sander Adelaar for the exchange of ideas over many years. Thanks also to the Kay Williamson Educational Foundation for supporting fieldwork. It is intended to complement a related review of the prehistory of music on the African mainland (Blench 2013).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Kay Williamson Educational FoundationCambridgeUK

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