“Song is used to communicate with the forest and it is significant that the emphasisis on the the actual sound, not the words…the sound “awakens” the forest…thus attracting the forest’s attention to the immediate needs of its children”
- Colin M. Turnbull, anthropologist, who studied the ethnography of the Mbuti of the Congo.
Nothing quite prepares you for the first encounter with the “Little People”. I can imagine how it must have been like for the early explorers to meet these wonderful people deep in the forest – their diminutive statures would prompt one to basically look around for the adults – and only after a while will it dawns upon the intrepid explorer that these are indeed the adults! It certainly was the case with me, when I paid my first visit to a Negrito village in Perak, Malaysia. Looking at their scale of their dwellings, it made the lot of us feel like veritable Gullivers.
Indeed, the term ‘pygmies’ was already well established in the vernacular of the period of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and probably much earlier, which signified people who were distinctly smaller (‘scaled down’) than the visitors. The term ‘pygmy’ is considered pejorative and I apologise up front for its occasional use throughout this article, but it is a term that works well when classifying the various ethnic groups that share common phenotypic characteristics of the mtDNA L1 haplotype.
When I first chanced upon these similarities on my early (and rather uninspired ‘anthropological adventures’), I immediately sought to establish a connection between the tiny folk I met in Perak and the pygmies of Africa. As with the true anthropologists before me, these erstwhile musings were soon discarded when I looked up the wealth of evidence that suggested that the Pygmy tribes of Africa (L1 haplotype) were genetically distinct from the pygmy tribes in Asia (L3 – and these again divided into the M macro-haplogroups that represent the “Out-of-Africa” Exodus that we shall talk about much later). Never read the book by its cover, indeed!
The BiAka (Bayaka) or Pygmy tribes of Central Africa
The Little Big People of Africa – I like this term – or the ‘Pygmy tribes’ of Africa are people whose average height is less than 4 feet 11 inches or about 150 cm. That does not sound too small, but when you meet them in a group, you begin to appreciate that everything about them is diminutive indeed. These people quite rightly refer to themselves as distinct ethnic groups, namely the Aka, Baka, Mbuti and Twa; the general term, Bayaka as used in the Central African Republic, denotes these ethnic groups and in the Congo, they are referred to by the local name of Bambenga.
Size aside, however, there is nothing diminutive about the culture of these people, although exploitation of these ethnic groups is tragic. The BiAka have a high preponderance of the L1 genetic haplotype, making them the most divergent human mtDNA haplotype, which they share with the Hadzabe of Tanzania and the Mbuti tribes in the region.During a period of “interglacial optimum” weather, the Sahara became lush and green, allowing easy migration along its southern border. It is theorized that during this period, migration of early man occurred from the Eastern Congo basin to the Western Congo basin – one of the first great migrations. The BiAka therefore represent some of the oldest existing modern humans.
The Songs of the Deep Forest
These tribes have the distinction of one of the richest vocal traditions in the world and a well-established means of settling disputes at the community level. The BiAka people speak their own language (unlike the Mbuti) and their vocal traditions are very rich, as is their musical heritage. BiAka fathers spend almost half their time with their infants and share the responsibilities of rearing their offspring. There is a deep bond between the couples as a result, something which is missing in many other societies – a telling ‘human’ characteristic, which preserved our species at the dawn of mankind. These hunter-gatherers also preserve and respect their strong affiliation with the forest, which they refer alternatively as ‘mother’ or ‘father’.
Musical aptitude further distinguishes these people and their vocal traditions have been duly recognised as one of only 90 of UNESCO’s Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity. Music, specifically Baka polyphony, is the centrepiece of everyday living amongst the the traditional ethnic groups of this region. Their music can be described as ‘polyphonic singing’, which (in my opinion at least) dilutes the sheer diversity that is inherent in this vocal tradition – melodic phrases, rooted in 5- to 7-note scales, with overlapping harmonies and occasional dissonant yelps are accompanied by a variety of percussive instruments – the limbindi (a thin string bow) the ieta (a bow harp) and ngombi (harp zither), along with shakers made from seed pods and percussive devices of all shapes and sizes from hollow logs to pots, pans to the proverbial kitchen sink.
To amuse themselves while bathing in the river, Bayaka women and children beat the water to produce the sounds of water drumming or water music (also known as liquindi). Music is also the medium of moral and spiritual instruction and likanos advice people on how to behave by giving guidance on key matters related to sharing, rituals, marriage and hunting techniques – these also represent themselves in their dances (around the campfires, no less!).
In fact, in the ritual practices, song and dance are inextricably united – in Baka, there are no separate words for “song” and “dance” (both are bé). This provides some intriguing insight into why we innately move when singing, as I discussed in an earlier article.
In future articles, we will further explore the musical heritage of the BiAka and I will try and include reasonable examples of their unique -and ancient – art of polyphony.