Historian: Ellis Godard
The !Kung San, a Kalahari hunter-gatherer population, was the dominant population in southern Africa for perhaps tens of millennia. The population of perhaps 300,000 in the seventeenth century encountered Dutch colonists, and then dwindled by the 1970s to fewer than 50,000, dispersed throughout South Africa. But as their numbers shrank, anthropologists devoted increasing attention to the population’s complexity, diversity, and adaptations.
Although the !Kung no longer rule the high desert, Phish incant their spirit from the hills of their own performances. Their noted diversity is reflected in “voraciously alternate” speeds and tones, as the words are adaptively overlaid on diverse segues and jams. (Compare the 2/20/93 craziness to the rising energy of 11/29/98). More recent incantations have bridged the divide between “Drowned” and “Twist” on 7/25/03, and witnessed “Frankenstein” get into the act on 12/2/03. But the words do not vary, as the song appropriately evokes a mix of reverence and glee: On three occasions (12/31/92, 3/25/93, and 6/26/94), Trey declared the chant a requisite step to entering Gamehendge.
This sense of transport, too, connects with the !Kung, who perform a ritual healing dance from dusk to dawn perhaps twice each week. The !kia dance, described as “an experiential passage,” is a fatiguing process that advances an altered state of consciousness, with the aim of transcendence not only for spiritual purposes but to address misfortune. Near its climax, the !kia ignites the “n/um,” an energy which resides in the stomach and works its way up the spine with increasing intensity: “Stand up,” it says, “stand up on your heels and sing.”
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