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#89: Louis Sarno, the Ba-Benjellé of the Central African Republic, and Their Beautiful Music

This is the full text of an introduction I wrote for the new, Trinity Press edition of Louis Sarno’s memoir, Song From The Forest.  It was edited down, and stuff  about other Pygmy groups and their music was taken out, so I am putting the original version here.

I long to get back to Yandoumbe and record and jam with the  Ba-Benjellé, and am actively trying to find someone to make it possible. Here it comes

Louis Sarno and I have taken similar spiritual and musical life journeys. I feel in some ways he is my  soul brother, my alter ego living a parallel existence in the magical rain forest at the southern tip of the Central African Republic. When Song From the Forest first came out l993, I blurbed it as follows :

My experience with the Pygmies of Central Africa is limited to a single afternoon, but that afternoon, filled with the most hauntingly beautiful music I have ever heard, moved me to the depths of my soul. I didn’t want to go back to my world, but I did, and I always wondered what it would have been like if I had stayed. Now, thanks to Louis Sarno,I know. I’m filled with gratitude, and envy.

The afternoon I was referring to was in l985 during the  trial of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the CAR’s self-proclaimed emperor, who was accused of eating schoolchildren and other horrible things. I was covering the trial for Vanity and one afternoon decided to play hooky and hired a jeep and driver and went down from Bangui, the capital, to the virgin forest in the prefecture of Lobaye, where some 25,000 Baminga “pygmies” live. (Some capitalize the P, but it is best to just call them by their own tribal name, the way they refer to themselves. The  250,000 and 600,000 of these people living in the Equatorial rain forest of central Africa and belonging to at least a dozen separate groups don’t care whether the P is capitalized. Pygmy is a Western term, like the !Kung San “Bushmen/bushmen” of the Kalahari desert of Botswana and Namibia.) I walked in to one of their  villages, Sakabu, but the women had gone to catch fish for the day. One of the Baminga boys took me to where they were. As we approached, to quote from my Vanity Fair piece, “The Emperor Who Ate His People” :

… We began to hear a loud hum, a joyous human roar, an excited hullabaloo. Then we burst onto an incredible scene. Hundreds of people– Pygmies, M’Bati, and members of a riverine tribe, the Mondjombo– were wading in the swamp, whose water they had impounded in a series of dams. Some were removing the water with bowls and tubs. Others were filtering the mud with wicker baskets and taking little wriggling fish from the baskets and wrapping them in packets of leaves. My driver showed the Pygmy women the two plastic gerrycans of corn liquor he had brought and asked if they would sing for us, and all the Pygmies traipsed back to the village, where some of the women put on grass skirts. One tucked some leaves in the back of her fiber G-string in a festive gesture. My driver passed around the liquor, fifty Pygmies took a swig, the rhythm section (three men on two long drums and a plastic oil can) set up; the women formed a chorus line, a sidling circle, a little chochoo train in which they remained locked for an hour, their bodies glistening with sweat, their eyes glazed as if in a spell, blended sounds of unearthly beauty coming from their mouths.

I had already encountered Efe and Bambuti in the Ituri Forest of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo)
in l983, where I heard for the first time the polyphonic yodeling of “pygmies.” In one of their forest camps, half a dozen small domes of thatched mangungu leaves in a smokey clearing, as I relate in my book, In Southern Light,

I took out my guitar and played them [three Efe women and a man] a high-stepping rag called “The St. Louis Tickle.” Their reaction was guarded, but they understood that it was music. The man went to his hut and, returning with a little five-string harp, plucked a single open minor chord over and over for about a minute. I recorded it. Then I recorded the women, who after much giggling and several false starts, broke into a haunting three-part yodel to a cross rhythm that one of them slapped on their thigh. “It is a song of joy,” Gamaembi [my guide, from one of the local Bantu tribes, the Balese] explained when they had stopped, “about their child being old enough to be sent to his hut for the first time after disobeying his mother.”

