Africa: The Ba-Benzélé Pygmies

    -- CD + 30-page booklet by Simha Arom. Rounder Records 5107, 1998.

The Ba-Benzélé “Pygmies” 1 (of Cameroon and Central African Republic) have great musical rejoicing when returning from a hunt (track 5). Likewise, I have great rejoicing that this special recording has been reissued on CD. It was originally released on LP in the 1970s and had a big impact on people seeking to learn about African musics (including myself).

The music of the first track is an amazing one-person “duet” that alternates whistle blowing with singing, yodeling, and yelping.2 This piece of music has appeared on a record where the American percussionist of the Herbie Hancock group used it to begin a song. Unfortunately, he directly ripped off this song and did not mention its source. A President of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Dr. Ruth Stone, has commented negatively on the shameful fact that the originators of the music (the Pygmies) never received any
royalties, or even written credit on the million-selling Headhunters LP.

But if Hancock did it wrong, Simha Arom did it right in his production. He not only gives proper credits, but includes lengthy informative notes and eleven photos. The recording has superb sound quality and music that ranges from solo lullabies to hunting songs, and a lament to group polyphony, with complexity always present. “The voices are freely superimposed, always in a coherent manner and prompted solely by an extraordinary musical intuition.” Even one voice creates the illusion of multiple musical lines.3 The recording also includes five folktales performed in a musical fashion. Dr. Simha Arom has been studying Central African musics for decades (he literally wrote the book on it), and his attention to details and to the overall picture is appreciated.

One writer states that, “Pygmy music is the most sublime on Earth,” and I’m inclined to agree. A number of “ethnic pop” artists such as Baka Beyond, Deep Forest and Zap Mama continue to integrate Pygmy music into their own creations. If you’ve never heard the source music, this CD comes highly recommended.

Samples can be heard at


1 This term now has derogatory connotations but was commonplace when the recording was originally produced.
2 The musical synthesis is termed “hindewhu.”
3 This illusion of solo simultaneous melodies somewhat resembles parts of the Unaccompanied Cello Suites by Bach.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.2, No.1 of

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Artists in Christian Testimony