Last month I felt I needed a bit of a boost, having just come out of a 12 year relationship feeling emotionally battered and bruised. Thinking a change of scene would do me good, I asked some friends if they fancied going to the New Forest for a few days camping. I had seen a singing weekend advertised in the Baka Beyond newsletter and thought it was exactly what I needed… but it went way above and beyond all our expectations.
The weekend would be spent learning the songs of the Baka pygmies from South East Cameroon and their neighbours, the Mbendjele pygmies from the Congo. In the darkness of the new moon a celebration would be held to sing the forest awake known as Malobe. This would be led by Jerome* and Ingrid Lewis, who have spent three years living with the Mbendjele and had been initiated into the ceremony and given permission to hold it here in England.
Our hosts, Su and Martin of Baka Beyond, have been visiting the Baka for over 20 years where they were initiated into their music and asked to take it beyond the forest. Throughout the weekend, Jerome, Ingrid, Sue and Martin all shared fascinating insights into aspects of the lives of these two tribes, their traditions, music and struggles of every day life.
The singing, percussion and guitar workshops were all great fun and by Saturday night we were all eagerly awaiting the Malobe that night although a little uncertain what to expect.
After a shared meal, we spent the evening singing round the fire and then walked into the forest. We were led to a clearing where we laid down rugs and blankets, sat down and huddled close together in the dark. It was an important part of the ceremony that it should be completely dark and everyone should be touching their neighbours so we snuggled up even closer together slightly uncertain of who was who!
..and then we sang.
It’s hard to explain the wonder of that night as the lead singers controlled the group, building the intensity and emotions – stopping – building it up again. Only to stop and then build it up once more.
…and then the forest awoke – a really magical moment that I’ll never forget (but I’ll say no more on that, as we were asked not to!).
On Sunday… more singing, then lunch, followed by a bit more singing. We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, every one of us singing all the way home with memories of a very special weekend.
I felt rejuvenated and ready to face the world a new. And if ever I felt a little sad, I’d turn the lights down low, listen to the Baka singing and feel at peace.
All my favourite Baka and Baka Beyond CDs are available from Amazon but the one below is my personal favourite recording of the Baka women singing.
Links to Baka songs on you tube
Lecturer in Social Anthropology at UCL
Web and Publicity Committee chair, Department of Anthropology
London School of Economics and Political Science 2002