The music of the pygmies was unearthly, or rather it was earthier than anything I had ever heard from the throats of humans. It transported me, resonated in the  core of my being, but it was so alien and unWestern that I didn’t know what to make of it. I was also blown away by the dawn and evening choruses of the birds, insects, frogs, and monkeys in the forest. But I wouldn’t make the connection between them and Efe’s singing, that they are basically doing karaoke with the sounds of the forest, until I met Bernie Krause in 2011, and he came out with that startling analogy.
By this time, 2011, I had  met Louis. In 2010 I went to nine countries on three continents to report a story for Vanity Fair on elephants and the ivory trade. The last one was the Central African Republic, home to one of the largest remaining populations of forest elephants, a different species from the larger,  whiter-tusked savanna elephant. I hadn’t been to the CAR in 25 years, since  the trial of Bokassa, and it was remarkably unchanged, still an anarchic collection of tribes rather than a consolidated state, what V.S. Naipaul called a “half-made country,” deep dark Africa. I made my way to the southern tip of the CAR, where there is a tri-national park and World Heritage site, and some four thousand elephants, though never more than a few hundred at once,  come out in a clearing where they suck up clay to neutralize the alkaloids in the leaves they eat and do most of their socializing. The forest is also home to thousands of lowland gorillas and Bayaka “pygmies.” The local sub-group is known as the Babendjele, and they live in little dome-shaped huts of thatch mangungu leaves on the outskirts of Bayanga, the main trading center in the park. This is where Louis had been living since l990, in the Babendjele suburb of Yandoumbe, one of whose women he is married to. They have a son.

I found Louis in his adobe metal-roofed house in Yandoumbe. 55 now, he was not as short as I pictured him, a normal-sized Westerner, but there is an exotic feline quality to him. He is of Hungarian extraction.  He is eccentric, yes, definitely an original– how many people would have done this with their lives, reinvented themselves as a pygmy (to the extent that is possible)– but not a kook. A sophisticated intelligence, in fact. He explained  that one cold winter night in Amsterdam, where he was getting a doctorate on some very esoteric topic involving German philosophy and higher math, he happened to hear a song on the radio that was unlike anything he had ever heard : “voices blending into a subtle polyphony, weaving a melody that rose and fell in endless repetition, as hypnotic as waves breaking on a shore,” as he writes in this book.  The music “seemed to stir in me a vague memory, something that might have come from a dream.” At the end of the song all Louis could pick up from the announcer’s Flemish was that it was from Central Africa.
Louis went to his university’s library and started to listen to its tapes of African music and discovered that it was pygmy music. So captivated was he that asked himself what am I doing here, I have to go to the people who are making this music, and he dropped everything and a few months later landed in Bangui with his worldly possessions in a suitcase.  Louis made the break.  This is where he lives. There Babendjele are his family, his people. He told me that he is kind of the godfather of Yandoumbe. He stands up for  the Babendjele when they are being abused by the Sangha Sangha, the local amalgamation of Bantu people, who regard them as chattel, and pays their medical and hospital bills– “t.b. is rife here,” he tells me— and when one of them dies, the expenses for his or her funeral, which usually involves an ejengi dance. Ejengi is the chief  forest spirit, and the dance happens not only when there is a death, but whenever the villagers  feel Ejengi needs to be fed. It can happen on the spur of the moment, or three months will pass and there isn’t one. One of the villagers had died, so it looked like there was going to an ejengi   tomorrow. Louis had been scrounging around for money to buy the food and drink. For all these expenses, Louis has to come up with $300 a month, and he has his own family to take care of, and with his own tenuous relationship with the modern cash economy, and the difficulty of getting funds from the West to to Yandoumbe, it isn’t easy.
Some of the women drifted in to Louis’s place, and a man who  played the forest harp, which I had heard the Efe man in the Ituri Forest play years ago. A spliff was passed around. Pygmies are big dopers. Cannabis is one of first things they adopted from the outside world. They probably got it from the Arab slavers.

