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ORCHESTRE BAKA DE GBINE
(CAMERUN, 2006) @
Now and again a truly unusual album surfaces on the music scene, leaving listeners wondering quite how it ever came to be made. The debut album by Baka Gbine, a group of Pygmy musicians from eastern Cameroon, recorded by British guitarist Martin Cradick, is a story of real human interest and cultural exchange. Gati Bongo, featuring the magical rhythms and melodies of the Baka people, is due out in the UK on 24 April.
"This isn't music for anthropologists, " declares Martin Cradick, the British guitarist behind the making of Gati Bongo, "this is modern music." The album is nevertheless completely out of the ordinary. Firstly, it was recorded in eastern Cameroon, in the heart of the tropical rain forest in the Congo Basin. Secondly, it showcases the music of the Baka Gbine Orchestra, a group of Pygmy musicians - and this is something of a rare event in itself. Generally speaking, this nomadic forest people have been largely ignored by Cameroonian society to date. Pygmies are rarely ever allowed to speak out and express an opinion, let alone get together behind a microphone. And last but surely not least, the making of Gati Bongo has helped protect the Baka's culture, their forest environment and their unique hunter-gatherer way of life.
The story began back in 1988 when Cradick, who at the time was a guitarist with the British group Outback, happened to switch on his TV one night and watch a documentary about the Baka, a tribal people living in the Cameroonian rain forest. Fascinated by the Pygmies' rhythms and melodies, Cradick immediately picked up his guitar and tried to reproduce what he heard. These first tentative riffs eventually resulted in the title track of Outback's album, Baka. But inspiration didn't end there. Watching the documentary, Cradick had vowed that one way or another he had to get to Cameroon. "But that was just a bit of a dream really, " he recalls. It was his wife, Su Hart, lead singer of Outback, who made that dream a reality, working with a foundation supporting "autochtone" tribal groups.
Capturing the spirit of the forest
In 1992, husband and wife finally arrived in eastern Cameroon and headed for Banana, a small Pygmy village settled by a tribe who had become partly sedentarised. They soon discovered that a couple of their hosts, Mbeh and Pelembir, were a dab hand on guitar and it was not long before they were all jamming together. Mbeh and Pelembir also introduced Martin and Su to the yelli, a bird-like singing performed by the Baka women who would get together before dawn to enchant the animals of the forest and ensure the men's hunting would be successful. In the course of the weeks they spent together, the British musicians and the Baka set up a real system of musical exchange. Martin soon came to realise that "the soft, syncopated rhythms of Baka music, were a perfect binding agent to mix musical elements from different origins together." And he began recording their sessions on a basic hand-held tape recorder thinking this would prove to be a good source of inspiration at a later date.
The recordings proved to be much more useful than he ever imagined. For, a few months later, he and his group Baka Beyond released the album Spirit of the Forest, inspired by the sessions in Banana. "The original idea was to recreate the mood of the music sessions that take place many afternoons and most evenings in the forest, " he explained. Spirit of the Forest brought his group international recognition and their record label went on to produce a follow-up, Heart of the Forest. In 1995, Martin and Su decided to start trying to put something back into the culture that had inspired their sound, setting up the UK-based charity Global Music Exchange, an NGO which channels part of the group's album back to the Baka Pygmies. And only the villagers in Banana decide how the funds are to be used. To date, resources have been used to set up their own medical centre and an all-important Music House. A local development agency, Gbine (meaning "help") has also come into existence, as has the Baka Gbine Orchestra.
From the rainforest to the U.K.
Meanwhile, back in Bath, in the south of England, Martin and his group Baka Beyond (made up of a mix of European and African musicians) continued to work on their multicultural fusion, weaving diverse Celtic and Baka influences together. The guitarist continued to make regular trips to Banana over the years, experimenting with different recording systems to capture the spirit of Pygmy music against a natural backdrop. In 2004, using a solar panel and a sophisticated multi-track system, he captured the Baka's music live and Baka Beyond reworked elements to use on their new album, Rhythm Tree. Gati Bongo was a logical follow-up, featuring unique recordings of the Pygmies themselves made in the tropical heat of the rain forest. Baka Gbine, a group of around twenty singers and musicians, whipped up a rhythmic mix on bass, guitars, percussion and mandolin and the result is simply stunning, both in terms of the music and the sound quality.
Asked to define Gati Bongo, Martin describes it as "an album very much centred on ordinary everyday life. There are several songs about the relationship between men and women, just like back home. Whether you live in the West or in the rainforest, you come to realise that we all experience the same things. We're all basically the same." And this time round, it's the Baka Pygmies from Banana who will have the chance to draw their own comparisons as the Baka Gbine orchestra are set to make their live debut in the U.K. some time in May.
Gati Bongo Baka Gbine (March Hare Music) 2006