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The Music of the BAKA FOREST PEOPLE :

Music has a central role in the life of the Baka. From an early age they have a keen sense of rhythm, as soon as a baby is able to clap it is encouraged to participate in all the communal music-making. There is music for ritualistic purposes, music for passing on knowledge, stories and the history of the Baka people, and music for pure enjoyment. There is no sense of performer and audience. There will be leaders in the music, for example when a story is told in song, but all will join in with the choruses, or with harmonies and with percussion accompaniment. This communal music-making constantly helps to strengthen the bonds between the individuals in the groups.

The sense of hearing is very important when living in the forest. It is rare to be able to see further than 50 metres when walking in the forest so the Baka navigate by "listening to the Forest". By recognising the different sounds made by different streams or rivers, by different camps, or even by different trees, and by talking to each other across surprisingly long distances in the forest, they are able to know exactly where they are in the thickest undergrowth.

This need to hear well coupled with the absense of background noise of cars, radios and machines that people in industrialised countries have to contend with, has meant that the Baka have developed an incredibly keen sense of hearing. Whereas in the cacophany of modern life in the West we learn to filter out unwanted "noise", the Baka learn to hear all sounds since they are all produced by the forest and are therefore all potentially important to their survival. This is shown in their music where they will listen very well to each other and can pick up new melodies very quickly.

The Baka believe that the forest is their good parent and that it looks after them. Indeed it does. It provides all their needs - food, clothing, shelter and tools. Like a good parent it is vigilant in watching over them, but like a human being it has lapses. Just as when the Baka are asleep sometimes things go wrong for them - the camp is invaded by army ants or a leopard steals a dog - things that they could have prevented if they were awake - they believe that if something bad happens to them such as bad hunting or an illness it must be that the forest is sleeping. They then use music and song to make things better again - to wake up the forest and make it happy. If things have been going well they will also sing, to share their happiness with each other and with the forest.

Living, gathering, playing music

Baka People playing music Baka People playing music Baka People playing music Milo on a pirogue Baka playing music in the Music house
Baka children Baka children water drums Martin with Baka people Baka traditional cuisine Su with Baka children
Denise with Baka children Baka hut Baka children Baka people living Baka chidren water drums
Baka people living Baka people living Children in the Baka village



Songs and Rhythms : YELLI

Before any major hunt the women of the family group will sing "yelli". This they will do in the early morning before dawn and while the men and children are in their huts. One voice starts - a beautiful, haunting melody reverberating through the trees. After a few minutes another voice joins in, then another. Each voice will sing their own repeating melody, each one with its own rhythm and cycle, and yet all of them sitting together as one song composed of magical polyphonic harmonies that carry far into the forest, blending in with the unending night-time songs of the insects.

Since returning to England we have heard several explanations of "yelli", that it enchants the animals or that it makes them weak and easy prey for the hunters' spears. Mokoloba was the leading hunter in the family group where we were staying. He was being prepared for the hunt one night by Dhaweh, the eldest of the sisters who formed the core of the family group. He had been given some kind of plant drug and that night "yelli" was sung. He told us that the singing would draw the animals back to our camp and that in two days time there would be meat to eat.

Sure enough the next morning the children were catching lots of fish in the river and later in the day a family of monkeys (the first we had seen in that part of the forest) moved into a tall tree right next to the camp. The next day Mokoloba arrived with a large deer, enough meat for everyone to eat well. So whatever the explanation the singing of the "yelli" resulted in the success of the hunt just as we had been told it would. The women are held in a certain amount of awe by the men who understand that the singing of "yelli" is just as important a part of the hunt as the setting of snares and the throwing of spears.

Songs and Rhythms : WATER DRUMS

Another way that the women and girls play music is to literally "play the river". A group of them will stand in water up to their waists and with cupped hands hit the surface of the water. Each of them will play a different rhythmic pattern which together form a more complex synchopated rhythm. The sound of this drumming coupled with their laughter carries across the forest.

Songs and Rhythms : Welcome Songs (Abale)

On several occasions when we arrived at other camps we would be greeted by welcome songs. The Baka are very proud of their singing and dancing and love the opportunity to show it off to others. In such a situation usually the men would lead the drumming and percussion and the women would lead the singing. The songs are similar in structure to the "yelli" but with many more voices and without excluding the men.