I take my guitalele out of its plaid cloth case and we see what kind of music we can find in common. They are eager to hear what I am going to come up with, and I have never attempted to figure out pygmy music. This is my first forray into it. So I play a couple of numbers, Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Boom, which they like but the one we really connect on is Wade in the Water, an old gospel song, particularly the chorus, “God’s gonna trouble the water,” which goes from F to A minor to E to A minor in seven notes, F E C D Eflat E Aflat A. This bluesy sequence is in their melodic repertoire.  The women carefully watch how my mouth is moving and imitate the sound of the words, and started singing in sympathetic blended polyphonies, taking the song to realms I had never dreamed were possible. We just keep singing that line over and over, the women slapping cross rhythms, more people drifting in and rattling off quick beats on pots with sticks, sending up a dense rhythmic field like insect din. It is absolutely heavenly. We are down. With each other, with the life of the forest were in. These people, I realize, are saturated with music. The sounds of the forest that they are doing karaoke with never stop. They are ready to burst into song and to break out dancing at the drop of a hat. Music is the main way they interact with the world.
The man who plays the forest harp shows me his instrument.  Six strings of nylon fishing line stretched on a frame, three for the left  fingers to pluck, three for the right. The resonator is simply a metal pot that the base of frame from which the strings radiate is stuck in.  It is not a loud instrument, but an extremely subtle one.  The left hand-strings are tuned to FCG and the right hand-string to GDA. The Dorian pentatonic. Same as the six-string hunter’s kora in Mali, and the five-note box in which B.B. King does most of his improvising. The melodic and syncopative possibilities of these five notes are endless, and each harp player has his own individual style. Next morning a younger man will play a more modern-seeming style than this old man launches into now. The forest harp is played in the forest encampments only from midnight to three in the morning, Louis tells me, so the music will enter the dreams of the others who are sleeping.
In the days that follow, I visit with Andrea Turkalo, the American woman who has been looking after the  bai, the clearing in the forest, and its elephants since 1990– another remarkable, totally dedicated person, she can identify 4000 individuals and tell you what their personalities are like. Three Babendjele men look after her camp which is ten miles into the forest from Bayanga, and they do a gano  animal fable song for me. These songs are like just-so stories. One of the men impersonates the animal, a second backs him up with answered choruses, and the third slaps out the rhythm on a plastic jerrycan. This song is about a child who is crying because a monitor lizard who is eating fruit up in a tree has just beaned him with a pit. Why are you crying, child? his parents ask him. It’s just the monitor lizard.
Back in Yandoumbe, I find a circle of kids doing Fulani drumming on empty plastic Evian water bottles, while each takes turn jumping into the center and dancing as wildly as he or she can. It’s a forerunner of breakdancing. In the afternoon the ejengi dance gets going. The spirit is portrayed as an Ali Baba whirling mop of straw (with one of the men inside). Women and kids, butts out sideways, leaning down, sidle up to Ejengi, do a last collective lurch toward it then shrink back together in mock terror and walk back to where they started, laughing, and do it again.

I return to Montreal and realize that park in the Central African Republic, with its elephants, Babendjele and thousands of lowland gorillas, and countless other species,  is the closest  to the Garden of Eden I have ever been to in half a century of world traveling. I practice the five notes of the forest harp on my guitar, I put in my ten thousand hours and am still only discovering their endless possibilities, have not even gotten to first base in terms of understanding what this music is all about,  and plan my return. After the elephant piece I embark on another epic reporting trip, which takes me from Maine to Borneo. The subject is what we can learn from the animals. I spend a morning with two marmosets in their cage in Maine, playing riffs on my Guitalele and seeing if we can find some music in common. They are torn between fear and curiosity and keep running out to their outdoor enclosure and coming back. Finally after an hour I discover that just playing the notes Bflat A  on the first string, actually Gsharp G, the guitalele being tuned four steps up (other octaves don’t work, it has to be this one) has a mesmerizing effect on them. They lean out right over me from a branch and rock back and forth with glazed eyes of rapture as I play the two notes over and over.
In Glenn Ellen, California I spend a day with Bernie Krause, listening to his amazing recordings of the soundscape, as he calls it.  Bernie, now 73, is another guy with an unusual life journey.  He began as the last of the Weavers, a folk group in the early sixties, replacing Pete Seeger. Then he got into the synthesizer and started composing movie scores . His did the score for Apocalypse Now. Copolla fired him five times, and each time he hired him back for double what he was getting, so Bernie made a mint and bought this property in the elfin oak-madrone forest on a ridge overlooking the vineyards  where he and his wife Kathy live and he has his lab. Then he burnt out on Hollywood and the synthesizer and decided to become a bioacoustician, to study the vocalizations of animals. He started with whale song and spent the next eighteen years recording birds, insects, frogs, mammals– the biophony as he calls it– as well as wind, water, thunder, and other sounds of the geophany, and the people whose “anthropophany” resonates with them. He went to the Bayaka and made some great recordings with the help of Louis. The Bayaka, he tells me, are basically doing karaoke with the sounds of the forest. The minute he says this, I realize he is right : that’s exactly what they’re doing. All our music, he adds, comes from the animals. He has just published a book with Houghton Mifflin called The Great Animal Orchestra, which explains this. This groundbreaking book, which I have since read, is as important for understanding the soundscape as Darwin’s Origin of Species is for understanding natural selection. But what  about the blues, isn’t Bamako, Mali– or Rajasthan, India, if you take it all the way back– where it came from ? I ask (I had made the pilgrimage to Bamako, and confirmed that the blues scale came from Africa, then seen the documentary “La Cho Drom,” about the Roma, or “gypsies,” who left Rajasthan a thousand years ago, and taken their music, some of which has the flatted fifth of blues, to the West, including to north Africa, where it drifted down to Mali) and Bernie says, “wanna hear a bird sing the blues ?”  and he goes to Xeno Canto, a Web site that has the songs of most of the birds in the world, and enters common potoo (Nyctibius griseus) and flick on Richard C. Hoyer’s recording, and danged if the potoo isn’t singing in the blues scale, C Bflat G F. One of the same scales that the Bayaka do cascading polyphonic quadruplets of. In fact all the virtuoso songsters, the thrushes of North America, the musician wrens of the neotropics, the nightingales of Europe, the bulbuls of Asia, sing in the pentatonic. I actually jammed for a minute or with a hermit thrush with my guitalele a couple of springs ago in Montreal. It was singing its heart out for a mate in a cottonwood tree up the back alley. The pentatonic occurs in the music of every culture, because that is how not only the human ear, but the mammalian and the bird ear organize sound. The pentatonic comes from the cycle of fifths in the 12-note octave. But Bernie cautions that some pygmy octave scales have 13-notes. There is eighth-century Taoist meditation zither music that sounds just like delta blues, but without the emotional weight. Pygmy music is pure pentatonic, in endless intricate rhythms and melodic blends. It has been called the Ur music. It and the very similar polyphonic yodeling of the San bushmen of the Kalahari desert of Botswana, which they have been doing for 75,000 years. I trance-danced with a band of San in 2007, around a bonfire with the other men, seed rattles on our ankles, while the women clapped cross-rhthyms and yodelled in four-note pentatonic clusters that blended together in the most beautiful way.
We didn’t only get our music from the animals, Bernie continues, but morality. In the biophony of a dawn or evening chorus, the animals come in in evolutionary order : first the insects, then the frogs and reptiles, then the birds, then the mammals, so it’s also teaching everybody about the natural order of living things. And every animal has the opportunity to make himself heard, even rival males accept this,  so there is a social contract, the beginning of morality. I tell him about how a guy I met in Zimbabwe made a 24-hour video of a waterhole in one of the national parks, and it showed that each species came and drank in its turn, the predators stopped preying on their prey because  there was an understanding that everyone had the right to drink, to have access to the life-giving fluid. “We have a lot to learn from the animals,” the Zimbabwean told me. “If it was humans, we’d be killing each other to get to the water, or selling tickets.”

