Music of the Baka - songs and rhythms

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Songs and Rhythms

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Before any major hunt the women of the family group will sing "yelli". This they will do in the early morning before dawn and while the men and children are in their huts. One voice starts - a beautiful, haunting melody reverberating through the trees. After a few minutes another voice joins in, then another. Each voice will sing their own repeating melody, each one with its own rhythm and cycle, and yet all of them sitting together as one song composed of magical polyphonic harmonies that carry far into the forest, blending in with the unending night-time songs of the insects.

Since returning to England we have heard several explanations of "yelli", that it enchants the animals or that it makes them weak and easy prey for the hunters' spears. Mokoloba was the leading hunter in the family group where we were staying. He was being prepared for the hunt one night by Dhaweh, the eldest of the sisters who formed the core of the family group. He had been given some kind of plant drug and that night "yelli" was sung. He told us that the singing would draw the animals back to our camp and that in two days time there would be meat to eat. Sure enough the next morning the children were catching lots of fish in the river and later in the day a family of monkeys (the first we had seen in that part of the forest) moved into a tall tree right next to the camp. The next day Mokoloba arrived with a large deer, enough meat for everyone to eat well. So whatever the explanation the singing of the "yelli" resulted in the success of the hunt just as we had been told it would. The women are held in a certain amount of awe by the men who understand that the singing of "yelli" is just as important a part of the hunt as the setting of snares and the throwing of spears.

Water Drums

Another way that the women and girls play music is to literally "play the river". A group of them will stand in water up to their waists and with cupped hands hit the surface of the water. Each of them will play a different rhythmic pattern which together form a more complex synchopated rhythm. The sound of this drumming coupled with their laughter carries across the forest.

Water Drums


Watch the Baka water drum (150KB)
(animated gif with quicktime sound)
Watch water drum video

Welcome Songs (Abale)

On several occasions when we arrived at other camps we would be greeted by welcome songs. The Baka are very proud of their singing and dancing and love the opportunity to show it off to others. In such a situation usually the men would lead the drumming and percussion and the women would lead the singing. The songs are similar in structure to the "yelli" but with many more voices and without excluding the men.

Bwambwa Dance

This dance was partly put on to entertain us, their guests, but also to amuse themselves on a dark, moonless night. The music is very similar to the music that would be played for the Jengi, but not such a powerful spirit is present. It also seemed to be part of the process of teaching the boys how to deal with the Jengi. Whereas when there is the Jengi ceremony (which is very important as the circumcision ceremony for the boys to become men) the adults will be playing the drums and one of them will be dressed as the Jengi (actually be the Jengi as far as they are concerned), with the Bwambwa Dance the drums (or in this case old plastic containers and cooking pots) were played by young boys and the dancers would be boys who have not yet undergone the circumcision ceremony.

The Bwambwa dancer had a pair of trousers over his head and a "tail" made from a bundle of leaves. There was a strong similarity to the "Ju-ju" dances of the North-West province of Cameroon where the dancers have their heads covered with sack so that you cannot see their faces. Although everyone knows that it is a real person dressed up, they also believe that by dressing up they are possessed by the spirit of the Ju-ju or Bwambwa or Jengi and so are that spirit. We did ask whether a Jengi would be coming, but no-one could tell us. They said that they only know when it arrives. How do they know? They start dancing is the answer. The Jengi will pass through a village and they feel its presence and so know that it is time to make the preparations for the ceremonies.

The rhythms and chanting that we heard at the Bwambwa dance bore an uncanny resemblence to music we had heard two years previously in Chorini, a small village on the north coast of Venezuela. This could be due to the fact that the villagers are descendants of West Africans who were transported to South America as slaves. This would need further investigation.
Hear the rhythms

for more information on the music see
"Heart of the Forest"
for more sounds see
instruments page
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