History of Baka Gbiné

In a rain forest you are surrounded by the natural world.  Sound becomes your primary means of navigation and your strongest sense.

The Baka, hunter-gatherer Pygmy people, live in the forests of the Congo basin. In their world of dense green they have always been dependent on listening for survival and are renowned throughout Africa for their music and spiritual dance - "The Dancers of the Gods" as the Pharaohs called them.

They are now using their skill at music and dance to make a living in today's world.

In spite of living in a remote forest the Baka have always been interested in the outside world, and especially its music.  In 1992 when Baka Beyond's Martin Cradick and Su Hart first visited a family near the Cameroon - Congo border they found Baka musicians already mixing the Makossa and Soukous they had heard on the radio with their traditional rhythms.

The Baka's music was so full of their generosity of spirit and joy of life that Martin and Su wanted to bring that spirit back home to Britain. In 1993 they created the band Baka Beyond, mixing the chants and rhythms of the Baka with the songs and melodies of their own Celtic roots.  The album "Spirit of the Forest" was released alongside an album of traditional Baka music, "Heart of the Forest". Both albums sold worldwide and so started a lifelong cooperation between these 2 British musicians and an extended family of Baka Pygmies from a small village called Banana, 500Km from the nearest tarmac'd road and 10km from the Congo-Cameroon frontier.

Martin and Su returned to the Baka family many times, each time adding a guitar to the Baka's collection. Several young Baka men have now become very proficient guitar players. At the same time multi-tracking recording technology was becoming smaller and more portable and by 2004 Martin began multitracking the Baka songs live in a specially cleared space under a giant tree. The result, "Gati Bongo", was released in 2006. The songs and guitar playing of the Baka Pygmies could now be shared with the rest of the world and the band, "Orchéstre Baka Gbiné", was born. The lucky people who have discovered Gati Bongo on iTunes have been touched by the pure enlightening spirit of the music and have kept it in the iTunes World charts since its release. Listen to Gati Bongo

In February 2012 Martin Cradick again set up a recording studio deep in the forest and recorded 9 more songs.  Mixed and mastered back in Britain, the new album, "Kopolo" was digitally released in autumn 2012. The CD is being released at the beginning of March 2013.listen to Kopolo

Situation now in Baka Gbiné's village

Over the last 20 years Moloundou, the nearest town, has turned from a sleepy place at the edge of Cameroon into a busy hub of trade. Whereas in the 1990s there was no electricity and no telephones, in the 21st century European football, French soaps and game shows, advertisements for flash cars and world news are all beamed into the television sets of the bars that also pump out the current central African hits into the streets. Meanwhile a boom in the cocoa trade has drawn young refugees from all over Africa to come and make a living.  The lucky ones get their own piece of rainforest to turn into a cocoa plantation.

The Cameroon government encourages the Baka to settle in the villages along the roadside. 10 years ago this wasn't so bad for them. They liked the contact with the outside world - the motorbikes, the music and new things in town, but as the immigrant population has grown, pushed out from war zones in Congo and enticed by the chance of a quick fortune in the growing cocoa plantations and logging companies, the cost of basic foods has risen sharply. Meanwhile the Baka's access to their traditional hunting and gathering territory is being severely limited by conservationists, safari operators, plantations and logging. Whereas when they are living in the forest they live a hard life, but a free life with self respect, the best they can hope for living by the roadside is to be the menial labour force at the bottom of the pile. The worst they can get doesn't bear thinking about, but drugs, prostitution, alcoholism and abject poverty are all waiting for them. By the roadside there is the constant temptation of buying, not just alcohol, but also a nice hot meal, but the price for that would be more than a day's wages for a Baka.

The Baka's forest home is right now being carved up by the government, international mineral companies, logging companies and conservationists as well as the local farmers. None of them see the Baka as anything more than an inconvenience who,  if given a hut by the side of the road, are thought to have been more than adequately compensated. But what are they supposed to live on?  Although they have an absolute right under Cameroon law to hunt throughout the forest for their own subsistence, on the ground they are told that they are not allowed to hunt in many of the best areas. If caught they can be beaten up, have their houses burned down and worse. In the end the law is what those given the power to enforce it say it is.

The discrimination against the Baka is akin to that against freed slaves in the American south 100 years ago. They are caught between being encouraged/forced out of their traditional hunting areas and becoming 3rd class citizens at the bottom of a pile where even those near the top are very poor. (Those at the very top of course are mega rich).

Solutions to their problems?

