Music Of Bayaka Pygmies Featured In New Film

Robert Siegel interviews filmmaker Lavinia Currier about the music used in her film Oka!, which depicts the journey of Louis Sarno, who traveled to the Central African Republic as an ethnomusicologist to record the music of the Bayaka pygmies. Like Sarno, the Oka! film crew traveled to the Central African Republic with sound engineer Chris Berry, who developed a portable sound studio specifically for recording music in the field. Berry taught the Bayaka how to use multi-tracking equipment to compose their own songs.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Now, a new movie that does a very good job with a familiar old theme - man from economically developed, formerly known as civilized world, goes off to live and find meaning in traditional, formerly known as primitive society. The movie is "Oka." The society in question is a clan of Bayaka pygmies who live in the Central African Republic and what elevates this twist on the old trope is the stunning music of the pygmies, their voices...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: ...and their use of virtually everything around them, trees, even the water in the stream, as musical instruments.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: "Oka" is very much based on the story of Louis Sarno, an American musicologist originally from Newark, New Jersey, whom I interviewed almost 20 years ago about his life among the Babenzele pygmies, a people in transition.

LOUIS SARNO: Their society is still based on hunting and gathering. Most other peoples around them are already agriculture-based societies.

SIEGEL: In the movie, based on Sarno's quarter of a century living among the pygmies, it's not just his character, Larry, who returns to nature. It's also the pygmies themselves. Filmmaker Lavinia Currier directed and co-wrote "Oka" and joins us now.

Welcome to the program and congratulations.

LAVINIA CURRIER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: What does oka mean?

CURRIER: Oka means listen in the Bayaka language, Aka.

SIEGEL: Speaking of the Bayaka language, the character of Larry is played by Kris Marshall and most of his dialog with the Bayaka is in their language. Did he learn the language?

CURRIER: He did, very proudly.

SIEGEL: Aka is the name of the language.

CURRIER: It is. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OKA")

KRIS MARSHALL: (as Larry) So when do we leave for the forest? (Foreign Language Spoken).

SIEGEL: So we see much of it in subtitles - what happens in the movie. You're also directing the Bayaka who are played by the Bayaka.

CURRIER: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Obviously, they're new to acting in a movie, but they seem to be pretty talented.

CURRIER: They're performers. You know, their tradition is, at the end of every day, to sort of recoup the day with storytelling and singing and dancing, and so they were naturals.

SIEGEL: There's a scene in which a local farmer, who is not a pygmy - he would be called a bantu by the Bayaka - he has a fight with them about whether they've done enough work for their pay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OKA")

SIEGEL: It looked to me like it almost could have been a documentary. It seemed very real. Was the farmer a professional actor?

CURRIER: He wasn't. We cast him, also, locally in the village among the bantu, but what happened in that scene is that the Bayaka got very excited. You know, they were very happy to be able to express themselves in a safe environment because they're extremely marginalized. So when that happened, the scene just took off.

SIEGEL: You have to describe the situation of the Bayaka. They are a minority in the Central African Republic. Formerly, they were truly a forest people. Their environment is under threat and their social situation is threatened from the get-go.

CURRIER: That's correct. I mean, they're among the most ancient people on earth, being related to the San bushmen and the original inhabitants of Africa and they remain hunter-gatherers, which is an extremely rare and precarious situation because what's happening now is that the bush meat trade is increasing and the animals that they depend on for survival are being hunted out. So it's becoming less and less easy for them to survive in the forest and they're thrown back in the village, where they're prey to economic exploitation and alcohol and disease and less nutrition.

SIEGEL: The truly bad guys in this story are the corrupt mayor and the Chinese logging company that is in the process of clear-cutting the forest. First of all, did the government of Central African Republic approve of and assist you in making this film, which doesn't cast their state in an all together positive light?

CURRIER: They did, in a way. They feel proud of the Dzanga-Sangha preserve, which is in the southern part of the country, one of the safer areas of Central African Republic. We had a lot of problems with government folks coming down and stopping filming. You know, gangs of guys with AK47s would say, stop filming until you give us more money for this department or that department.

So that was a bit of drama, but in the end, they were supportive. It's a coproduction with the Central African Republic and we went back and showed it both to the Bayaka and to the government, even the president, and they were very enthused about that film being shown.

SIEGEL: The Bayaka, as Louis Sarno told us almost 20 years ago here, are not a pristine people by any means. They have encountered village life and alcohol and all kinds of positive and negative things about the modern world. Were they familiar with movies before this?

CURRIER: No. I was very gratified when they said that's the best movie we'd ever seen, when we showed it. And, of course, it was the only movie they had ever seen.

SIEGEL: Now, the music of the pygmies is sensational and we're not just talking about ethnological field recordings anymore. The CD, "Listen, Oka," which has the music from the movie on it, is the result of a sound engineer - not just Louis Sarno, but someone else traveling there and introducing sophisticated recording techniques.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CURRIER: The composer, Chris Berry, who's himself a student of African music and a master drummer, went back with us and asked the Bayaka if they'd be interested in doing some what he called radio cues, more modern cues. And the women just lined up and these women dream their songs. In fact, one of the women who worked on our crew said, I was in the forest camping with my husband, I woke up dreaming the song and my husband was singing the same song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CURRIER: So they brought these songs to Chris Berry and the first time they'd ever heard themselves on earphones, they were just laying down tracks one after the other.

SIEGEL: Tell me about the track on the CD that we hear in the film. It's "Bottlefunk Girls."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTTLEFUNK GIRLS")

CURRIER: "Bottlefunk Girls" was written by the girls. The boys are playing plastic bottles with water in them and the girls are doing the vocals, so it was the children of the village from age three to 14 were playing on that track.

SIEGEL: I mean, the impression one comes away with in the movie is that, if we left a few random objects around the forest floor somewhere and the Bayaka found them, somehow, within some period of time, they would figure out how to make music with them.

CURRIER: They play everything. In fact, they invented a new instrument from some pipe that was lying around in the village and they were both blowing on it and beating it at the same time and getting a kind of kazoo sound. They start music when they're two years old and the word eboka(ph) is the same for music and dance, so they don't distinguish between dancing and singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You come away from this feeling that in another 25 or 27 years, however long it's been since Louis Sarno took off for Central Africa, that there will still be people living at least part of the time in the forest and hunting and gathering or have you captured the twilight of a small civilization?

CURRIER: I think we have to realize that these people are not vanishing of their own accord. And we're driving them out of their habitat with logging, with our appetite for resource and it's not just Americans or Europeans, also Chinese. I think it's very delicate. I'm not sure there will be people living as hunter-gatherers in 25 years.

SIEGEL: Well, Lavinia Currier, thank you very much for talking with us about your film, "Oka."

CURRIER: Thank you, Robert.

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