Forest Voices: Baka musicians’ ambitious tour of Cameroon

Forest Voices: Baka musicians’ ambitious tour of Cameroon

Baka musicians have just completed an ambitious tour of southern Cameroon with support from the FPP/OKANI EU Cameroon project. 

For over a decade, UK-based Global Music Exchange (GME) has been working with Orchestre Baka Gbiné, a Baka group of musicians from the rainforest of south-east Cameroon. Their 2006 release Gati Bongo is still in the iTunes World charts, and a Channel 2 documentary about them is regularly shown on Cameroon television.

Orchestre Baka Gbiné is the only entirely Baka band in Cameroon, and is well known throughout Baka communities in the country. GME had already run a pilot “Forest Voices Tour” in 2014 with the orchestra. That tour visited five Baka villages for a series of concerts followed by a film show in each community. The Baka are marginalised and discriminated against by Bantu farmers and local authorities for being ‘Pygmies’. So GME also gave an opportunity to anyone in the communities who wanted to, to speak to camera about the issues they are facing.

Communities around several protected areas, such as the Dja Reserve in south-east Cameroon, can no longer live their traditional lives in the forest and are forced to live in roadside villages. Seeing an all Baka band, and hearing Baka speak articulately on film about problems they all share, was therefore hugely empowering.

Because the first tour had only reached a small number of communities, this second tour in December 2015 was much more ambitious, planning to include villages across a vast area of south-east Cameroon, linked by rough unpaved roads, often blocked by broken down timber lorries, deep mud or broken bridges.

FPP and OKANI, a Bertoua-based Baka NGO, supported the tour by providing transport and contributing to the musicians’ expenses. FPP was keen for the musicians to visit communities in the Ngoyla-Mintom forest massif in the South where a large iron ore mine and a proposed 500km railway to the Atlantic threaten to have a huge impact on forest communities. OKANI suggested several other Baka communities in the South including Assok where a Baka cultural festival was taking place. Having been told that the logging road connecting Ngoila and Mbalam was passable, a route from Abong Mbang via Lomie to Djoum was devised, returning via Yaounde where a last concert could be held.

The tour had a few problems at the start. At the last minute, the Sous Préfet of Moloundou decided not to provide travel documents to cover the musicians who did not have ID cards (which are apparently impossible to obtain in Moloundou because too many end up in the hands of CAR refugees). The Gbine and GME group set off anyway and explained its way through road checks to Yokadouma where, after 24 hours delay, the Préfet finally provided a fine collection of stamped letters as a “Laissez Passer” [travel document]!

The delay meant the first concert had to be cancelled. Then a broken clutch meant having to drive through the night to Mintom, arriving 12 hours late. A few stragglers who had been waiting all night flagged the bus down and this soon brought people from their homes. Not wishing to let down such a faithful public the band set up in the open space between the houses and the road and gave a great, if slightly tired, first concert at about 8.30 in the morning. Though daylight prevented the film screening, a couple of interviews were filmed before repacking and loading the bus for the next stop at Bosquet near the Dja Reserve.

From then on, all the concerts went to plan. The attraction of seeing Baka musicians who many had heard of, and even seen on television, ensured that all concerts were well attended despite the small village locations. After the music was over the largely Baka audience were held spellbound by GME’s collection of films that were all in Baka and included traditional stories, films of traditional Baka life, people discussing current situations as well as music videos with Baka taking part. Some were even filmed in the same communities where they were being projected. To hear and see other Baka openly discussing the problems they all share was hugely empowering and encouraged people to record their own views for others to hear.

The tour also provided an opportunity for the Baka musicians to network with other Baka communities. Ideas were shared and news passed around in the age-old tradition of performers as news bearers. It was also interesting to observe the similarities and differences between the different communities. In all of the communities the Baka were subservient to the Bantu population, but the degree varied considerably. The villages in the South, particularly between Mbalam and Djoum, had noticeably more wild meat, showing that the Baka there have more access to forest hunting than those further east, around the Dja reserve and the Moloundou area which includes the Lobeke, and the Boumba Bek and Nki national parks. Incidents in the towns of Abong Mbang, Yokadouma and Ayos, also made the group acutely aware of the racist attitudes of many town people towards the Baka.

On balance though, it was a very positive experience for all involved, with warm welcomes in all the communities, new friendships and new connections between communities. A ray of hope was planted by the Baka themselves in many Baka minds.

GME will be working with the video and audio recordings made during the tour over the next few months. 2014 tour material and other Baka music can be found at:

Global Music Exchange website: http://globalmusicexchange.org/

Forest Voices Tour website: http://forestvoices.com/

Baka videos on the Baka Beyond YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/bakabeyond

In 2016, FPP and Association Okani are starting a new EU ENRTP-funded action in the East region with the Gbine community and several other Baka communities around Mambelé to strengthen community governance, respect for customary tenure and use rights, and monitoring any infringement of those rights by protected areas, infrastructure projects, logging concessions, and REDD+ projects.