Baka, Beyond, Pygmies, Martin, Cradick, Hart
Baka Beyond — Rhythms of the Forest
By J.C. Tripp
Music has been a passage to many cultures for Su Hart and Baka Beyond’s leader, Martin Cradick. Sipping cafe con leche in a Cuban cafe on Manhattan’s upper west side, in town to promote their music, Cradick expels on the benefits of traveling as a musician. “If you’re traveling, then you’re a tourist. A lot of places people don’t understand what you’re doing because that’s just outside their comprehension. They couldn’t imaging just getting up and going around looking at places,” he said. “Whereas, as a musician you can turn up and play and you’re giving something to the people. And in virtually all cultures that’s an acceptable way to make a living. So, then you get accepted and can experience the culture from within.”
If crossing boundaries and uniting cultures is the basis of “world music” then Baka Beyond are its poster children. There is nothing quite like them, a melding of Northern European and West African musical traditions—a conglomeration of tribes, if you will. Their recordings piece together West African rhythms, Gaelic melodies, Breton Gypsy fiddle and the effervescent songs of their namesake, Cameroon’s Baka pygmies. Cradick and Hart, along with fiddle-maestro Paddy Le Mercier, form the core of Baka Beyond, with additional band members including master musicians Nii Tagoe, Seckou Keita, Pelembie and others.
Through all of their travels, Baka Beyond retain the spirit of the Baka people, with whom they are passionately attached. Cradick and Hart have been involved with the Baka since first traveling to Cameroon in 1992 and living amongst them in the forest, an experience which affected them profoundly. The adventure began with a BBC TV program on the Baka: “We were watching this program about the Baka, and what struck us was how central the music was to their lives,” explained Cradick in a soft Cornish accent. “At any moment it’s quite possible for all the Baka to sit down, start singing and playing music together. In England we really love just sitting around playing music, so to see this group of people where it was so central caught our fancy. We said, ‘we must go there.’”
As circumstances would have it, Cradick and Hart were destined to have their wish fulfilled. “A year after that program, I was running some percussion workshops and this guy came in with a very interesting drum that was from the Baka. He was an anthropologist and had lived near them. Suddenly we thought, ‘this could be reality’ and we soon discovered that the Rivers Museum of Anthropology in Oxford had a sponsorship for people to study pygmies. So, we wrote them saying ‘though we’re not anthropologists, we have experience as artists in communicating non-verbally. And they paid for us to go there on the first trip.”
This wasn’t the first time Cradick had crossed boundaries with his music. An accomplished guitarist and mandolin player, he’d been a member of the groundbreaking band Outback, which had done for the didgeridoo and Australia’s Aborigines, what they were about to do for Cameroon’s Bangombi (Baka Pygmies): give their culture and music a world stage. Outback’s two releases, Baka and Dance the Devil Away paved the way for Cradick’s future experiments.
Western Africa may have been a long way from London, but Cradick and Hart had their instruments and their music to connect with the Baka. The two went with little more than a tent, some instruments and recording equipment. They slept, ate and gathered as the Baka did and Cradick spent as many hours as possible playing with them, learning just how integrated the music is with their lives. “Sometimes they fish by building a dam and emptying out the river. There were some kids doing this, playing really. But when they’re emptying it with buckets, it’s totally in rhythm. And then you start hearing someone in the distance, singing along to the same rhythm. So, other people are singing along to it and all the activities in the camp are joined together. In a normal day, where there are people sitting around in a camp doing their jobs, they’ll almost subconsciously be doing it in rhythm, so that this music starts coming out of it. In playing music there’s always an element of telepathy and I’m sure they use music to enhance communication within the group,” said Hart. The rhythm of life, indeed.
But the music is fading, since the Baka, like most indigenous people, are threatened by outside forces beyond their control. The forests are being chopped down by logging operations, brought on by massive dept incurred by the Cameroonian government. “It’s changing rapidly. The forest is broken up and the intensity is going. That magic singing they do in the forest to make animals come so they’ve got food — they don’t do it anymore because of all the disturbance. As it breaks up, their whole knowledge and way of life is being dissipated,” explained Hart.
