Two musicians' quest to save the forest people of Cameroon - Martin & Su of Baka Beyond

Flyer (cut) for the concert taking place in London this Sunday 14th June. Image: Baka Beyond.

Flyer (cut) for the concert taking place in London this Sunday 14th June. Image: Baka Beyond.

When Martin Cradick and Su Hart travelled to West Africa in 1992, little did they know the journey would set their lives on a whole new direction, writes Matthew Newsome. Inspired by the Baka people of Cameroon's rainforest and the joy that resonates through their music, they are now dedicated to saving this vulnerable people using their magical music to reach into people's hearts.
Our first live encounter was magical. Everyone was involved, one guitar and everyone else either singing or hitting sticks, bottles, machetes, whatever was to hand. Our first album was an attempt to recreate these jams back in the UK.

Audiences across Britain and beyond have been entranced by Baka Beyond, a Bath-based Afro-Celtic band that combines the music of the Baka people of the rainforests of Cameroon and Congo with English musical traditions from folk to rock.

This coming Sunday, they will be weaving their magic at the Bush Hall in West London, on a fund-raising concert for Survival International.

The band, which draws inspiration from the music of the Baka and has recently been nominated for 'Best Cross-Cultural collaboration' in Songlines Magazine, is raising funds for Survival's Parks Need Peoples campaign and is raising awareness of its own campaign Forest Voices Tour.

It all goes back a long way for two musicians Martin Cradick and Su Hart - back to 1992 when they travelled to Central Africa in search of musical inspiration, and what they found there amazed them - in more ways than one.

Twenty-three years of close musical collaboration with the Baka people has given the award-winning group singular access to the heart of the Baka community, offering up rich insight into the growing challenges faced by this increasingly marginalised indigenous group.

The Baka people in southeast Cameroon are being forcibly excluded from their ancestral territories due to the creation of national parks, a controversial government scheme that refuses land rights to the Baka 'Pygmies'.

The Baka face arrests, beatings and torture by anti-poaching officers who are supported by WWF to police national parks, a much criticised strategy that criminalizes the Baka as 'poachers' for hunting in these newly designated areas to feed their families.

Meanwhile, as Martin told me, they are squeezed from the other side by the clearance of the forests they have inhabited for millennia by loggers and agribusiness developers intent on establishing massive palm oil and biofuel plantations.

How and when did you first come to make contact with the Baka people?

We saw Phil Agland's film 'Baka, people of the Rainforest' on Channel 4 in 1989. After a series of coincidences we found ourselves heading down a forest path following a little guy called Mopana in early 1992 with a sack of salt, a bag of M&S ladies knickers, a guitar and a mandolin.

It was seeing the Limbindi on Phil's film that intrigued me. At the time I thought that the woman was playing a giant leaf. I picked up my guitar at the time and wrote the piece Baka which became the title track of the first Outback CD and my first record contract, with Joe Boyd's Hannibal Records.

Our first live encounter was magical. Everyone was involved, one guitar and everyone else either singing or hitting sticks, bottles, machetes, whatever was to hand. Our first album was an attempt to recreate these jams back in the UK.

That led me to listen to other Baka recordings. I loved the way that the music seemed integral to everyday life. Many recordings started with an instrument and a song with the sound of other people around laughing, talking, working, and gradually the music would draw everyone in until all were involved.

Our first live encounter was magical. I was amazed to find that some could play the guitar well. Everyone was involved, one guitar and everyone else either singing or hitting sticks, bottles, machetes, whatever was to hand, yet at no time did the large number of percussionists drown out the acoustic guitar.

The Baka Beyond album 'Spirit of the Forest' was an attempt to recreate these jams back in the UK.

How would you compare the condition of Baka community life today to how it was when you first arrived in 1992?

From a community point of view, when we first arrived they were living very traditionally. They probably spent almost as much time in the village of Banana as they do now, but the village then was very different.

Up until 2000 there were just a few Bantu huts and plantations in Banana and many Baka had their mongolu huts near the road to Moloundou. By 2003 when the building of the music house started, there were several plantations and a shop had arrived.

Now there is a busy junction, several shops, moto-taxis racing up and down and a barrier in the middle of the village where uniformed men supposedly check that no bush meat passes up the road. There is also a busy bar that blasts music out at all hours.

There is little or no wild meat available any more near the village except mice, which the young Baka hunt with bows and arrows, there is a huge pressure on the land for plantations and on the water supply. As they point out, when we first arrived in 1992 they would sell wild meat to the Bantu farmers. Now they have to buy it from the Bantu as they have been frightened out of the deeper forest where game is abundant.

