For the Aka Pygmies, music is a language of spirituality, a means of communication and an essential part of traditional ceremonies accompanying marriage, death and hunting. In 2003, members of the tribe formed the musical group Ndima, which means forest. Over the past decade they have performed across Europe and Latin America.
Ndima’s music makes captivating use of what is called polyphonic rhythm, or the combination of several distinct melodies. Two or three singers work together to modify their voices, producing a range of pitches and sounds with the vocal technique known as yodeling.
“Our music is an important tool for many rituals that we use to channel forest spirits,” singer and Aka tribesman Ngolou Emilliene told OZY. “Every Aka child learns to sing the sounds of yodelling from an early age.”
Singers are accompanied by the evocative sounds of handmade musical instruments, including the lenzeko harp and a single-stranded bow known as a mbela. Music can express deep joy as well as anger and grief.
A culture on the brink
An ally joins the fight
“The Aka pygmies are currently in danger of extinction,” says ethnologist Sorel Okanango Eta, who has lived with the Aka people and studied their culture for 26 years, and is the director of Ndima.
In an interview with OZY, Eta explained that the Aka culture was unknown to many people before Ndima was created. Locally, most people knew little about the tribe, whereas today Aka music is played on TV, radio and the internet. Ndima has organized events focusing on the tribe’s traditional shamanic practices and master classes on the polyphonic sounds of Aka.
“Imagine if an epidemic were to destroy this minority population? We could lose all that knowledge and culture in the blink of an eye, and that’s why it’s important to spread Aka music,” says Eta.
Logging of the forests that are the traditional terrain of the Aka has endangered animals such as antelopes and wild pigs, which were once abundant here and provided a vital food source for the tribe. The Aka can no longer rely on hunting and fishing. Once a nomadic people, the many threats they face today have forced them into a sedentary lifestyle, fundamentally changing their culture. Now, to adapt to the modern way of life, they have to seek employment elsewhere and buy food in the markets, like the people of the Bantu tribes around them.
“The Bantu tribes that were colonized by France are sort of colonizing the pygmy Aka tribes and expecting them to live according to the Bantu lifestyle choices,” Eta explained.
The pitfalls of the modern school
Emilliene says that among the younger Aka generation attending modern schools, she has noticed a lack of interest in learning about Aka culture and traditions.
“Since the Aka children have been in school, they have learned to speak French and not the Aka languages. They also lose track of the forest school learning,” she told OZY. Today, “most Aka children do not understand how to navigate the forest and certain rituals that are important in doing so”.
Music, however, helps keep the culture alive.
WATCH MARC REBILLET
Lessons from the “university” of the forest
Join the conversation of cultures
Ndima regularly collaborates with other musical artists around the world in what Sorel Eta calls a “dialogue” of cultures.
“The pygmies represent an African culture and the Europeans represent another culture. So, by collaborating with different artists, we create a dialogue of cultures, so that people can learn our culture and we can learn theirs,” he says.
Eta has now written a book in French titled “L’Université de la forêt” and started a music conservatory for the teaching and practice of pygmy music, which has welcomed international tourists.
This year alone, Ndima has collaborated with musical artists including Leila Martial, Eric Perez and Rémi Leclerc. On October 1, the group will give a concert in Paris. You can find their latest updates on the Facebook page of the Ndima group.
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