Baka Beyond,
East to West
(Narada, 2002)

Virtually everything about this CD surprised me -- the rhythmic vibrancy and eclectic combinations of instruments, the fusion of Celtic and African musical traditions, and the vision of the artists who participated in its creation. Even the uninspired title, East to West, proved to be a sleeper. Simply put, this CD rocks in all the right ways and leaves you with the distinct impression that its creators know something the rest of us don't and probably should.

To understand what makes East to West memorable, some background is in order. Baka Beyond is a group that was formed to preserve and share the musical traditions of the Baka pygmy people living in the rainforest along the Cameroon Congo border. Due to the density of the forest, the Baka rely heavily on sound as a means of communication, and song permeates all aspects of their lives. The Baka sing to express their feelings, to call the spirits of animals before a hunt, to unite their community and speak to their deities. They use song to educate their children, preserve their cultural and historical heritage, and to ensure that everyone's voice is heard.

The Baka's unique and joyous approach to music-making was first brought to the attention of the global community by Martin Cradick, a guitarist from the U.K. who spent time living with and learning from the Baka in 1991. As a result of his experiences, Cradick formed Baka Beyond and began to record and perform their music with his partner Su Hart. East to West is their third collaboration with the Baka, the first two being Spirit of the Forest and Heart of the Forest.

But Baka Beyond is much more than a group designed to preserve the Baka's musical heritage. The musicians who make up the group come from six different European and African nations, and each brings his or her unique traditions, training, and outlook to the mix. Cradick and Hart, for example, both hail from Celtic backgrounds, and have added the distinct sounds of their language, mandolins, violins and whistles to the Baka's lively and innovative vocals and rhythms. The fifth piece, "Wandering Spirit," is a good example of this mix as it combines a Baka dance song (entrusted to Cradick by the Baka) with Irish slip jigs. Similarly, songs that were originally Celtic in origin, such as "Silver Whistle," an adaptation from a Jacobite song about the return of Bonny Prince Charles to Scotland, have been infused with the toe-tapping rhythms of the Baka tradition.

My favorite number, however, is "Awaya Baka." Written by Pelembie, a Baka pygmy guitarist, it features harmonic vocals sung by the Baka Lupe children. From its start with the children's laughter to its rollicking, rhythmic conclusion it is nothing less than a celebration of life.

If I had any complaints to make about East to West, it's that it leans too heavily on Celtic tradition. Almost all the songs are Celtic in origin, and once my curiosity was piqued by the opening number I wanted to hear more material originating from the Baka culture. However, this is really more of an observation than a complaint since the entire CD is surprisingly satisfying and intriguing. It's the kind of music that has something new to offer each time you listen.

- Rambles
written by by Jena Ball
published 1 March 2003

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