Song from the Forest

by Louis Sarno. Houghton Mifflin, 1993. 301 pages.

Outsiders over the centuries have gone to Africa for many reasons: adventure, wildlife, riches. Louis Sarno went there for a more charming reason. As he says at the very beginning of his book, "I was drawn to the heart of Africa by a song."

Sarno, "alone in a northern European capital one winter night," turned on the radio and was immediately entranced. "The song on the air was unlike anything I had ever heard: voices blending into a subtle polyphony, weaving a melody that rose and fell in endless repetition, as hypnotic as waves breaking on a shore." By the time he identified the song as an example of Pygmy music and heard more recordings, Sarno was determined to visit the Pygmies and record them on his own. He decided at first to visit the Mbuti of Zaire, whom Colin Turnbull described in his classic account The Forest People, and he wrote to Turnbull for advice and contacts. In the end, however, he decided on the more remote Ba-Benjellé of the Central African Republic. The music of the Ba-Benjellé, also known as the Bayaka, was more rhythmically complex than that of the Mbuti, and they had been more or less left alone since the 1940s.

Sarno arrives in the Central African Republic with a one-way ticket and five hundred dollars. He makes his way to the Pygmy settlement of Amapolo in the southwest of the country, and finds Pygmies who dress in tattered Western clothes, live in insect-infested shacks, and badger him constantly for money. Two of the first words he learns are mbaku (moonshine) and ndaku (cigarette). The Pygmies feed him a steady diet of tadpoles, which taste like mud, and the music they perform for him is inferior to what he has heard at home.

It is only when Sarno's money runs out that the Pygmies' attitude seems to soften, all in a single day. Someone leaves him a ripe papaya. He is invited to go fishing, then witnesses a spontaneous and beautiful dance by some of the children. In the evening the older women begin to sing, and late that night as he is recording them he sees a giant leaf glide from the forest into the clearing. A voice comes from the leaf, addressing the women, and then the leaf moves away, "screeching a grotesque tune, which the women took up and transformed into a melody of supernatural beauty."

This episode establishes the themes that will dominate the book: the Pygmies' music, their women, and the forest spirits or mokoondi, which appear as animated leaves or bushes. As Sarno learns to speak the Yaka language, makes later trips to Africa, and records the many varieties of Pygmy music, he becomes attracted by two young sisters and then, most powerfully, by a teenage girl whom he knows at first only as "the fabulous dancer." The reader may wonder about the ethics of his pursuing this attachment: Sarno is about twenty years older than the girl, he professes to value traditional Pygmy culture, and he is a very rich man by Pygmy standards. But as the dancer alternately encourages and ignores him for month after month, driving him from elation to despair, it becomes clear that she wields a power of her own.

For most of his stay among the Pygmies, Sarno takes the mokoondi more or less for granted, assuming that hidden behind each animated leaf, bush, or bundle of raffia is one of the village elders. After a while he believes he can recognize the voices of individuals. But then he witnesses the forest spirits doing things he can't explain. By the end of the book he begins to wonder whether the mokoondi have involved him in a subtle plan to move the Pygmies away from settlements like Amapolo, where they die of disease and are exploited by African villagers, and back to a healthier and more traditional way of life in the rainforest. From a discouraging beginning, Song from the Forest opens out into mysterious and beautiful depths.

From Song from the Forest:

The half-hour intervals between songs were often filled with the antics of the mokoondi. Sometimes one of them would invent a silly tune and insist that the women sing it over and over, while it performed an equally silly dance. Once when the women refused, one of the mokoondi said, "Okay, no yams tomorrow." Chastised, the women instantly complied. Occasionally two mokoondi got into an argument, which would end with one of them going completely berserk for several minutes. Sometimes they made us all drum the earth with our hands. Once they danced uncannily like a Broadway chorus line, sending everyone into stitches. And one night, before my eyes, one of them turned into an antelope.

The full moon, halfway through its wacky orbit, hovered somewhere north of the zenith and bathed the clearing in bright silver light. After several minutes of clowning around, one of the mokoondi -- a faceless albino creature -- lolloped in a leisurely way across the clearing, pausing within a foot of me. I gasped, as did all the women: it was an antelope! For an instant I thought the Bayaka must have released a captured one, or somehow called one from the forest into the camp. But then the antelope reached the side of the mbanjo and began to beat the ground -- it was a mokoondi after all. I promised myself then that I would never again doubt what I had seen nor rationalize it away. Now, of course, I wonder.