Bayaka: The Extraordinary Music of the Babenzélé Pygmies
review by Art Menius
Music Boulevard January 1996
The audio compact disc component of Bayaka, the remarkable multimedia presentation by Louis Sarno on Ellipsis Arts, begins with women singing as they gather mushrooms in the forest and closes as the ambient sounds of the forest muffle the voices of women entering the forest to harvest payu. Presenting on audio disc human sounds and natural sounds seamlessly melded together makes Bayaka, which also includes a hard cover book of Sarno’s moving writing and glorious color photographs, an extraordinary and significant experience far more powerful than hearing these same musicians and singers recorded in a studio. Bayaka sets new and lofty standards for recording music in proper context.
Sarno accomplishes this, on the one hand, because he possesses a passion for his subject and the technical expertise as a writer, photographer, and recordist. He knew enough, for example, to record human and natural sounds separately and simultaneously then mix them together in the studio. Much more important, however, is that Sarno has lived for twenty years in the Central African Republic among the Babenzélé Pygmies, who call themselves and all Pygmy peoples “Bayaka.” He appears to have become accepted as a member of society, reporting that he helped found the village of Yandoumbé.
Whether measured by music, photography, or prose, Bayaka soars when Sarno joins small family groups to live in far more traditional fashion for several weeks at a time in the forest. Sarno claims that the people, especially the men, take on far more pleasant personalities once in the woods, where the life of hunting, gathering, dance, and ceremony replace the hassles and temptations of dealing with the outside world.
What makes Bayaka endlessly pleasurable listening is the sheer joy of making music that fills the disc. The effect goes far beyond hearing recordings of professional musicians who enjoy their work in the studio. Nor is this simply work music or ceremonial music, although much of the disc documents the multi-layered music of the week long Boyobi ceremony that precedes certain hunts. These are people for whom making music is an integral part of daily life. The Bayaka employ instruments from their own and other traditions, drums improvised from jerrycans, and even entire trees used as an earth bow. Children grow up from very early ages learning singing, playing, dance, and even instrument making. Individual skill levels vary in all these areas, and Sarno identifies different masters, but the communal musicality proves astonishing.
The results are such that one could enjoy Bayaka as simply original and profoundly comforting ambient or new age music. The rich context Sarno provides us makes this a book and music that crosses cultural borders, carrying the listener to a world of where music, dance, work, and spiritual forces have achieved a harmony. It is well he has produced this stunning document, for that harmony stands endangered by the spread of clear cutting and the progress of national parks where they may not hunt..