Reviews

Africa: The Ba-Benzele Pygmies
(Rounder)

You won't see the artists interviewed on MTV or Charlie Rose. You won't read about them in glossy magazines or find their faces plastered on major metropolitan billboards. Often they're anonymous or their names known only by a few loyal enthusiasts. But their music is a testament to the transcendent potential of human creativity. And sometimes it's almost too beautiful to bear, like the wistful a cappella lament of the Hungarian Gypsy girl on the Latcho Drom soundtrack, or Frantz Casseus' magnum opus for solo classical guitar, Haitian Suite, or the magical polyphonic singing of Africa's extraordinary Pygmy tribes.

Recorded circa 1968 in the once lush rain forest where the Congo, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic meet at the Sangha River, Africa: The Ba-Benzele Pygmies is the most striking reissue in the first installment of Rounder Records' ambitious "Anthology of World Music" series. The nation's premier folkloric label is in the process of releasing for the first time on CD no fewer than 50 albums originally produced by Berlin's International Institute for Comparative Music Studies and Documentation. The other inaugural releases are Africa: The Dan, China, Iran, and the four-CD box North Indian Classical Music.

Among a dozen or so kindred recordings currently on the market, The Ba-Benzele Pygmies stands out as a revelation. The CD notes explain that the 15 tracks cover various aspects of daily life of this Central African tribe, from hunting songs to elegies to storytelling rituals. But these mundane content-related details matter little; what's remarkable is the stirring impact of the sounds.

On the album's opener, "Hindewhu," a young Ba-Benzele woman creates a gorgeous trance solo by merely combining a single-toned whistle (carved from the twig of a papaw tree) and a handful of vocalized notes ("ee -- ooh -- ee"). The song's natural simplicity achieves a mesmerizing serenity, matched later in the program by an a cappella "Lullaby" sung by a mother to the newborn in her arms. The vocal prowess of the Ba-Benzele is their grand distinction. The perfectly controlled, intervallic leaps of their melodies are otherworldly, recalling jazz innovator Eric Dolphy's speaking-in-tongues improvisations on bass clarinet. With an originality and precision rivaling the world's greatest gospel choirs, they interweave elaborate harmonies sometimes using up to three or four separate groups of singers. A piece derived from the powerful forward pitch of the djoboko rhythm develops around both multiple vocal and percussion lines, which savvy world music fans may recognize from the master mix of Marie Daulne's entrancing Zap Mama.

Yet despite audiophile recording quality and performances of the highest caliber, this disc will never crack the Billboard world music charts. That's because most Westerners are content with the prefab predictability of the latest world music trendsetters. If they want to expand their cultural awareness, well, there've always been Afropop sensations like Benin's Angelique Kidjo and Senegal's Youssou N'Dour who purvey world beat -- a popular Western adaptation of indigenous musics that softens the rawer ethnic elements with dance floor-friendly synthesizers and drum machines.

So why does Rounder bother? Given the minimal return for the costly and complex process of analog-to-digital transfer, editing the extensive liner notes, packaging, and promotion, it doesn't make sense when you look at the bottom line. Clearly, the project's historical value is unquestionable, as indigenous populations are decimated in the name of progress, but there has to be more to it than cultural preservation. Maybe it's a rare case of genuine altruism. Perhaps once the producers and executives laid ears on these recordings -- which arguably contain some of the most phenomenal music on the planet -- they just had to share them with like-minded aficionados. While this logic may seem far-fetched, especially for the music industry, consider the case of the Ba-Benzele.

Who is going to spend his hard-earned paycheck on strange-sounding field recordings from Africa's equatorial forest dwellers? Who even knows about the Pygmies? This fringe segment of the African diaspora is conspicuously absent from major discographical references like the Rough Guide's 700-page World Music. And up until a few years ago, when stateside imprints Lyrichord, Ellipsis Arts, Smithsonian Folkways, and Rykodisc issued inspired Pygmy albums culled from the archives of noted ethnomusicologists like Louis Sarno and Colin Turnbull, the only CDs available came as high-priced imports from obscure French labels.

But musical adventurers have been listening. And once baited by the haunting sounds of the rain forest, they were hooked. For instance, world-fusion stars Baka Beyond drew their name from and appropriated tunes by a Pygmy group in southeast Cameroon. Lightweight Blue Note jazz drummer Brian Blade introduces the most energetic track on his latest album with a choice sample of Pygmy song. Now, if this remote music could penetrate the mainstream sensibilities of these two quasi-pop-oriented performers, it's not impossible to imagine its hypnotic sway on the purse strings of a few open-eared record company executives -- at least at the hippest traditional labels.

Seasoned seekers of the planet's deep music traditions, as well as neophytes to the global listening room, will likely be more than a little surprised by the intensity and integrity of this Ba-Benzele recording. At times, its awesome beauty is almost too much, too full of feeling. And once experienced, you'll never hear in the same way again.

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