The Baka people are among the world’s last communities of hunters and gatherers, living in the jungles on the Cameroon-Congo border. In the rainforests, the Baka “pygmies” sing to draw animals prior to a hunt, to wake the forest spirits, and to communicate while traveling through the dense underbrush. Music is an essential part of their everyday life in the forest. As to how it might have been that a pair of Irishmen found themselves at the edge of the Congo living in the Baka village of Lupe, playing music with the other inhabitants, and forming a band called Baka Beyond is a story worth telling, though not right now. What’s important is what has grown out of that initial 1991 encounter, which goes beyond the band Baka Beyond. The band creates collaborative music, honoring a lesson from the Baka that “everyone is to be listened to.” This is their fifth album, and a most unexpected mix of Baka and Irish musicians, instruments, and music, inhabiting a separate sub-genre referred to as “Afro-Celt”.
Baka Beyond has a mix of intentions every bit as complex as community living in the jungle. The band’s performance and recording royalties are administered by a charity called Global Music Exchange, which insures that royalties travel back to the musicians’ community. There, the people who have earned the money decide what to do with it; this payment administration encourages self-worth and respect for their culture by showing that it is appreciated in the wider world. The outside world gets news from distant Lupe carried by Martin Cradick, the Irish leader of Baka Beyond. Of special and urgent concern is the massive deforestation and rapacious poaching that endangers the traditional livelihood of the Baka people. Another time, Cradick brought the Baka I.D. cards. The Baka believed the identity cards would help establish themselves as a formal community despite their migratory lifestyle; they hoped this would legitimize their political status with the government and other nearby ethnic groups. Cradick has just recently returned to Cameroon help build a Music House the Baka decided they need, where they can perform their music for nearby communities, thus making professional musicianship feasible.
That’s a little of what Baka Beyond does. What Baka Beyond do musically on this record is create the music which also allows all of the above to happen. This particular offering is a bit heavy on the “Celt” in Afro-Celt (uilleann pipes, tin whistles, violins, and a few too many Gaelic-sounding tunes). Though understandable as that is the music that Cradick is most familiar with and happens to play himself, this still comes across as too “Irish” when expecting Baka, but is accomplished and listenable.
The strong points are the offerings that lean towards the Baka taking the microphone with voice and percussion. The opening cut on the CD is one of those, in fact the only one of those on the whole CD. This song in particular is a spirited tune sung in gorgeous tribal harmonies. First out is “Awaya Baka”, which was written by Baka guitarist Pelembie, featuring a chorus sung by Baka children in the forest. The lovely song soars with unrestrained and contagious joy. “Wandering Spirit” is based on a dance that the Baka asked Cradick to take to the outside world, but he’s managed to slip in an Irish slipjig.
I also recognize that traditional Baka music unadorned by accents pleasing to the Western ear might fall unnoticed through the cracks, being regarded as a primitive ethnomusicological study rather than the living music it is. I recognize that Baka Beyond has provided the villagers of Lupe with an opportunity that I can’t help but appreciate. I’d be likely to explore their earlier releases (Spirit of the Forest comes to mind), and will look forward to the next, where I hope the Baka music is prepared to come forward. I also hope the construction of the Music House provides all that the Baka dream for it. While this is not my exact cup of tea, devotees of Deep Forest and the Afro-Celt Sound System should definitely go out of their way to hear Baka Beyond.