Songs and Rhythms : BWAMBWA

This dance was partly put on to entertain us, their guests, but also to amuse themselves on a dark, moonless night. The music is very similar to the music that would be played for the Jengi, but not such a powerful spirit is present. It also seemed to be part of the process of teaching the boys how to deal with the Jengi. Whereas when there is the Jengi ceremony (which is very important as the circumcision ceremony for the boys to become men) the adults will be playing the drums and one of them will be dressed as the Jengi (actually be the Jengi as far as they are concerned), with the Bwambwa Dance the drums (or in this case old plastic containers and cooking pots) were played by young boys and the dancers would be boys who have not yet undergone the circumcision ceremony.

The Bwambwa dancer had a pair of trousers over his head and a "tail" made from a bundle of leaves. There was a strong similarity to the "Ju-ju" dances of the North-West province of Cameroon where the dancers have their heads covered with sack so that you cannot see their faces. Although everyone knows that it is a real person dressed up, they also believe that by dressing up they are possessed by the spirit of the Ju-ju or Bwambwa or Jengi and so are that spirit. We did ask whether a Jengi would be coming, but no-one could tell us. They said that they only know when it arrives. How do they know? They start dancing is the answer. The Jengi will pass through a village and they feel its presence and so know that it is time to make the preparations for the ceremonies.

The rhythms and chanting that we heard at the Bwambwa dance bore an uncanny resemblence to music we had heard two years previously in Chorini, a small village on the north coast of Venezuela. This could be due to the fact that the villagers are descendants of West Africans who were transported to South America as slaves. This would need further investigation


Most of the ritualistic music is composed of voice and percussion however the Baka have a number of unique musical instruments. Often one person will sit on their own and play an instrument for their own amusement. Others might then join in, either singing in their soft voices, or clap along or join in with shakers, two sticks or other percussion. I will describe the instruments that we came across during our stay with the Baka


This single stringed instrument is built using the earth itself as a sound-box. A hole is dug and a thin piece of wood placed over it and pegged firmly down. A pliable sappling is driven into the ground about a metre away from the hole. A cord is attatched to the centre of the board covering the hole and the sappling is bent down and also attatched to the cord. The cord is plucked while the string tension is altered by pushing the end of the sappling down or up. The construction of the earth bow is very like some of their snares and is often made when on hunting trips.


The limbindi is another musical bow, but it is only played by the women and girls. A thin vine is used as the string and a strong pliable and elastic branch is used to make the bow. To change the pitch of the notes the string of the limbindi is held under the players chin. As they play they slide their chin forwards and back making the pitch go up and down. Traditionally a large leaf is held under the limbindi to reflect the sound back to the player, but today they usually sit on the ground to play and place the limbindi on an upturned cooking pot which acts as a sound box.

As can be seen in the photo, the string doubles back on itself. The shorter string is played with the thumb of one hand. This defines the beat. Although this string is shorter it is forming a smaller arc on the bow and so is under less tension than the longer string and provides a bass note. The melody is played with the other hand on the longer string using a plectrum made from a small piece of wood or bark.


The ngombi is probably the most beautiful of the Baka's instruments. "Ngombi" is to a certain extent a generic term. For example they will call a guitar a "ngombi". The full name for the instrument I am about to describe is the "ngombi na pekeh" or the "ngombi made from the raphia palm" which indeed it is.

The ngombi can be anything from about one and a half to three metres long. They have four strings with a bridge in the centre making 8 separate notes. It is played on the lap, one hand plucking the strings to the left of the bridge, the other plucking the strings to the right

The music is usually repetetive patterns that accompany singing. When played at night accompanied by the songs of the insects and the Baka's gentle voices it is a very hypnotic magical instrument. It is very similar to the "mvet" or "midnight harp" that is found in the forests further north in Cameroon. The strings of both the ngombi and the mvet are traditionally made from fibres that are found in the stem of the palm used to make the body, but today often they use wire strings which they unravvel from their snare cable. This gives the instrument a different tone and the strings last longer.


This 7-stringed instrument originates in Central Africa and is not a traditional Baka instrument. It has been adopted by the Baka over the last 30 years or so and is commonly played by both men and women.

The strings are made from nylon fishing line. These are attached to a wooden neck and a sheet of tin (flattened piece of tin can) which covers a wooden sound box. It is held with the neck away from the player, the strings being plucked from both sides.

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