All this made me realize I had to get back to Yandoumbe and Louis and the Babendjele. Louis and I start making plans, but in the beginning of 2013 the CAR,  explodes. Seleka  rebels sweep down from Chad and take out the president and his government in Bangui and install themselves and go on a looting, raping, and killing spree all over the country. Louis and Andrea stay until the last possible moment and escape by boat down the Sangha river to the Republic of Congo and from there go to Cameroon and fly to the states,  The Seleka in Bayanga, commanded by some crazy colonel, haven’t been paid and are helping themselves to the storekeepers goods. Andrea’s camp with its expensive computer and recording equipment and its satelite dish is looted and trashed, and in April several truckloads of Seleka with AK 47s blow away 40 some elephants from Andrea’s platform and hack off their tusks. A few weeks later Michael Fay, Andrea’s ex-husband, who did the famous 114-day mega-transect walk across central Africa that results in the Gabon’s creation of thirteen national parks to protect its forest elephants, goes to Bangui and negotiates with the new president for Gabonese soldiers to come to Bayanga and guard the bai, but in the summer he is overthrown, and the CAR  descends into even more horrible chaos and mayhem. Louis waits for six months in New Jersey and finally he can’t take it any more, “I’m going home to be with my family,” he told me on the phone. “That’s where I belong. Not here.” So against everybody’s advice, he goes back. The moment he arrives the Seleka colonel appears at his hut and relieves him of everything he has brought, his new Olympus field recorder, his meds, his money, of course, even the notebooks containing a novel he had been working on for four years. It is unsafe for him to go to Bayanga, he emails, so he goes deep into the forest and camped with his family and some relatives for six weeks, and gets very sick and almost died, but recovers, and now he has his own Facebook page and we communicate frequently. Hopefully my t.v. show, Suitcase on the Loose, will find a channel that will send us to Yandoumbe. Now the Seleka are gone, but the Christians are slaughtering all the Muslims in retaliation for their killing sprees. The way to come in is through Cameroon, Louis says. So 2015 could be the year I get back there. In my book Louis is one of the greats. One of the noblest mendele, white guys, in Equatorial Africa, with one of the greatest life stories I’ve ever run into. I’m delighted Song From the Forest  is getting new life. With “Oka,” Lavinia Courrier’s feature film based on his life, and this new documentary, also called “Song from the Forest,“ where he takes his son to New York on his first trip out of the forest, and his book out again, he is getting the recognition he deserves. Which I know he doesn’t care a jot about. All he cares about is getting recognition and doing what he can for the wonderful human beings he has devoted his life to.