+ What are all the components of a musical experience? (Think beyond the notes!)

  • How is this music taught and learned?
  • How much is improvised?
  • How old or new is this repertoire?
  • What are the connections of this music to geographical locations, past and present?
  • What meanings and associations does this music have for the people who make it? How are those different from any associations we might have about the sounds being made?
  • What values are used to judge whether this is a “good” performance of this type of music?
  • Who made this recording and what is that person’s relationship to the performer(s)?
  • What other questions could help lead you to the kinds of information would help to understand more about each example?

This video features women of the Baka ethnic group in the southeastern part of Cameroon. Baka are one of many ethnic groups that comprise the Forest People, a population of subsistence living rainforest dwellers, often known by the derogatory term “Pygmies.” Historically, assumptions about so-called Pygmies of the central African rainforest that were based in racism and used to justify colonization were related to misunderstandings of the music as simplistic and savage. In fact music made by the Forest People is quite complex and beautiful.

Vocal technique, texture, and participation

In this song, you hear a distinctive yodeling technique often employed by Baka singers. Yodeling is a particular vocal technique used by people in a variety of different music cultures around the world, from the Swiss Alps to early American country music to the central African rainforest. (For an analysis of perhaps a more familiar type of yodeling in Switzerland, see this video by ethnomusicologist Hugo Zemp.)

The song in this example is improvisatory, polyphonic (multiple lines happening simultaneously) and polyrhythmic (multiple senses of the beat). Something you may have noticed is the wide range of ages of people participating. There are no distinctions of musicians as specialists among the Baka; everyone is expected to participate, and everyone learns how to do so competently. Baka music is performed in association with hunting or rituals. You can hear ethnomusicologist Michelle Kisliuk talk about BaAka (another community of Forest People) and the significance of their music in the southwestern Central African Republic’s rainforest region here.

Stereotypes and relationships of power

Because of the long history of imbalances of power between Forest People and neighboring agriculturalists, colonialists, and most recently multinational corporations using the natural resources in the area, it is important to pay attention to how Forest People’s music, as tightly linked to their cultural and ethnic identity, is represented and by whom.

This particular type of yodeling has been taken up by various artists in a wide range of genres, from jazz (such as in the beginning of jazz musician Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”), to electronica, to pop and hip hop. In many of these cases, it is used to evoke an aural image of the primitive and prehistoric. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld has written about this question of the many uses and (mis)representations of so-called pygmy music in his article, “The Poetics and Politics of Pygmy Pop,” here.

The video above was made at a recording session apparently conducted by English musicians Martin Cradick and Su Hart of the group Baka and Beyond. Their website includes some basic information about the BaAka they have lived with and collaborated with musically.