June 1320, 1996
an interview by Deni Kasrel
Background: Perhaps growing up in Newark, New Jersey, had something to do with it, but in the late 1980s Louis Sarno reckoned he had had enough of this so-called civilized life, opting to live in central Africa with a Pygmy tribe known as the Bayaka. Sarno originally visited these hunter-gatherers to learn more about their music, which he'd grown attracted to and wanted to hear in person. Besides being drawn to the Bayaka's riveting music, Louis derived great satisfaction from their simpler way of life, most especially from the hunting expeditions into the rain forest.
Sarno is now married to a native Bayakan and he's allowed to witness special ceremonies and rituals never before seen by an outsider. With the aid of Bernie Krause, a producer who has recorded natural sounds of the forest and oceans since 1968, he combined recordings of Bayakan music with sounds of their surrounding environment into a two-CD/book package entitled Bayaka: The Extraordinary Music of the BaBenzl Pygmies (Ellipsis Arts).
The music is emotional and spiritual, with women singing complex interweaving harmonies while men beat out polyphonic accompaniment on instruments made of vines, hollowed-out logs and animal skins. In the companion book Sarno illuminates the Bayakan people in words and pictures. Recently there has been outside pressure to assimilate the Bayakan to Western ways, and Sarno's efforts represent a living document of a vanishing people.
What were you doing before you got involved with the Bayakan people?
I was dividing my time between Holland and Scotland. In Holland I did work like typing up people's books, editing English translations, and in Scotland I did seasonal work on a farm with sheep and Christmas trees. Before that I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa studying comparative literature and then mathematics. In 1984 I traveled to North Africa to make recordings of Berber music and also went to Egypt looking for music of the nomadic Bedouin, and at the end of 1985 I went to Central Africa.
What was your interest in going to Africa to record this music?
I became fascinated with the music of the rain forest all over the world and particularly different Pygmy groups. I had gotten some recordings, but it wasn't satisfactory to me and I began to believe there was a lot more music than was available on records.
It would seem they'd be wary of an outsider becoming one of their community. How did you fit in?
It was difficult. My thing was I loved their music. For me, it's like maybe if I knew Beethoven. Maybe Beethoven was in many ways a very trying person, but if you loved his music enough you'd put up with all of that and make an effort to be liked by him. Maybe the Bayaka did try and shake me off in the beginning but I wasn't aware of it and they eventually came to accept me.
How do you live there what's your space like?
I have two modes of existence. One is in the settlement along the road and the other is in the hunting camp in the forest. In the settlement the houses tend to be built with bamboo poles and palm leaves or thatching for the roof. Then you make a bed with bamboo poles and a mat. In the forest there's these beehive huts that are so small I can't stand up in them and also a bed platform made of poles.
What was it like going into the forest for the first time? Were you scared?
I loved the forest from the first instant I stepped into it. I was never frightened. I never understood these 19th-century accounts about going in the jungle and pushing oneself to the last ounce of their strength and there's these bees and they sweat beads. They make it sound like a hell on earth. That's nonsense. It's paradise. I love the rain forest. I feel protected in it.
What's the longest stretch you've stayed in the forest?
What's it like to step out of it after that length of time?
I'm always disappointed coming out of the forest, because in the forest it's cool, it never gets too hot. When you step out on a sunny day, it's like stepping into a furnace. I love the sounds of the forest the birds, the monkeys, the fragrances, the tree blossoms.
This project has different recordings from the Boyobi ceremony. What's that like?
It's the hunting ceremony. It's held to call to bob, these special spirits to protect the hunters or to insure they get some food. It involves all the members of the community. The men are the ones who transform into the spirits and they do the drumming. The women and children are the choir. The bob have two basic forms. One is they clothe themselves in leaves, and with the other they come in these luminescent designs, like forms of animals and strange faces all glowing. They use luminescent mold that grows on the inside of tree bark. You can have up to twenty glowing figures, each one different. They sing in these falsetto voices and they dance to the music. It's an incredible show.
Some people think of Pygmies as a primitive culture, but you don't, right?
Well, how do you measure primitive? I think Bosnia is primitive. I don't think the Bayaka are primitive just because they don't have advanced technology. Their technology is successful for their way of life and they've never fought a war. War to me is barbaric and true primitivism.
Do you think they represent a kind of enlightenment?
I think their society is very enlightened in many aspects as compared to our lives. We have these technological accomplishments, but it doesn't really tell us how to live. Life is so needlessly complicated in modern society. It's more simple in the rain forest. The Bayaka don't need psychiatrists. They don't need Prozac.
There's outside pressure to modernize Bayaka culture, and also, conservationists are limiting the area of the forest where they can hunt, thus slowly eliminating their way of life. You feel they should be left as is. Why is that?
Remember, for 95% of human history we were hunter-gatherers. If we lose that we lose our past. We're always so concerned where we come from, yet we do away with our links to the past and then we spend all this time and do research trying to reconstruct it. That, to me, is backwards. I don't see why on this big earth of ours there's not room to support hunter-gatherers.