Baka Music & Magic - The Technology of Enchantment - full documentary
It's an hour before dawn but the tropical forest is far from still. The myriad of insects creates a polyphony of sound, finding space in the chorus so that they can be heard by their potential rivals and mates. They are joined by the Baka women, singing their signature "yeli", an otherworldly yodel that they believe communicates with the spirits of past Hunters, who will herd the forest animals to their husband's spears over the coming days. My name is Martin Cradick. I've been visiting the same Baka community for 30 years now, drawn there after having heard their music on a television documentary.
Having arrived I was entranced by their world - the music - the laughter - their joy of life The spell was so strong that after 30 years I still have to go back each year. Watching the documentary "Baka People of the Rainforest" by Phil Agland, I loved the way the Baka appeared to incorporate music in all aspects of their lives, and was particularly impressed by a girl playing what looked like a giant leaf. I was so inspired that I picked up my guitar and wrote a riff that became the title track of the next album of my band Outback, which we called "Baka". Not only did this lead to me getting my first record deal with Joe Boyd's Hannibal Records, but also a series of coincidences that two years later found me walking down a forest path at dusk with my wife Su, carrying a sack of salt, a guitar and a mandolin, and a present of Marks and Spencer's ladies knickers (a prized item we were assured), following a little Baka man called Mopana into the darkening forest.
In this series of podcasts I'll try to connect all that I've recently read about the Baka and their music in the academic literature with my extensive collection of field recordings and my 30 years of experience living and working with Baka musicians. I will show how music and dance is central to their lives, how they keep the social and emotional health of the community strong, how they're a communication with the forest and a "Technology of Enchantment", To give you an idea of just how musical they are, here are three young Baka women playing the river: You can see they really are the masters of syncopation and polyrhythm. So who are the Baka? The Baka are one of many indigenous groups living in the tropical rainforests of the Congo basin.
Scattered across the forests from the Atlantic coast of Gabon and Cameroon to the mountains of Uganda and Burundi, they were called Pygmies by Victorian explorers due to their small size. Others include their neighbors the Aka, the Bongo and the Gwelli, as well as the Mbuti, Efe and Twa from the Eastern Congo basin. In spite of their wide distribution they share certain core values: egalitarianism; reliance on the forest for food medicine shelter and spiritual well-being; and an extraordinary aptitude for music.
[Music] The polyphonic singing, such as this 1958 recording by Colin Turnbull of the Ituri Forest People singing an elephant hunting song, is heard amongst all the groups across the forest. [Music] Although it is quite different from the Baka women singing at the start of this podcast, when both Lewis and Kisliuk played it to the Aka, they both reported that they immediately recognized it saying, "they must be like us because they sing like us". The Aka and the Baka are the most closely related of the Pygmy groups in spite of having completely different languages.
They both have a two-stringed musical bow only played by women called "limbindi" by Baka and "engbiti" by the Aka. This was the instrument that I saw in Phil Agland's film that I thought was a giant leaf. In fact it was a giant Ngongo Leaf wrapped around the limbindi to reflect the sound back to the player, although Nahwia here is playing it on an upturned cooking pot. The Aka women would use this as a spiritual bridge between women and their husbands, while the latter were away on hunting trips. I've not asked the Baka about this. but this recording is of Nahwia playing in a forest camp on her own while her husband, Ndongo was off hunting.
In spite of the Eastern and Western groups separating 30 000 years ago the Efe in the East also play an instrument like this. They call it "kitingbi" and it's part of the young women's initiation ceremony. It may still be part of that ceremony amongst the Baka, but as a man and not privy to women's initiations, I've only seen it played in camp. It's the only instrument I know where the player's chin is used to change the pitch of the notes. In Baka mythology the "ngombi na peke" is the demiurge, Komba's instrument. Traditionally it accompanies the "likano", creation tales that entertain and educate the children.
Pelembir will explain I'll tell you about the ngombi na peke. Komba showed us how to make ngombi na peke. When men play they play the same songs as when the Baka women sing the yeli The ngombi na peke and the yeli follow each other. it is good in preparing these podcasts I've revisited my field recordings, some of which I haven't heard for 25 years. I find I now hear them very differently. When I recorded Bounaka playing this piece in 1992, I really didn't understand all the percussion.
