Discover more from The Honest Broker
The Parable of the Molimo
A story of music, magic, power, and bitter disappointment
Let me tell you a story about music. My story is about the mystery of music—but it also has other things to teach us. So I prefer to call it a parable.
This is the parable of the molimo.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, and culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
Anthropologist Colin Turnbull (1924-1994) had an extraordinary career, and you would have a hard time finding a more unusual life’s journey during the middle decades of the 20th century. This complicated and sometimes controversial figure started out working for movie studios—he helped find the boat used in the Humphry Bogart film The African Queen—but ended up giving away all his belongings and becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk in India.
But he is best known for what he did in-between, as an anthropologist working in Africa over a half century ago.
This went far beyond scholarly research. Turnbull was looking for more than just tenure in a university or a successful book contract. As many of you know, I am very interested in the concept of the hero’s quest and its relation to music—that’s a key theme in the new book I’m publishing on Substack. Turnbull’s vocation sometimes resembled a quest of this sort.
Turnbull spent years tracking the molimo—a mysterious, ceremonial trumpet—of the Mbuti (or Bambuti) pygmies of the Ituri rain forest in the northeast of Zaire.
Researchers sometimes hear about objects of this sort—so filled with shock and awe that outsiders aren’t allowed to touch or (in many instances) even see them. But if you’re doing fieldwork, these are exactly the things you want to see.
Perhaps we’re curious. Or (in my opinion) maybe we’re envious of societies that still believe music—or even just a musical instrument—possesses such power and magic. Or with more sober researchers, they just might be doing their job, trying to document traditions of this sort before they disappear entirely.
In any event, the molimo was that kind of object. And nothing was more important to Colin Turnbull than getting at least a glimpse of the sacred trumpet.
But his informants absolutely refused to let him anywhere near it.
It made matters all the worse that sometimes, in the middle of the night, he could hear it playing off in the distance. And the sound was huge, dramatic. It was everything he imagined a magical horn would sound like.
And then he finally got his chance. But it didn’t come easy.
Turnbull had to endure great hardships in order to witness the playing of the molimo, even submitting to an initiation process in which deep vertical slits were carved into his forehead with a rusty arrow blade. After all his efforts, he was brought one day on a lengthy trek through the forest, and as darkness fell, he came to a desolate spot. Here he was finally shown the mysterious molimo.
I do not know exactly what I had expected, but I knew a little about molimo trumpets and that they were sometimes made out of bamboo. I suppose I had expected an object elaborately carved, decorated with patterns, full of ritual significance and symbolism, something sacred, to be revered, the very sight or touch of which might be thought of as dangerous. I felt that I had a right, in the heart of the tropical rain forest, to expect something wonderful and exotic.
But now I saw that the instrument which produced such a surprisingly rude sound, shattering the stillness as it shattered my illusions, was not made of bamboo or wood, and it certainly was not carved or decorated in any way. It was a length of metal drainpipe, neatly threaded at each end, though somewhat bent in the middle.
The much prized molimo, it turns out, was nothing more than a commodity piece of tubing stolen from a government road construction site.
I think all my readers will understand what a disappointment it is to go through a disfiguring initiation just to get a look at a rusty drainpipe. But it’s even worse if you’re an aspiring field researcher seeking to unlock the mysteries of traditional cultures. Discarded construction materials are neither mysterious or traditional, and certainly won’t impress your colleagues at the Royal Anthropological Institute
“What does it matter what the molimo is made of?” Turnbull’s Mbuti friends insisted, when they saw his tremendous disappointment. “This one makes a great sound, and, besides it does not rot like wood. It is much trouble to make a wooden one, and then it rots away and you have to make another.”
Why couldn’t he see the advantages of the new, improved molimo? While Turnbull was searching for the exotic, the Mbuti had more specific needs, needs grounded in their day-to-day life and the realities of their environment. They didn’t view their own lives as exotic—that was Turnbull’s bias, not theirs.
I call this a parable because you can interpret the story at the surface level, or give it much broader applicability. The most obvious meaning is that music researchers (including me) often construct elaborate fantasies in our heads that may be exciting and romantic—but bear little resemblance to reality.
I’m sure I’ve done that on many occasions. And there are plenty of readers who seek out that kind of music writing.
But there’s a second and third level to this story.
If you think about it a while, you realize that Turnbull’s Mbuti friends understand the second level. They realize that the magic and power in music happens inside of us, and that the origins of the musical instrument are almost irrelevant. A wind instrument made of a drainpipe last week can have more impact than one constructed from a unicorn’s horn a thousand years ago—provided we put our own heart and soul into the proceedings.
It's easier to make that leap in the context of tradition and ritual, but the leap can actually happen anywhere. You can experience the magic of music just listening to a record, with no initiatory scarfication required.
In a curious counterpart to Turnbull’s story, percussionist Bill Summers helped Herbie Hancock create a million-selling updating of his song “Watermelon Man” by drawing on this same Mbuti culture. In Summers’s case, he took Hindewhu music, often performed on a papaya-stem whistle, and recreated the sound by blowing into the opening of a beer bottle.
Just compare this:
With this homage at the 1:45 mark. Summers even takes a sip of beer to ‘tune’ his instrument.
A beer bottle is even more banal than a stolen government drainpipe. Yet it, too, can produce magic. There has to be a lesson there, no?
But there’s a third level to the tale of the molimo, which is why I call it a parable—because in this final stage of interpretation the molimo is not even about music, but applicable to so many other aspects of our lives.
The parable of the molimo tells us that sometimes the most important result of a journey is not to see new things, but to see the old things anew. The real transformation that takes place on a journey is only evident when you come back home to your familiar settings and everyday experiences. The trip is important, but only because you are now different—more aware, less beholden to conformity, perhaps even wiser. Now even a drainpipe or empty bottle might start looking different, infused with unexpected possibilities.
Or, let me put that a different way. The journey has happened inside of you.
Let’s hope that it doesn’t require us, like Colin Turnbull, to have incisions made in our forehead with a rusty arrow blade. But even it takes that kind of commitment, the magical molimos we gain just might be worth it.