Posts Tagged ‘Pygmy’


Mbuti Pygmies (Ituri Forest, DR Congo): Hugh Tracey, 1952

7 December 2008

Mbuti Pygmies listening back to recordings made by Hugh Tracey.

From the 1930’s to the  1970’s, Hugh Tracey criscrossed Africa from the Sudan border to Cape of Good Hope. He recorded lots of songs and musics. Since a few years, the Sharp Wood label has decided to bring out a series of cd’s selected from his recordings. The quality is very good if you consider the state of the electronics at the period and the travel conditions in Africa.

In 1952, during a big recording fieldtrip, he went to eastern and northern Congo, at the edge of the Ituri rainforest were he encountered the Mbuti Pygmies in their interaction with other people like the Nande, Bira, Mangbetu and Budu – all Bantu people. The recordings reveal the exchanges of the pygmies with their neighbours, exchanges of food, but also of music instruments. Tracey didn’t record the pygmies in the forest but in two different Bantu villages where he was taken aback by the superiority of the Bantu people against the pygmies.

The Mbuti are the original inhabitants of the forest, the other groups came later in the region, driven out of their homelands by war or slave trade. All these groups have lots of different musical intruments to play on, in contrast with the pygmies who sometimes borrow these but are experts in elaborate songs, with complex harmonic sense, developped sense of rhythm and technical virtuosity. Words are relatively unimportant, the sound is.

I made a selection of songs with yodel, there are some more on the cd, plus songs and music from the neighbouring people. I’ll try to make it diverse but at the same time I’ll try to select a honey harvest song and a hunting song in every post about the pygmies.

Iyo-o-o is a wedding song (but could be used as a lullaby) sung by Moisi, Magdalena and Teresa. It is mostly composed by vowel sounds or very simple words and there is no attempt to form a lyric. Being forest people and living from hunting and gathering, they sing hunting and harvest songs and use yodelling to call each other. The honey harvest is yodelled and accompanied with sticks in the second part of the song. For The Antelope hunt, you first hear the sound of hunting pipes, then yodels that are performed at the kill. It is interesting to note that the singer on Hunting cries is Moke, who will be named and described in Colin Turnbull’s book The forest people as being “… the greatest traditionalist of all… smiling his toothless smile.” And to end, there’s nothing better than a lullaby, Manatobo kukwo, also sung by Moke.


The honey harvest

The antilope hunt

Hunting cries

Manatobo kukwo


Introduction to Pygmy yodels

30 November 2008

This remarkable race of Congo dwarfs has been driven by negroid cannibals into their last refuge, the sombre, swampy tropic forest, but there they have proved unconquerable. Recently they ambushed the Zandé spearmen and, invisible themselves, slew their foes with poisoned arrows, such as they are here shown using. They are magnificent hunters, and gather round their best archer. They become friends with folk who treat them fairly. (from The Secret Museum of Mankind)

Maybe you know it, maybe you don’t: one of the characteristics of the songs of the Pygmies, the forest people of Central Africa, is yodel and vocal polyphony. The subject is vast and there are a lot of things to be said. After Jimmie Rodgers and his coversongs, I would like to introduce a new serie about Pygmy music, then and now, traditional and contemporary and all the influences it had on jazz, rock and other styles.

It will be an historical / geographical approach: who were the field recorders (a subject I’m really interested in), where did they record, what was their influence on other people. Saying this, I think I should begin with Colin Turnbull, who inspired Simha Arom to make recordings. But there are older recordings and I could begin with that too… There are lots of things to write about I could dedicate a whole blog to Pygmy yodels !

Pygmies can be classified into different groups but it isn’t very clear to me because the Wikipedia page says one thing and books say other things. But important ethnies are the Aka in the Central African Republic and in DR Congo, the Ba-Benzele from the Central African Republic, the Baka from Cameroon, Gabon and DR Congo, the Mbuti (with different sub-groups) from the Ituri forest in DR Congo, the Twa from Rwanda (essentially). They speak languages that are belonging to different families. What is common to them, besides their small stature (even if that is not really true anymore today because of interbreeding), is that they live from gathering and hunting in the equatorial forest. Today they are approximately 200 thousand but the deforestation is a danger for their traditional way of living and they are forced to sedentarize and live as farmers.

To complete this post, here is one of the first recordings of Pygmies. The Efe Pygmies (from the Mbuti group in the Ituri Forest) were recorded on wax cylinder by Armand Hutereau between 1909 and 1912. He was sent in Northern Belgian Congo by the Belgian governement to describe the ethnic people of the region. These cylinders are the oldest recordings of pygmy music for all Central Africa. Even if the quality of the sound is not very good, you can hear the yodels and vocal polyphony.

Chants de danse des Efe (from Archives 1910-1960 MRAC)


Do they yodel in Africa (or is it Japan) ?: Geinoh Yamashirogumi

14 September 2008

by this week’s guest: Diane

In 1982, the collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi released an album of african a cappela songs. One of these include a distinctive call and response women choir that reminds me of the Pygmy tribes and contains seminal yodel techniques.

From Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s album: Africa Genjoh (The African Vision Singing)