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The Man Who Spent 30 Years in the Rainforest Preserving the Music of the Bayaka

Louis Sarno went to record the music of the Central African Republic's Bayaka community in the 80s and never turned back.

In 2005, Noel Lobley—then a DJ and anthropology graduate from Oxford University—made an astonishing discovery. By sheer fluke, he stumbled across a neglected collection of over 1,000 hours worth of sound recordings of the Bayaka—a hunter-gatherer community in the rainforests of the Central African Republic.

"I found a load of tapes and notes wrapped in a bad jumper in a battered old suitcase in a storeroom in the Pitt Rivers Museum," Lobley told me. "If anyone had dropped that suitcase, the contents would've been unusable forever; we would never have known which note referred to what tape, and it could've all just resulted in a random mess."

Lobley consulted with Hélène La Rue, a music curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, about his findings. He learned that the collection had been accumulating for two decades, as Louis Sarno, a writer from New Jersey, travelled back from the Central African Republic to Oxford every few years to donate his recordings to the Pitt Rivers Museum for safe-keeping. Lobley recognized Sarno's name within the field of African sound ethnography; Sarno was not an ethnographer, but had devoted much of his life to documenting Bayaka music and even ended up living permanently with a community in the Central African Republic. Excited by the find, Lobley immediately crafted a PhD proposal focused on understanding and preserving the collection.

Lobley is now an assistant professor in ethnomusicology at the University of Virginia. For the past 11 years, he has sought to open up the archive of Bayaka recordings to the public by digitizing and curating it. The digitization is mostly complete, and Lobley is currently exploring how cultural programs involving both researchers and members of the Bayaka community could help keep the archive relevant in the contemporary day. He hopes, along with Sarno—whose documentation efforts span over 30 years—that one day it can be used to help the Bayaka retain, reconnect with, and promote their culture to the world.

The music of the Bayaka has been recognized as an important heritage artifact, but it's at risk of disappearing.

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Bayaka women and children outside shelters in the rainforest, Central African Republic (1986-1997). Image: Louis Sarno/Pitt Rivers Museum

The Bayaka live in the southwestern rainforests of the Central African Republic (CAR) and the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They are hunter-gatherers also sometimes known as "forest people," or, in the past, "pygmies," an old colonial academic label. They lack a structured social hierarchy, with men and women considered equal, and are renowned for their ancient polyphonic chorus, which is both borne of and a reflection of the forests they inhabit.

"This style of music is probably over 30,000 years old, since those still singing in this style have been separated for over 20,000 years," Jerome Lewis, a social anthropologist specialising in hunter-gatherer societies at University College London, told me.

"The Bayaka and Mbuti (hunter-gatherers who live in eastern DRC) both sing in this style, and genetic studies show that they last shared a mother around 27,000 years ago, suggesting the almost identical musical practices date from at least this period. I don't think there's any musical tradition that can claim to have that continuity over time."

In 2003, UNESCO categorized the Bayaka's oral tradition as a "masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity" in a bid to encourage the CAR government to safeguard these invisible yet precious artifacts of human life.

Yet at present, the Bayaka's unique culture and traditions are disappearing. In the past few decades, conservation programs have restricted their access to certain areas of the Dzanga-Sangha rainforest. Deforestation and civil war have uprooted them, and their community struggles with drug addiction and alcoholism. As minorities within the countries that they live in, they are ostracized from society, deemed second-class citizens, and have access to few rights and opportunities.

"The Bayaka in CAR live in extreme poverty and they have to resort to begging. The children are also exposed to many illnesses," said Messe Venant, a local coordinator in Cameroon at Forest People's Programme (FPP), an NGO dedicated to supporting indigenous rights. Venant, who is Baka (a term used to refer to the Bayaka community in Cameroon), added that the Bayaka in CAR were also subject to extreme racism.

Sarno, who has lived with a Bayaka community in CAR for over 30 years, corroborated this.

"The other Africans tend to think of them as subhuman, or belonging to the animal rather than the human world. There's a lot of inbred prejudice against them," he said to me as we sat in a café in Oxford.

In 2013, I met Sarno at a screening of the film Song from the Forest—a documentary that explores his unconventional lifestyle—at the Pitt Rivers Museum. His decision to live permanently with the Bayaka in CAR, in the face of health scares including Hepatitis and malaria as well as civil conflict, made me curious about his story.

