Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest

Recorded in the late 1950s, this Smithsonian Folkways album became a favorite for this listener when bought on its CD reissue in 1992.  This was because the way in which the album was recorded and edited was immersive.  The ambient sounds of the Ituri rainforest in what is now The Democratic Republic of Congo is an essential part of the simple, but profoundly affecting, music-making of the Mbuti.  Their story is even more poignant given the turmoil and tragedy experienced by these people in the decades since these recordings were made.  The Congo and the situation of the Mbuti can be read about in many places, including this 2005 National Geographic piece here.

Consequently, this album takes on a greater significance because of what it documented before Congo degenerated into its current state.  The vivid sounds of the rainforest are brought forth throughout and a variety of songs relating to hunting elephants, gathering honey, engaging in ritual dance, holding tribal initiations, and so forth open a window into a little-known and threatened society.

Flutes, a hunting bow played like a jawharp with the mouth, and a variety of choral performances and chants are the centerpieces of this album, with the last fifteen minutes devoted to the sacred ritual of molimo, in which the centrality of the rainforest to the worldview of the Mbuti is honored.  A long, hollowed out piece of wood, like a trumpet and also called a molimo, is used as an instrument in which to sing during such festivities as a fire dance.

Western music tends to emphasize an abstract formality, in which the performance of music is presented in contrived settings.  This is not to be seen as a criticism, but merely as an observance of how far "advanced civilizations" have moved from the genesis of music as part and parcel of everyday activities among pre-literate societies. 

Yet, there are still parts of the world, like the remote Ituri rainforest of northeastern Congo, where, with all the threats and destruction, there are some people, like the Mbuti, who are still connected to music in an aboriginal form, as a part of everyday activities celebrating the forest, animals, hunting, food gathering and religious/spiritual ritual.

Obviously, listening to an album like this gives only a glimpse into that world, but it is a fascinating one.  Over twenty years after the first hearing, this blogger still is awestruck by the plain beauty of the rainforest setting and in the way the Mbuti utilize music as part of the view of their unique world.

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