Now when I listen to the recordings I can imagine the pulse that often is not actually being played and the rhythms make much more sense to me. I'll put in the pulse to make the Rhythm clearer: [Music] You can easily hear what Furniss calls the "African standard pattern" which is equivalent to the Cuban 12:8 clave. But like all things Baka, although there are underlying rules, or rather underlying patterns, they will always only use them as a guide and do their own thing. [Music] Except for repertoires borrowed from or shared with neighbors, all Aka and Baka music is based on a ternary metricity, the beat being subdivided into three minimal values. We heard it in the recording of Bounaka playing the ngombi na peke.
And here where Metouli with his "ieta" is singing Jinjang. This is the underlying rhythm to most of the Baka's traditional dances [Music] These rhythms may sound unfamiliar to us, but the Baka start to learn them before they learn to talk. In fact they start to learn them before they are born. A 24 week old foetus hears the world around its mother who will be regularly singing, dancing, moving to the rhythm and clapping. The endorphins the experience produce in her are shared with the foetus so powerful associations between these sounds and pleasure are established in utero.
Once born, the immersion in rhythms and melodies continues. Music is learned in the same way as language. No one actively teaches, but as in most things, the Baka learn by observation, imitation and repetition. In part two I'll use the recording of a Mbouamboua dance, or Bé, to show how the Baka learn to use Music and Dance to communicate with and affect the forest. As we saw in the last part, the Aka of Central African Republic and Northern Congo are culturally very similar to the Baka. The term Bayaka encompasses both groups .
in the 1960s Simha Arom made a detailed study of their music and suggested that although their singing is perceptually polyphonic, it's actually polyrhythmic in essence most "Spirit Dances", or Bé, need two drums one constantly repeats this pattern . . . the other is the lead drum and has a lot more variation depending on the dance usually it'll have at least part of its cycle where it plays an eighth triplet after the pulse this is the secret - the music won't work without everyone working together the African standard pattern would often be played although not always sometimes it's extended sometimes they miss beats out but it would always fit Listen to the Mbouamboua there, calling from the forest he won't come out until the music and singing is good enough it's thought that traditionally the Baka would use log drums but they'll use whatever they can get - cooking pots plastic water containers anything that they can get a good sound out of. in 1992 we never saw them with a real drum At the start of the evening it would be a relaxed affair with lots of stops and starts Kisliuk refers to these lulls, that at first made her doubt the performers competence until she realized how the performance and social moments were so integrated there is no performer or audience, everyone participates drumming, singing ,clapping, dancing people don't go to listen to music they make music together [music] The Sounds we make affect the forest the Baka have learned from experience that when bad noises come into the forest chainsaws, noisy shouting people, arguments then it's harder to find food they strongly believe that bad sounds disturb the forest and it stops providing good sounds make it happy and open so it will provide food freely So how do you make the forest happy? With song and dance of course! many researchers refer to Baka "Spirit Dances" of which this Mbouamboua dance, called Embwambwa by Tsuru, is one of many Lewis prefers to call them "Spirit Play" It's through play that children learn how to take part in these events called "Bé" by the Baka Bé encompasses both song and dance and often theater as well the children will often make up their own Bé the underlying rhythmic structure of the Bé is the same for both Aka and Baka and they share the same stock of basic rhythms that are combined in a variety of ways these enable great variation and creativity while maintaining an underlying conformity when the singing stops and rhythmic chanting takes over this is what Michelle Kisliuk calls the "Essimé" It's an important part as far as the energy of the evening goes It gives both the dancers and the drummers a chance to show what they can do The level of excitement is rising.