So what is the solution to this dire situation? As long as the Baka have access to the forest they still have some choice over their future. Once this access is lost their culture won't be able to survive as it is one with the forest. Any solution that takes away their access is no solution at all. They are given much propaganda that their traditional way of life is primitive and that they live "like animals" in the forest. This is hard for them to stand up against. Like every other human being they want respect from others and for themselves. If every day you are told that your way of life is bestial and primitive you lose your self respect.

The Baka see television in the bars in Moloundou and aspire to being able to have a motorbike to earn a living as a taxi bike.  This is natural and it's certainly not for us to tell them that they are wrong in wanting these things. But there are many people who want to get their hands on their land and use these desires to disenfranchise them. Most would happily give up all their rights to and for a motorbike with no thought of the fact that after a couple of years at most in that terrain it would have fallen into disrepair if it hadn't already been pawned for some money for a child's medicine or one more drink. Then they are left with nothing.

The Baka need to be given the chance to advance in the modern world, if that's what they want, without losing the choice of remaining in the forest. Their are plenty of possibilities IF people are prepared to give them the opportunity. No one knows the forest like they do. They know who enters and who leaves. Who has caught what animal, who has found what mineral. If the conservationists were really serious about protecting these forests they would not be banning Baka from hunting them, but working with them.

When walking back from a fishing camp 10km from Gbiné Pelembir,  Baka Gbiné's lead singer, said "there used to be many gorillas in this part of the forest 20 years ago, but now there's just one old male left." Ndongo, a percussionist and dancer, then said, "no, a family has recently moved into this area and seems to be settling". The Baka know what's going on! These skills can't be replaced by arming ecoguards to stop poachers. Half of them end up in their pay! The Baka, however, see the forest as their home and understand that it needs to be protected for their children and their children's children.  Similarly, if the Cameroon government are serious about securing their border with Congo they couldn't do better than employing the Baka as guardians. They know who's coming in and out.

What GME does

The Baka have always used music for their survival and now they continue to do so.  The ability to earn some money through music empowers the Baka.  The charity Global Music Exchange (GME), set up to get the money earned from music back to the Baka, are setting up an education project that will enable the Baka children to both continue through the Cameroon school system while still being able to follow their parents into the forest and learn the vital forest skills.  Force all the children to go to school every day and they will soon forget forest skills, but prevent them from going to school and you take away the choice of them learning to live and succeed in the modern world. GME have devised a system where the Baka children can catch up on education missed while in the forest at the times when they are in the village and so learn forest activities with their parents without having to give up the prospect of mainstream education.

GME Education Project

Other projects that GME have set up include:

  • Building a timber-framed "music house" in the forest
  • Building a rainwater harvestIng system to prolong access to water
  • Getting national ID cards for the Baka
  • Helping with basic health care
  • Helping the Baka children go to school
  • Forming a Baka association (Gbiné) to help secure land rights.

Updates

In September 2012 we had to send about £500 to Cameroon to pay for past medical expenses and to pay for 3 hernia operations. When we asked why there were suddenly so many hernias (we have paid for 5 others over the last couple of years) we were told, "its the cocoa harvest season".

The cocoa is put into 100kg sacks and even with 2 people carrying these it is too much for their small frames. The Baka are tough and strong, but the numbers of hernias shows that this is not acceptable. In UK now cement comes in 25kg sacks so that people don't have to carry 50kg sacks (let alone 100kg sacks). Something to remember when enjoying some chocolate!

On 24 September 2012 we heard that little Sobi (who can be seen dancing in many of our Baka videos) died in childbirth. We are trying to improve their healthcare, and the local nurse says that he has seen their general health improve dramatically over the last few years that we have been working with them, but still about 1/4 of children die before their 5th birthday and stories such as Sobi's are all too common.

At the beginning of November we heard that Pelembir's second son Renault had died. When we arrived at Gbiné two weeks later we discovered that it was suicide! He was nearly 18 years old. With Baka being kicked out of the forest, being discriminated by everyone in the towns and seeing no future except addiction, prostitution and poverty, what has a young Baka man to look forward to? Like Sobi, he was a brilliant dancer. We are lobbying government and NGOs to get the Baka a better future. Buying their music helps them a lot.


having a break

home for the Baka

"Big Tree Studio"

recording Gati Bongo

drinking water from a leaf cup

Waito, Ndjimbo and Ndongo

the music house, Gbiné

Baka moto taxi

ready for school

learning the dances

hairdressing

Sobi dancing in 2008


All royalties earned from the sale of the Baka's music goes to them via the registered charity, Global Music Exchange, so be sure that if you buy their music you are making a difference!

You can make a donation to Global Music Exchange using the button below:

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