22 June 2009

Monday's mp3: In and Around the Rainforest

CD REVIEW
Baka in the Forest: Traditional songs of the Baka women recorded live in the Cameroon rainforest
(March Hare Music)

Martin Cradick & the Baka at Gbine: Baka Beyond the Forest
(March Hare Music)

My first exposure to the songs of the rainforest pygmies was in a cassette of field recordings done by Louis Sarno in the 1980s (the tape a companion to his book Song from the Forest).

The sounds of otherworldly yodels and melodies drifted among animal noises, and were labeled with evocative titles about hunting, gathering honey and mushrooms, and weddings.

Soon afterward, I was enjoying elements of those songs in the music of Zap Mama, Pierre Akendengue, and Baka Beyond. The latter group has done an admirable job of giving back to the Baka, the people of the rainforest, creating a an organization to funnel profits back to the musicians communities and even building a solar-powered multitrack studio for the Baka in 2004.

The two new CDs are natural companions, and could easily have been issued as a two-CD set. Baka Beyond the Forest is more familiar Baka Beyond fare, as the guitars of Martin Cradick and vocals of Su Hart combining with a variety of Baka instruments in their usual Afro-Celtic style.

Baka in the Forest returns to the raw sound that so fascinated Sarno: the yodeling notes of the Baka yelli hunting songs echoing throughout the forest, simple string melodies on indigenous instruments, water drumming in the river. The yelli is not only musically compelling, it also has a fascinating purpose. The women sing the yelli together, and it is said to enchant the animals of the forest and ensure the men a successful hunt.

[mp3] Baka Women: Firefly Yelli part 3
from Baka in the Forest: Traditional songs of the Baka women recorded live in the Cameroon rainforest



Unfortunately lacking is any information on the specific Baka artists on Baka in the Forest, but in a personal note Cradick mentions that among the songs on the CD are recordings of an artist named Bounaka playing the ngombi (a stringed harp constructed entirely of materials from the rafia palm tree). These recordings, Cradick writes, "are very special to me as [Bounaka] was very ill and made a big effort to come out of his hut to play them one evening in January." Bounaka, whose family first looked after Hart & Cradick when they visited the Baka in 1992, died just a few weeks ago.

Together these albums paint a marvelous picture of a people finding a way to balance their traditions with a changing world. For those of us who may never get to Cameroon's rainforest to experience Baka culture first hand, the magical songs on these two albums are the next best thing to being there.

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