You can hear the Mbouamboua spirit who's been called out of the forest and is dancing amongst the people Children are constantly honing their musical abilities by using their listening skills to learn the rhythms and melodies needed to join the polyphony without any explicit instruction imitation is actively encouraged with praise so all learn to participate without any judgment to their abilities explicit iinter-generational teaching is rare although it does happen during initiation during my initiation into Mbouamboua I was only taught certain steps and how to move when I needed to rest in order to give the impression that I was still dancing. the rest was left to my own imagination That was Mbouamboua telling everyone to take it easy Now the energy levels have risen, and Mbouamboua is dancing in the camp a new song is instigated very quickly. interestingly this song is a "Likano" one of the Fable songs I'd noticed that sometimes the same songs appear in different Bé so I asked Pelembir about it With music like the Mbouamboua or the Búma you have to follow the drums to make the music flow it is better to sing songs that we all know men, women, and children if we sing with the drums it will make a good sound you don't sing for yourself the music is for everyone we sing as one and it will go right it's good! The act of playing music has a very practical purpose to generate Joy, which opens the forest so it gives freely Rouget coined the term "musiquer" or to music to describe this intense practice of Music and Dance where "to music" is a verb meaning the act of playing music for the Baka it's the act of making Bé. And it's more than just the music.
Good Sounds include laughter and particularly children's laughter anyone who's visited a Baka hunting camp will attest to the joyous atmosphere and the amount of laughter there is a huge importance in the feel-good factor in Baka musicking with laughter an integral part of the soundscape Finnegan pointed out that many researchers ignored this laughter in their accounts she makes the connection with Bakhtin's analysis of Rabelais' 16th century writings where he refers to the culture of laughter that comes from the medieval Carnival spirit Bakhtin argues that the communal laughter of that bawdy, dancing body of Carnival was highly threatening to the emerging hierarchy at the end of the Middle Ages but that in the 17th century its powers diminished by converting its bawdy humor into something base and vulgar Mbouamboua is one of many Baka "Spirits" or "Mé" as they call them the basic structure of the "Spirit Play" mirrors the gender division of labor men call the "spirit" out of the forest and prepare it to dance in a secret area while the women entice it out from there by beautiful singing and seductive dancing so that all can enjoy the euphoria Just as the men bring meat to camp and the women make it beautiful and tasty there is no Baka word for just music the word "Bé" encompasses music, dance and the Rhythm and sometimes the theater that joins it as well It becomes a technology of Enchantment producing a mystified sense of delight and wonder, creating an uplifting and joyful atmosphere people animals and the forest all feel this it does this by attracting "Mé" from the forest In part three we'll learn about the women's "yeli" singing and how in a forest you learn to listen and how this hones your musical skills enabling you to communicate with the forest Stephen Feld noticed that the Kaluli of the Bosavi rainforest in Papua New Guinea had a deep understanding of their sonic rich forest environment he suggested that to the Kaluli, sound was Central to making sense, to knowing, to experiential truth it is the same for the Baka born in this environment you learn to listen to the forest at a very early age in the forest you have no need for maps, no need for clocks each time of day, each physical space has its own unique soundscape now we're going to look at the Baka women's singing the "yeli" how and why they do it what it means to them and the possible mechanisms that make it work here's some more recorded in February 1992 deep in the rainforest of Cameroon by the river Boumba note that it's the same ternary Rhythm we saw in the Mbouamboua in the last episode ["yeli 1" from "Heart of the Forest"] the shaker she's playing helps everyone know where the beat is where the triplets are as long as everyone knows which beat they come in on then the polyphony will work you can just hear in the background the second woman working out her part all in the 'chest voice' - no yodels In a rainforest survival is dependent on your listening skills hearing becomes your primary sense when walking through the forest all members of a group will instantly react to sound, freezing midstep the Baka see the forest as their loving parent who will look after you and keep you safe you perceive all sounds as the forest speaking to you telling you what you need to know all sounds in the forest are telling you something the hum of bees lead you to Honey the song of frogs leads you to water there's no need to filter out irrelevant sounds - there aren't any in our busy modern lives we learn to cut out the myriad of useless noises that clutter our life we actively learn not to listen One Day in 1992 I was walking in the forest with a hunter called Mokoloba he was showing me how to lay snares so that I could look after myself and stop being a burden on the camp we were walking along a path when he suddenly stopped, listening intently I stopped too and listened. I could hear some bees far up in the trees to the right of us and I asked, "are you looking for