Bayaka Pygmies: Song from the Forest (Original Soundtrack)

Louis Sarno's story is an incredible one. As a young American, he heard a song on the radio that inspired him to venture to the Central African rainforest and locate the sounds' creators, the Bayaka Pygmies, a tribe of hunters and gatherers. But unlike most travelers, Sarno never returned home; instead, he became a fully accepted member of Bayaka society, married a Bayaka woman, fathered a son, Samedi, and over the span of twenty-five years recorded over 1,500 hours of unique Bayaka music, fifteen selections of which appear on this hour-long soundtrack to Michael Obert's award-winning documentary film Song from the Forest.

Obviously Sarno is considerably more than a field recordist who temporarily visits a site to gather material with which to work in the comfort of a home studio. Song from the Forest presents instead a case of extraordinary immersion, the example of someone whose intimate relationship with an adopted world now affords others an invaluable glimpse into Bayaka Pygmies culture; Sarno's liner notes for each track also provide valuable insight into the soundtrack content.

Some of the pieces exemplify a character that strongly roots them within their originating context. The close connection between the Bayaka Pygmies and nature comes through in “Yeyi—Greeting” in the purity of the yodeled chants that sing out amongst the dense thrum of forest insects. Even more haunting is “Women Sing in the Forest” where voices are heard echoing from the center of a bimba forest as the women collect water or gather mushrooms. In addition, a clear sense of place is conveyed by the whistling sound collage produced by insects and cuckoos within “Bayaka Night Insects,” “Net Hunt” documents the vocal sounds of a gorilla hunting game where men and boys imitate chimpanzee noises, and “Bobé Spirits Calling,” with its drums and chanting, exudes a feverish rhythmic pulse emblematic of a ritual ceremony.

In other instances, one can't help but notice remarkable parallels that emerge between Western musical forms and those of the Bayaka Pygmies community. In fact, some pieces could pass for rough templates for dance music as well as other forms. The rhythms (and polyrhythms) beating through “Tree Drumming,” for example, generated when the Bayaka strike the tree's big buttress roots, swing with a techno-like intensity, while “Earth Bow,” like some stripped-down techno-funk piece, weds a low-slung bass line to a syncopated percussive pattern and a 4/4-styled pulse. Striking too is “The Flutes We Hear No More,” which features Momboli and Gongé dueting in a way that's not light years removed from the kind of two-part flute composition an American minimalist might have composed during the time of Steve Reich's Drumming. Such surprising connections certainly seem to lend support to the idea of a universal grammar of sound.

October 2014