Martin Cradick & Baka Beyond:
Music worth eating caterpillars for

Martin Cradick never dreamed his music career would lead to eating caterpillars.

But when a musician submerges himself in a culture the way Cradick has with the Bangombi, a Baka pygmy tribe of southeast Cameroon, one adapts to the menu at hand.

"Probably hunger had a lot to do with it," Cradick, a native Brit, admitted. "But I do live pretty much as they do."

Cradick and his band, Baka Beyond, combines Celtic/European and African styles in a unique fusion of world-music sounds. Cradick, who played guitar with the rock-heavy world-fusion band Outback in the 1980s, said his passion for African music dates back to Fela Anikulapo Kuti's 1981 album Black President. A TV documentary on the Baka pygmies aired in the late '80s -- featuring field recordings from the 1950s -- helped narrow his focus.

"I started out playing rock music, but I never quite felt at home in it," Cradick said during a telephone interview from his studio in England.

"Rock music tends to get its excitement from competitiveness -- the lead guitar battling it with the synthesizer or something," he said. "African music is much more cooperative. Everyone has a part. Certainly with Baka, there's no concept of the band and the audience, because everyone's involved in it. Even the children -- there's no sense of elitism."

Baka Beyond comprises musicians from Britain, Brittany, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Ghana, as well as natives from Cameroon, a small nation neighboring Nigeria and Chad in Western Africa.

When Baka Beyond first began incorporating African rhythms into its music, Cradick didn't imagine the kind of musical partnership that has developed between nations. "It started out as a studio project," he said. "Spirit of the Forest (the band's first album, released in 1993) was recorded in my bedroom. ... It was almost an experiment, really."

Since then, he said, the music "has really evolved on the live front. It's one thing to recreate an African rhythm, it's another thing to work with the actual African musicians."

Much of Baka Beyond's music grows from casual jams and employs the native style of gentle syncopation, Cradick explained. "Sometimes we'll be jamming and something will come out of it. Often, it grows in the studio, taking one idea and letting it evolve. The song takes on a life of its own."

Some songs feature lyrics in Gaelic, sung by Cradick's wife and musical partner, Su Hart.

"It's about finding the common parts," he added. "It's always felt very natural to me."

It has borne fruit for the Baka as well. Over the course of several visits since 2002, Cradick has helped build a Music House in the Baka rainforest -- at the natives' request. The mongolu-style structure -- built with the wood from a single large tree -- is used both as a casual performance area and a sophisticated solar-powered studio, where the Baka sound can be captured live.

But, while the recording technology is state-of-the-art, living conditions remain the same.

"When we built the Music House, I went a little bit too native, I think," Cradick said, laughing. "I was living in a little mud hut."

He doesn't mind the rustic conditions, however.

"I really quite like it. I see it a bit as a health retreat," he said. "With the food and exercise. I come back really healthy." It was during one lean season with the Baka that Cradick first dined on caterpillars, a staple part of their diet. He also learned to enjoy prawns in their company.

A local Cameroon trader with a satellite phone keeps Cradick up to date with his adopted Baka community. "I'm getting news all the time," he said.

Profits from the recordings are also returned to the tribe. Over the years, the income has helped provide legal standing for the Baka in Cameroon and has helped fund construction of a medical center.

"I've seen more people born and more people die there than I have in England," Cradick said. "They treat you like family."

Besides the next Baka Beyond album, Cradick is also working in the studio on recordings he made of the Baka natives without Western influences. He would like someday to take Baka musicians along on a Baka Beyond tour.

They're not prolific travelers, Cradick said, although he took eight of them along for a special performance in the Cameroon capital of Yaounde in 2004.

Cradick hopes to organize a special tour in the U.K. soon, but said arrangements may be difficult to make. "Most of them don't have identity cards, much less passports," he said.

"The most complicated bits are getting visas. ... It's absolutely ridiculous, to be honest. They act like it's such a privilege to enter the United States."

Cradick said he never would have guessed his relationship with the Baka would stretch over more than a decade -- and with no signs of ending soon.

"But, having said that, once we met the Baka they were so good to us," he said. "Once you go, you have to go back again."

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 20 August 2005