honey?" he looked at me in surprise and said in a shocked voice "you understand what the forest is saying" being so tuned into the sound of the forest means you're in a constant conversation with it turning part of the conversation into song charms the forest Arom suggests that Pygmy polyphonic singing is pure music as it has no words whereas Lewis suggests that the sounds produced are the forest's language the intended recipient of the Mbendjeli's rhythmic utterances is the Forest as on organic whole of which people, spirits, animals and plants are all a part thus is the forest singing to itself everything is in the moment, the now, in the 'Kaluli groove' as Feld would say in this next song we can hear three distinct voices coming in one at a time first there is a low voice then Loni, who has been the main singer so far joins with a second line in a low register a third voice copies the first, but in a higher register with yodel then Loni also shifts to a higher register all these songs you've heard are recordings of the Baka women performing their 'yeli' for their own reasons it wasn't a performance for me they are genuinely singing to the forest I was told that all the men that night had to stay in their huts I was woken by the singing and recorded them through the leaves of my mongolou hut to the Bayaka, music has power both over the forest and animals they believe that it is the women's songs that are responsible for the success of the hunt for big game, such as elephant yet the Mbendjeli, a subgroup of Aka, and the Baka interpret this in different ways the Mbendjelli women believe that their spirits fly over the forest and tie the elephant's spirits down, so that the hunters can easily kill them the Baka women believe that the spirits of past hunters walk with the elephants, herding them as the Hauser herd their zebu the 'yeli' singing encourages them to herd the elephants towards the Hunter's Spears 'yeli', when sung to ensnare big game, will only be sung by initiates, who will be the older women life is short in the forest so that means over about 30. it is only the initiates who yodel during 'Spirit Dances' all the women and girls will be singing which is why it's been said that certain groups don't actually yodel but imitate the sound using only their 'chest voice' it has also been said that the western Forest People don't hocket but if you listen to the 'head voice' of the yodel in this recording it is hocketing In Baka cosmology all elements of the environment are interconnected the forest is listening to its inhabitants and vice versa forest sounds are very diverse and polyphonic so are Baka conversations with the forest the song is a communication with the forest, the polyphonic sounds are the language of the forest the myriads of creatures calling into the night give enough space in their calls so that all can be heard the overall Kaleidoscope of sound is a real-time representation of what is going on at that precise moment any changes are reflected in the sounds all sentient beings reacting to the sounds and silences of the others this is the voice of the rainforest that tells you everything you need to know and being part of this soundscape enables you to affect what happens in part 4 we shall look at the connection between music and language, at the nature of "Mé" and how music and dance are so important for the Baka's well-being Mbendjeli hunters mimic the sound of the blue duiker to call them closer Bayaka all take pride in mimicking the sounds they hear They make these calls to have a successful hunt and when later telling the story of the hunt great attention will be paid to the acoustic features of events Hunter-gatherers see themselves as agents interacting with other natural agents in nature rather than as subjects in a society somehow outside of nature Music, dance and ritual can all be treated as modes of communication on a continuum from non-verbal to verbal which has music and language at opposite ends the Bayaka will choose their mode of communication depending on who they're communicating with villagers, family, animals, spirits If communicating with spirits they will choose Music and Dance This is a "Bé" called "Abale" It was recorded when Su and I arrived at a forest camp in Canya as a welcome to us. Listen to the hocketing here! there were several older women at this camp, definitely initiated into yeli "Abale" is different from a Bé such as "Mbouamboua" in that it doesn't always manifest "Mé" and if it does the Mé is not called "Abale" but "Kosé" it's often performed just for amusement or as in this case, as a welcome to visitors to a forest camp sometimes a man will dance, but he's not a manifestation of Mé the dancer in the Bùma is similar to Abale in that Mé does not appear but the Mé called Bùma can be present but will only be visible to the initiates the interlocking polyphonies and polyrhythms form a ritual system capable of communicating with the forest as a whole the rest of society, and outsiders such as Forest Spirits, farmers. and Europeans