“The forest people’s situation is like the Aborigines. They had the land and lived in a natural way and then someone’s come in and taken it over. They have no land rights, even though they’ve lived in the forest before Cameroon was even a country. By law they’re not even allowed to chop down a tree or kill an animal, which has been their way of life for thousands of years,” said Hart.
But there is some hope, as futile as it may seem. Unlike many Western musicians who use indigenous recordings and samples in their music, Baka Beyond actually pay royalties to the Baka people. Their charity, “One Heart”, provides moneys and empowerment to the Baka. “The charity sends royalties back to them,” said Hart. “This helps them set up things to make their lives better. It’s made it possible to have the worst things in their lives changed – like not having identity cards. If you have a card then you’re a citizen, so now they can go into town without being arrested. What we’re trying to do with our charity is give them a choice, so they can have control over their lives.”
Their mission doesn’t stop there. Hart also runs a “Rainforest Workshop”, a one day multimedia session of music, dancing and performance that involves participants in the culture of the Baka. Working mainly with school children, the workshop engages and educates, and hopeful enlightens a future generation.
The spirit and sounds of the Baka have been an integral element of the music, but as the band’s title suggests, Baka Beyond is a continually evolving unit, embracing influences and musicians from Africa and Europe. And there’s a simple message in Baka Beyond’s music: everything is interconnected. “There is a sharing of simple things, each little thing given by somebody and it fits in,” explained Cradick. “Using that as the basis, you can bring in musicians from different places and it fits together. This is the Baka Way.”
Baka Beyond’s foray into world rhythms has resulted in several recordings, including 1998’s Sogo, a collaboration with Senegalese and Ghanian musicians. “Sogo” is a Ghanaian drum also called “the Lightening Pot” due to its use to call the lightening spirit in times of drought. For Sogo Cradick invited four musicians from West Africa and four musicians from the Celtic fringes of Europe to join Baka Beyond for an extensive tour. During this intensely creative time of playing together, new songs evolved that are a fusion of individual talents and traditions.
The departure of Joe Boyd from Hannibal Records brought to a close their relationship with the label and their most recent recording East to West is released on their own label, March Hare Music. It furthers Baka Beyond’s Celtic-African fusion, as well as their collaboration with the Baka. The opening track ‘Awaya Baka’, a song written by Baka guitarist Pelembie, features a chorus sung by Baka children recorded in the forest. The next song, ‘Braighe Locheil’, is a Scottish song sung in Gaelic augmented by Senegalese kora and Ghanaian balafon, while ‘Wandering Spirit’ is based on a dance that the Baka asked Cradick to take to the world seamlessly combined with an Irish slipjig.
In addition to East to West, Cradick and bandmates Nii Tagoe and Seckou Keita have formed a new project, EtE (translated: triangle in the Gha language) and released an album in that name. Tagoe is from a leading family of master drummers and dancers from Ghana. He originally came to Britain as principal dancer and drummer in the Adzido dance company. and has toured with Adrian Sherwood’s African Headcharge and runs the Frititi troupe. He has a deep knowledge of the diverse dance and rhythmic traditions of Ghana. Keita is a griot, descended from the founder and ruler of Mali, Sundiata Keita. Seckou is deeply influenced by his indigenous role as an historian, carrying his tradition in his songs. Mixing traditions, ancient and modern, from the U.K., Ghana and Senegal, EtE is an exciting extension of the Baka Beyond sound.
In this incredibly shrinking world, could Baka Beyond represent the future of “world” music? Their inspired collaboration has achieved both critical and commercial success with bowing to cheap cliches. And by channeling back some of the funds to the people from which the music is born – does this signal a new model for others to follow? For the future of the Baka pygmies and all indigenous people who’s cultures are threatened, let’s hope so.