A gentle, soft-spoken American, Sarno first learned of the Bayaka's existence through a song he heard on the radio while living in Amsterdam in the early 1980s. Entranced by their polyphonic music—which featured a chorus of voices overlaid with instruments—Sarno listened to vinyl records and trawled through books at the public library to find out more about the Bayaka. His interest grew until he eventually decided he wanted to listen to the music in its rainforest context and record it himself. Sarno wrote to British-American anthropologist Colin Turnbull, who'd chronicled his experiences of recording the music of the Mbuti hunter-gatherers in Zaire in The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo, to request advice.

Months passed without a response. But one day, as Sarno hitched a ride from a friend he was living with in Scotland, he spotted an envelope sticking out of the car's side compartment and discovered a letter addressed to him from Turnbull. It advised him to apply to the Swan Fund for the "studies of the small peoples of Africa" at the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University. Sarno applied, received £700 ($900), and spent the winter preparing his trip. It was 1984.

"My friends thought I was kind of crazy," said Sarno. "It did seem weird—I was living in a caravan in Scotland surrounded by snow, and I was making an itinerary to go to Central Africa."

"I filled a 90-minute cassette, and I took it out and said, 'Thank you very much, that was very beautiful,' and one of the men said, 'Do you have any more cassettes?"

During the first few days, Sarno rented a small house and made excursions into villages in search of sounds to record. He finally found one particular Bayaka community living relatively near the small town of Bayanga. But his efforts to gain friends and record authentic Bayaka melodies were initially rebuffed. He met with disappointment and frustration as the people whose music he'd idealized didn't seem so keen to perform for him.

"The Bayaka wanted someone to party with and someone who could buy them alcohol and tobacco—they weren't showing me anything; they were just having their parties," said Sarno.

According to John Nelson, the FPP's former Africa Regional Coordinator—who has undertaken fieldwork with various indigenous groups in the region—the Bayaka have always interacted eagerly with outsiders as it is customary for them to trade and barter. But when Sarno first rocked up in CAR he didn't know much about local customs, and after a few weeks, his reserves and patience dried up.

"That's when I remember saying, 'You guys aren't so great, and your music isn't so good either,'" Sarno added. He recalled being ready to leave the camp the next day. But as night fell, a group of children offset a polyphonic chorus joined in by the adults.

"The melodies were different to what I'd heard before. I filled a 90-minute cassette, and I took it out and said, 'Thank you very much, that was very beautiful,' and one of the men said, 'Do you have any more cassettes? Put in another one because we're not finished yet,'" recalled Sarno.

The chorus culminated in a Boyobi ceremony, when women sing to spirits that bless forthcoming hunts in the rainforest. It was unlike anything Sarno had heard before. The impromptu performance lasted till dawn.

"It's like you can hear the forest in their music," said Sarno. "My relationship with them changed that night. I knew I could never leave when I heard that, or that if I couldn't stay, I would have to come back."

At first, Sarno travelled between the Central African Republic and Europe to renew his visa, stock up on new cassettes, and deposit his most recent recordings at the museum. But when he received a contract to write a book about his experiences of living with the Bayaka, he applied for a CAR residency permit, and stayed permanently with the community from 1988 onwards. In 2005, he was granted Central African Republic citizenship.

Over the decades, Sarno has assumed multiple identities within the Bayaka community. He had a son with a Bayaka woman (who is now his ex-wife), has outlived many of his friends, and even acted as a mediator for the Bayaka in times of difficulty. His life with them inspired Oka!, a feature film, and more recently, Song from the Forest.

These days, Sarno is critical of his first years with the Bayaka and has disowned the autobiography that he wrote in the late 1980s, calling it naive and shallow. Sarno's presence as a tall white westerner living among the Bayaka may seem incongruous to skeptical outsiders. However, Nelson from the FPP, who has conducted research on the Bayaka's situation in CAR, explained that Sarno sees himself as their equal.

"Louis doesn't want to be an advocate [for the Bayaka], he's just living his life. Bayaka culture is very egalitarian, and he's adopted it in a sense that he doesn't put himself above anyone else," explained Nelson. "Sometimes I'm surprised when I hear that Louis is still alive—he's suffered terrible health problems. To be fair, not many people from America end up living in a Bayaka community for over 30 years. He's just part of the family and landscape, he's just one of their gang."

Sarno, too, is adamant that his place is with his Bayaka friends and family.

"I'm definitely part of their community—whether they like it or not, that's how it is," Sarno said softly. "Though I always feel a little bit of an outsider still."

It was his outsider status, however, that earned Sarno notoriety far beyond the rainforest of CAR.

