I first became acquainted with the music of the Central African pygmies (Congo, Cameroon), when I discovered the music of the Afro-Celtic band Baka Beyond. I felt fascinated with the pygmies’ music because these indigenous people learned to make music from the natural environment of the deep forest. From exotic bird calls, to complex poly rhythms, and vocals not easily described, the pygmies celebrate life via music. Not only that, even with strange and exotic sounds, the pygmies’ music is accessible.
The feature film Oka! (listen), brings us hybrid music that combines a movie soundtrack with a field recording sensibility. And in fact, the movie revolves around ethnomusicalogist Louis Sarno, a leading expert of the pygmies music. He ignored a life-threatening illness, according to the press notes, and stayed on with the pygmies for three decades, recording their music. In a life imitates art effort, film director Lavinia Currier teamed up with musician and engineer Chris Berry to bring us a hybrid collection of music. Technically, Oka! isn't a field recording even though it bears the marks of one. Berry did record the Bayaka live in their environment, performing their traditional music, even women cupping water (Waterdrum), creating a marimba-like instrument out of nature. But this raw music is enhanced with modern sounds. And you even hear a bit of Congolese dance music on track 12, Bokete.
In common with both a movie soundtrack and field recording, listeners are only granted snippets of these exotic voices, drums, and nature. While Berry mentions in the press notes that he needed to enhance the raw sounds with electronics because he felt concerned about accessibility, I prefer the raw sounds in the purist form. Then again, I’m a field recording junkie. What comes across on this splendid soundtrack is a world of sounds, we westerners have barely explored. While we often accredit the genius status to our modern musicians, and some people consider music of indigenous people primitive, the musical connection to nature, the resourcefulness and wisdom of the pygmy musicians blow my mind. Imagine the depth of understanding of natural world it takes to create this astounding music.