the focus on words when discussing language is due to our modern bias to lexical expression if everyone speaks at once it can be confusing but if many people sing together their message is reinforced in speech one body communicates, in music many bodies do let's have a closer look at the rhythm of the Bùma dance the first drum sets the tempo playing an eighth-note triplet with a stick just before the beat, played with the hand the second drum plays the beat and an eighth note triplet, just after it occasionally adding quarter-note triplets across the beats usually there are only two drums but in this case a third drum plays a variation on the second part the clapping pattern is really important if you put a clap in on the beat the whole rhythm becomes clearer bring in the first drum and the groove becomes apparent the second drum adds some variations and colour to the beat this is augmented by the third drum now bring in the voices and the dancer the dancer is also the solo percussionist the shaker is played with his feet the footsteps and the rhythm interacting with the other drummers the teenage girls have a really important role with their clapping as well as their singing by improvising within certain parameters their syncopation can really change the energy attaining that transcendental moment when the singers drummers and dancer are all in the "Kaluli Groove" that feels so good because it achieves that feeling of maximized participation when everyone is in that communion of the moment so what is Mé? Mé is a general term for an existence that is formless but is felt as an aura Mé is usually translated as "spirit" although I feel this has too many connotations from a thousand years of Christianity to be a satisfactory translation here is Pelembir talking about Mé Mé is the name of the devil The devil is what? The devil lives in the forest there are many kinds of devil that we, the Baka have which we call to come and dance there is Mbouamboua there is Jengi , the most powerful Mé because he doesn't joke he can kill he also has knowledge if you call "Jengi" and hide, a person will pass by and not see you you can see from his language that his words have been influenced by missionaries although this translation of Mé has given the Baka a very different idea as to what a devil is than we have The Baka believe that Mé live in the forest they enjoy dancing and singing, so can be called into camp by a good Bé while they sometimes play tricks on people, and can be dangerous they never use sorcery or witchcraft they sometimes appear in dreams to impart knowledge of medicinal plants, new songs, or dances I see it as that entity you feel at the climax of a great musical performance or a football match, or a play that tangible presence - that's Mé! each Mé will have a guardian to become a guardian you can buy or inherit the guardianship or you can catch the Mé in the forest or they can come to you in a dream could the Mé also be seen as the Muse? is there a huge difference between being inspired to write a song and learning a new song from a Mé who visited you in a dream? or even catching it in the forest and returning with a new Bé? there have been many times when playing with 2 or 3 other musicians that I've come to the end of a good session the music has stopped, and suddenly there are only the three or four of us while we were playing it was as if there was another entity present it's not so much that you notice it's there, you're too involved in the moment it's more that you notice its absence when the music stops every musician that I've spoken to about this knows exactly what I mean yet it's very rarely acknowledged or spoken about Could that presence be Mé? But it isn't just during the traditional dances that Mé can appear in this recording made in 2002 during this spontaneous musicking session some "Elili Mé" appeared out of the forest dancing shyly at the edge of the clearing All the Bayaka see this is the whole point of musicking To generate a great vibe to encourage the Mé from the forest A good Bé will be traded widely They are even traded between Baka and Aka this song, "Mangissa", recorded by Louis Sarno in Central African Republic, and played by a group of Aka was originally bought from the Baka across the river Sangha in Cameroon With their combination of polyphonic singing, polyrhythmic percussion, and a masked dancer, Bayaka are experts at manifesting Mé the energy focuses on the dancer who becomes the personification of the particular Mé each Bé creates its own unique emotions personified in the Mé It's not supernatural to them, as they know it's there there are many creatures in the forest that they hear but never see why should they believe in these any more than in a presence that they have felt but never seen? by being present at these Spirit Dances all their lives children grow up learning that the purpose of musicking is not about making music but about manifesting Mé in part five we'll look at how the Baka's lives have changed over the last 30 years and how they've adapted their music When I first arrived in a Baka camp in 1992 life was pretty much as it would have been for thousands of years but after 30 years of visiting the same community life has changed dramatically Electricity didn’t come to the nearest town, Moloundou until 1999 With this came television and sound systems in bars that opened people’s eyes to the outside world all be it a strange one television provided three main influences: bizarre French chat shows (giving people a very strange view of the world of white people) Football and Cameroonian music video stations where all the new dance moves could be learnt however, in 1992 the Baka weren’t completely removed from the outside world they would listen to radios when they had batteries and had one cassette – “Les Problèmes” by Prince Eyango we spent many a moonlit night dancing to this in the forest on this first visit I was surprised to find that they already had a guitar and was particularly struck by two Baka who both played very well Pelembir, who was beginning to write his own songs and Mbeh, who was more focused on playing guitar By 2000, when I visited with Jerome Lewis we found that Pelembir had written