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Sarno inside his home in the rainforest. Image: Song from the Forest

As a student, Lobley had encountered Sarno's name in a few overproduced commercial recordings of Bayaka music. He even read Sarno's book, Song from the Forest: My Life Among the Ba-Benjelle Pygmies, all without realizing how strongly connected Sarno was to Oxford. In 2005, after he found Sarno's jumbled cache of over 1,000 hours of forgotten, nearly-discarded Bayaka recordings in the storeroom at the Pitt Rivers, Lobley excitedly fired off an email to Sarno, explaining how he wanted to curate and revive 20-years-worth of diligent sound documentation. Despite their frequent email exchanges, it took Lobley and Sarno four years to finally meet.

In 2011, Lobley and Sarno's joint efforts became part of the Reel 2 Reel project—an open online platform at the Pitt Rivers Museum that charted some of Sarno's best recordings. It is, as Lobley puts it, "accessible soundbites and user-friendly playlists that draw people into the sheer wealth of the material."

The project focused on storing Sarno's master tapes and digitizing them to create a searchable collection. In April 2012, Lobley invited Sarno to the museum and the pair spent weekends playing the records so that Sarno could help Lobley correctly identify the different soundscapes.

Sarno and Lobley's ongoing project to preserve the Bayaka's indigenous languages and oral tradition is similar to the efforts of Alan Lomax, an ethnomusicologist and folklorist who recorded thousands of songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song and Hugh Tracey, an ethnomusicologist who archived music from Southern and Central Africa. But whereas Lomas and Tracey went out on short field trips and focused on recording the best examples of sound and song within the communities they researched, Sarno—who never trained as an anthropologist or musicologist—is more comparable to a soundscape artist, who immerses himself in a new environment, capturing the broader environmental soundscape as well as individual songs and sounds. What makes Sarno's collection unique is that he ended up staying permanently with the Bayaka, capturing their evolving soundscape over an entire generation.

In recent years, Lobley has looked for innovative ways of drawing on the archive's materials. For example, he set up a livestream between Sarno and his Bayaka friends and family from CAR and audiences at the Pitt Rivers as they experienced the music reverberating amidst the museum's different collections. And since the release of the documentary Song from the Forest, Lobley has also hosted a screening, inviting Sarno back to Oxford in 2013 to answer questions on his life's work, and his sound collection.

Then came a brutal civil war.

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Bayaka children in a makeshift refugee camp in the rainforest. Image: Louis Sarno/Pitt Rivers Museum

In December 2012, civil war broke out between the Séléka rebel forces and the government in CAR. The conflict spilled over into Yadoumbé—a Bayaka settlement that Sarno had helped found over the years—forcing around 600 Bayaka to seek shelter deep within the rainforest.

At the time, Lobley was still digitizing Sarno's sound collection as well as receiving new recordings from him. He lost contact with Sarno for three months as the civil war intensified. Deep in the rainforest, the Bayaka had split up into smaller groups of 20 as they sat out the war in makeshift encampments. The conflict even infiltrated their songs.

"During the Boyobi ceremony, there would be some spirits who were like the Séléka. They wore these shoulder pads and had guns, and we'd get a laugh out of them, but it was the spirit Séléka—they were just one of the spirits in the music," said Sarno.

By 2013, the conflict died down in the area where Sarno lived with the Bayaka, allowing them to make their way back to Yadoumbé. Though they escaped the physical violence, Sarno lost material possessions with sentimental value. As the Séléka rampaged through towns and villages, they'd overturned his home, destroying a hard drive containing photographs of his trips to Congo, the books that he'd been writing for four years, and a collection of notes that the Bayaka had sent him over the decades. Poignantly, the Séléka had crushed a flute that had belonged to the last Bayaka who had known how to play and make it.

When things fall apart, it is often the feeling of irreversible damage that is the hardest to overcome. And according to Sarno, since the conflict's inception, things haven't been the same in CAR.

"The whole country is a mess now," he lamented. "The Bayaka don't feel as safe as they used to. The forest was their world, they were the kings and queens of that domain, but now they're living on edge."

The Bayaka face challenges on all fronts. While the civil war has destabilised the peace in CAR, the presence of logging companies and the illegal poaching of smaller mammals that the Bayaka depend on for food have all impacted their rainforest home and ancient ways of life.

"Their traditions are being lost because of the degradation of the forest," added Sarno.

Nelson corroborated Sarno's view regarding the repercussions of the civil war and conservation. He asserted that Sarno's presence had helped the Bayaka in Yadoumbé keep some of their ancient practices alive.

"Yadoumbé is the Bayaka community which has retained the most of their forest traditions," said Nelson. "Louis spends his whole time trying to build up the Bayaka's traditions so that they feel proud of them."

