A polyphonic spree in Africa

Field recordings compiled over 20 years on 467 audio cassettes have revealed the bewitching music of the Bayaka people
Howard Swains
The Times: November 27 2012

Among the half a million anthropological curios at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford — a place of parkas fashioned from seal intestines, medicinal hedgehog pelts and an infamous collection of shrunken human heads—a tatty plastic suitcase wrapped in an old jumper may not have seemed especially exciting. But when in 2004, a then-PhD student named Noel Lobley hauled the suitcase out of a forgotten storeroom, he discovered what is now considered to be one of the most significant hoards of ethnographic music in the world.

The suitcase contained 467 audio cassettes filled with more than 1,000 hours of field recordings from in and around the Congo Basin. They had been compiled over 20 years by a sound recordist named Louis Sarno, who in the 1980s was lured from his native New Jersey to the rainforests of the Central African Republic by the bewitching sounds of the Bayaka pygmies. Sarno had sent the cassettes over time to the museum’s then-sound archivist, Hélène La Rue, who had died before being able to digitise them .

The Bayaka are a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer community who are also exceptionally advanced instrumentalists and masters of polyphonic singing. Sarno has lived with the Bayaka for almost all his adult life, marrying a Bayaka woman and adopting Bayaka children—and keeping his tape recorder switched on almost continuously.

The Bayaka’s musical skills are incomparable and Sarno has collated a complete aural document of one of the most sophisticated musical communities ever known. Among the extraordinary recordings are sounds of Bayaka coaxing melody by drumming on the surface of rivers, or from harps fashioned expertly from saplings and vine. There are the sounds of flutes hollowed from tree branches and drums made from pots, roots, or holes in the ground.

However, it is the Bayaka’s choral feats that are even more mesmerising: regularly up to 60 people convene to produce multi-textured, densely interlocking songs — all without formal composition — that reverberate beneath the cathedral-like rainforest canopy. Sarno has recorded it all.

“The rhythmic complexity of a form like this is hundreds and hundreds of years ahead of our own musical development,” said Dr Lobley, who is now in charge of the museum’s sound collections. “To my knowledge, no one has ever recorded the entire range of music-making of a single community by living permanently there … It’s difficult to quantify how important it is.”

Much of the Bayaka’s music received its first public airing in Britain last Friday during one of the Pitt Rivers’ “night at the museum” events. Beneath a projected image of the rainforest canopy, the darkened galleries of the Victorian institution remained open into the night as some 1,500 visitors were equipped with torches to explore. Nathanial Mann, of the Dead Rat Orchestra, and now composer in residence at the museum, prepared a four-hour set from Sarno’s tapes to guide visitors through the exhibits.

“We are creating something new with the recordings,” said Mann, whose residence is part of a project known as Reel to Real aimed at breathing new life into the sound archive. “We are looking at ways of introducing audiences to these collections in an engaging way.”

The project also funded a visit to Oxford for Sarno last spring, during which he was able to assist Lobley’s efforts to digitise and collate his collection, which also includes thousands of photographs. Further tapes have been retrieved from beneath a bed in Sarno’s mother’s apartment in the United States, offering another 300-odd hours of recordings.

Sarno hopes the Bayaka themselves will also be able to profit. They are threatened by deforestation and poaching and are gradually moving away from the way of life that has propagated such amazing sonic innovation for centuries. In addition to the money that greater awareness of the music may bring, Sarno is also now playing back old recordings in a bid to teach new generations musical styles that may otherwise become extinct.