Born in New Jersey, Louis Sarno now lives in the village of Yandoumbe in the forests of West Central Africa with the Bayaka people, known to the outside world as Pygmies.
Sarno is a musicologist and when he heard snatches of Bayaka music on the radio, he was intrigued by its depth and raw power. He was determined to seek these people out and discover more about the music that so enthralled him.
When he first arrived in their midst,. he was given a small beehive-shaped house. The Bayaka were living in a settlement attached to a sawmill built by Yugoslavs. The ongoing destruction of the rain forest had forced them temporarily out of their millennia-old home.
Sarno lived at first on a diet of tadpoles and manioc flour. Despite offering money and gifts, all he heard from them was drunken yodeling. After months of this, one evening he lost his temper, lectured them, called them lazy drunks.
The next evening it seemed the usual banal entertainment was beginning but as the drums picked up their pace, the women began a subtle yodeling similar to the music he had heard on the radio. He switched on his recorder, listened in awe.
The women stood in a circle rhythmically swaying, singing short snatches of melody. Their voices gradually built to a large chorus. The men appeared, followed by a bush with human legs, which leaped into the circle, It was the Mokoondi, the forest spirit.
The figure nimbly danced, jumping into a circle of children who ran screaming. Soon one spirit was joined by others. The music then segued into drumming performed by teenagers, which went on for hours. Then the singing resumed. The music went on late into the night, as small groups of men would disappear to play the Mokoondi role.
Soon thereafter, the Bayaka moved to a hunting camp deep in the forest where Sarno recorded wedding, funeral, honey-gathering, hunting and coming-of-age ceremonies. Some of these rites went on for days and days.
Night was rarely a time for sleep, according to Sarno. "It was the time of the parading, dancing forest beings summoned by the women's singing." A simple hunting trip was always the occasion for a song-ceremony.
Sarno has lived with the Bayaka for 20 years now, recording their epic ceremonies and songs, with occasional trips to Europe to trade full tapes for empty ones. He is convinced that Bayaka music--its subtlety, intricacy and profound emotional content--represents one of the most significant cultural traditions of the human race. "Here is a music, probably older than the pyramids, that is still alive, and its true artistic value is scarcely understood.... Bayaka music is one of the hidden glories of humanity."
Sarno married a Bayaka woman, caught malaria twice and watched the death of many of his friends to disease, famine and misfortune, but he remains among these forest people because he values their disappearing way of life and their wonderful celebrations.
Music celebration is the most highly valued function of Bayaka life. Some tribes among their linguistic group hold fiestas and ceremonies that last two years.
"The Bayaka incorporate music into nearly every event in their lives," he writes in a book/CD set called The Extraordinary Music of the BaBenzele Pygmies, published by Ellipsis Arts. "The call-and-response songs they weave through their days create an aural environment of beauty that harmonizes naturally with the sounds of forest birds, crickets and cicadas....
"The ability to create melodies and harmonize is as deeply universal and automatic to the Bayaka as is the average person's ability to speak sentences in his or her native language. Musically speaking, the Bayaka all begin life as child prodigies.
"By the time they're teenagers, they have the technical ability, and the genius, to sing music that sends shivers down the spine. At middle age their music has the power to heal damaged souls."
Sarno attributes the complexity, depth and profundity of Bayaka music to their close relationship to nature and their amazing ability to be in tune with the sounds of the forest around them.
"It's well known that wives will know if the men have been successful on a hunting trip just from the change in the bird calls in the forest. When walking through dense rain forest, one can sometimes not see 10 feet in any direction. But, by tuning in to sounds of water, wind and birds, a Bayaka can easily find his or her way.
"Basically, the Pygmy people have a highly developed sense of hearing. This sense allows them to not only hear a sound, but also connect it with all parts of their daily life. Pygmy music is an extension of this idea. Nearly every occasion has a sound. These sounds become an extension of the music of the rain forest. From a distance, the yodeling nature of their singing can quickly blend with the calls of the birds."
What's more, Sarno points out that there is no musician class in Bayaka society, just as there is no chief or shaman class. Their way of life and music has endured without historians to record it and formal schools to pass it on. Indeed, it may be the mode of living common to the hunter-gatherer bands that have peopled the planet for hundreds of thousands of years.
The Bayaka remind us that we humans are made for music, celebration, worship and beauty.