Venant said Sarno was a "rare example" of someone who immersed himself fully in the Bayaka's culture, helping them to preserve their heritage. "I hope Sarno continues doing what he does," he said.

Both Nelson and UCL anthropologist Jerome Lewis explained that the CAR government had granted certain logging companies and conservation organisations such as the WWF rights to occupy areas of the rainforests, while banning the Bayaka from key hunting and gathering lands. One of the WWF's goals is to protect elephants and gorillas from poaching, but Lewis said that the loss of forest access made it more difficult for young Bayaka community members to learn forest skills.

"That's why I talk of conservation as resulting in a kind of cultural genocide by forbidding people access to the landscapes that they require to pass on the extraordinary knowledge that they have of the forest," he said. "You're killing off one of the most ancient cultures on the Earth."

Johannes Kirchgatter, the World Wide Fund for Nature's Africa Program officer, recognized that restricting the Bayaka's access to the rainforest didn't help their situation. He said, however, that in recent years, the WWF had started to focus equally on working with indigenous communities and conserving wildlife and nature. Kirchgatter asserted that failure to protect areas of the rainforest affected not just the Bayaka, but other communities too.

"If you opened up all of the protected areas for hunting, it would not only be the Bayaka who move in—that wouldn't be a problem because they know how to use the forest sustainably—but others could go hunting there too, and within a very short time the forest would be completely empty and the Bayaka would be in a much worse situation than they are right now," said Kirchgatter.

"You need to balance that and find lasting solutions to make sure that the Bayaka can find all the resources they need in the long run."

Sarno's house in the rainforest. Image: Louis Sarno

Since 2012, numerous health scares have forced Sarno to leave the Bayaka temporarily and return to the US for check-ups and treatment. With his health in decline, he seems to err between wanting to stay with his beloved community and moving back to a small place in New Jersey where he would have better access to medical services.

Yet his reservations never last long.

In 2015, I received an email from Sarno, telling me that he'd finally managed to procure the wood to finish building his new home in the rainforest for him, his son Samedi, and the rest of his Bayaka family. These days, I occasionally see photographs of Sarno in his new house, or a gigantic bug that he has photographed, appear on my Facebook feed. The posts indicate he has no intention of leaving behind his jungle home.

Sarno, however, is realistic about his age and deteriorating health.

"I can't take on the responsibility of the community anymore. I don't have the same kind of energy that I had before, and I'm very concerned about the Bayaka," he told me.

Baka FPP coordinator Venant, who has never met Sarno but heard of his legacy from Bayaka friends in CAR, echoed Sarno's concerns.

"I would like Louis to keep doing what he is doing for the Bayaka who he lives with. My concern is that he trains others so that they can keep his work going," said Venant.

Sarno adamantly wants the preservation of his sound archive to continue so that it can be accessible to all for posterity. Both he and Lobley want the collection to retain its relevance in the modern age. But above all, the pair want to revitalise how sound collections can help maintain symbiotic relations with the museums that house them and the source communities that entrust them with their heritage.

"In some ways, the Reel 2 Reel project only began to scratch the surface of what delivery was possible. I strongly believe that it's what can be done to this resource which makes it so world-class as well," said Lobley.

Lobley is currently collaborating with videographers and other anthropologists who work with Bayaka communities with a view to designing longer-term projects with Sarno.

"We're thinking of how to go beyond just providing an audio record. What matters is what you can do with it," he said. He added that this would entail developing more cultural programs and finding sponsors who would support the Bayaka in playing a more active role in their archive's preservation and use into the future. This could include distributing equipment that would allow the Bayaka to listen to their own music, or listen to reinterpretations of their music made by other people. Another example, said Lobley, would be to teach the Bayaka to use video cameras so that they could self-represent social problems such as alcoholism or other concerns that are affecting their communities.

"Distributing iPods just so that the Bayaka can listen to their archive in the camps and villages would be an effective way of reminding them of their rich cultural heritage, but without access to good forest, their way of life will not survive," said Lewis.

Back home in CAR, Sarno—who still can only access the internet at the offices of the World Wide Fund for Nature—insists that along with improving the Bayaka's access to the rainforest, education, and healthcare, he wants to bridge the digital divide. He hopes to raise the funds to install wifi in the Bayaka village so that they can have a wider exchange with the outside world. He wants people to see the different characters in the village, hear some of their music, and help the Bayaka retain an awareness of the richness of their past.

"We have to preserve as much of our past as we can as that's how we know who we are," said Sarno.

"I love them [the Bayaka] so much. I just don't want them to disappear without a trace."