many songs which the children were singing enthusiastically to Mbeh’s guitar the generation of children singing here are now the backbone of the band, Baka Gbiné still playing today This is the song “Martin and Jerome” recorded in 2000 in the village of Banana when there were mainly only Baka living there you can see how they put the same energy into their music as they do into their traditional dances the children sing uninhibitedly, fully engaged, clapping and singing while Pelembir uses the skills he's learned by participating in Bé to hold the energy and encourage the participants to maximum effect but whereas the Bé are sung to communicate with the forest these songs are to communicate with the world outside the forest Pelembir is playing the mandolin he picked it up so quickly from just watching me play another song Pelembir had written by 2000 was Boulez Boulez which was different to all the other songs being in a 9:8 rhythm rather than being based on Congolese and Makossa songs heard on the radio it was based on their traditional dances while Pelembir was leading the song he was also teaching the youngsters to dance he told me he'd based it on the Bùma rhythm the music I call Boulez Boulez is from the Bùma Bùma is the music of the ancestors from when the Baka lived in the forest I transformed it into modern music with guitar I call it Boulez Boulez the skills learned to put on a good Bé are easily transferred to other music they have all learned to be totally present when playing it’s all about manifesting Mé which can be translated as ‘creating a good vibe’ it was around this time that I went to a villager’s funeral where the Baka musicians had been invited to play I had been sensitive to the accusation that by bringing guitars to the Baka I was destroying their traditional music but seeing the respect that they were given as musicians I realised that this was very positive for their self-esteem traditionally they would have been invited to call the forest spirits to a funeral but the Christianisation of the villagers meant that this no longer happened when I recorded the first Baka Beyond album in 1993 it was in an effort to recreate the music that I had been playing with the Baka in the forest but I always wanted to record them playing their own music and make this available in 2005 recording technology had improved and I managed to set up a mobile recording studio in a forest camp the result was the album, “Gati Bongo” whicj includes this track, "Nawa" this was the birth of the Baka band, Baka Gbiné Gbiné being the Baka word for “help” and the name they had given to the community that grew up around the Music House that they had asked us to build with proceeds from their music Gati Bongo even made it to the top 10 of the iTunes world music charts and the track Gati Bongo was licensed for a Zumba dance X-box game the Baka children that you’ve heard singing and drumming in this series of podcasts have now grown up some of them play in the band, Baka Gbiné in order to give them experience playing to an audience we’ve taken them around several Baka villages to play live using a 12v sound system the skills they have learned from Bé mean that they instinctively know how to control the energy of a crowd and very quickly get the audience animated this clip was recorded live at Salapoumbé during one of our “Forest Voices Tours” around Baka villages in the Southern and Eastern regions of Cameroon for the Baka audiences to see an all Baka band was hugely empowering as they are constantly treated with disdain by many villagers and made ashamed of being “Pygmy” many of Baka Gbiné’s new songs are based on ternary rhythms where each beat has 3 sub-beats during Bé these rhythms provide a matrix in which the polyrhythmic percussion and the polyphonic singing can interweave they have an ambiguity as to where a rhythmic pattern starts simple rhythmic patterns sound very different depending on which beat or sub-beat they start on not only does this make it unclear who is leading and who is following but also makes the individual parts only make sense when part of the whole this increases the sense of communion by combining the musical elements with mimicry, theatre, and laughter, an atmosphere is created that generates the full gamut of emotions from fear to ecstasy the way these elements are combined create the technology that can enchant those present making them become one with each other and one with the forest around them through the music and dance they become one body and all can sense the presence of some non-physical entity that they call Mé this song, Mabita Bella, was recorded for Baka Gbiné’s second album, "Kopolo" all societies are aware of this presence that the Baka call Mé but each culture has its own stories to make sense of it for the Baka, the idea that Mé live in the forest but like to come to dance in camps is an experiential truth but when the forest has been cut down and society follows a different path other stories arise that describe these entities differently or worse, suppress the events where they are experienced and deny their existence altogether today the Baka are forced to chose between living in villages as third class citizens or living in the forest in abject poverty with severely limited access to hunting removed from their forest environment how will the Baka children learn to listen? how to socialise and how to perform a Bé correctly? if the Baka continue to be forced to live in villages and to have their access to the forest denied they will no longer truly learn these things and their culture will become a mere shadow of its former self