I would say that the overall health of the Baka community in Banana is better now than when we first arrived, but that has more to do with the income that they have earned over the years from their music than from the development of the village of Banana.

Most of the 'development' has been to the benefit of Bantu farmers and other people (such as the owner of the bar) who makes money from an ever increasing population. The Baka are discriminated against and marginalised.

What do you see as being the biggest challenges facing the Baka people today?

The biggest challenge has to be the pressure to completely change their lifestyle to become farmers and the inherent racism of the local people against 'Pygmies', who they consider little better than animals.

To become farmers is contrary to their nature. A few will embrace it and be slightly successful, but the vast majority try to grow a cocoa plantation, but two or three years before the trees mature, they get fed up and sell it to a Bantu, who then employs the Baka who used to own it, for a pittance.

The Bantu tend to buy the year before the cocoa is ready so that they then sell that harvest at a huge profit leaving the Baka landless and with no means of feeding his family.

What is the government's rationale for evicting Baka people from their ancestral homelands?

For the last 20 years or more, from about the time we first went, the government's policy is to "persuade" the Baka to "stop running round the forest like animals and become productive members of Cameroon society."

There is huge pressure from the government not to educate any group of people separately as they want to create a unified country and separation of education for different people is anathema to this.

The government also claim the Baka are better off being close to education and healthcare. During our interviews with Baka from the Lomie region (where Baka have been in villages with local schools for at least the last 30 years) during the pilot Forest Voices Tour it became clear that having an education was useless to the Baka.

Moreover many didn't get the chance to learn due to the discrimination and racism of the local Bantu population, and those that did get educated still could only get menial work due to the same discrimination.

It's also clearly inconvenient to have people living in areas that are valuable to big business, but it is not just the Baka who suffer from this. Take the case of Herakles Farms evicting farmers for bio fuel oil palm plantations.

Please can you share any testimonies you have received that illustrate the plight of the Baka people.

The best way to do this is to point you to some filmed interviews. For example, on being terrorised into giving up subsistence hunting, this short film includes two interviews, with Mbeh, the guitarist and band leader of Orchéstre Baka Gbiné, and Mbabelli. Mbabelli talks of how will his son learn about the forest after he has gone. Sadly he died the year after the interview was made.


On the problems of illegal logging, we have this one:

Another theme is how the Baka are forced or cheated into working for little or no money, so here's one we filmed during our Forest Voices Tour:

Another change that's taking place is the way that women are exploited when forced to live in Bantu villages, again filmed during our Forest Voices Tour

And here's another sequence we filmed during a Forest Voices Tour about a Baka community beong evicted from the forest:

And to finish up we have this interview about changes in village life

There are other statements but these are the ones made to us which we have had translated.

Do you think that there could be a conservation approach that reconciles protecting Baka tribal rights with the objectives of national park creation?

Yes, but the conservationists need to accept the Baka's right to live in the forest and use new methods to let the Baka monitor the forests for them. The work of Dr Jerome Lewis and ExCites is key to this.

Its an approach that has been seen to work fantastically well in Australia where employing aboriginal people to take care of vast tracts of remote 'outback' has yielded huge dividends for both indigenous communities and conservation.

The creation of national parks in Cameroon is supported by conservation giant Worldwide Fund for Nature. Do you know if the WWF consulted the Baka people about their national park initiatives?

The local people would have been consulted when the parks were set up, but although the Baka are 60% of the population, their representation in local groups is probably about 2%, and when they are present their natural humility means that they won't speak out against perceived injustices.

As Zow says in the statement in the video above (number 2 on the list) "They have the power, all we can do is sit and watch."

As far as I know WWF has taken no action against the violent mistreatment of the Baka at the hands of wildlife officers enforcing its conservation policies.

In 2003, you wrote to Prince Philip, President Emeritus of WWF, about how the Baka were being "terrorized" by anti-poaching squads. Did his response suggest a willingness to take action?

I wrote to Prince Philip complaining of the racism of the local (Cameroonian) WWF representative. He held the inherent racist view that the Baka were inferior and not much different to animals.

To be fair on WWF they did take notice of this. As a result they uncovered a whole range of corruption going on amidst local WWF work and they pulled the plug on it.

Unfortunately the result has been that all the anti-poaching activity that goes on has been taken over by the government and the same abuses carry on. They are still supported by WWF whose attitude seems to be that it is no longer anything to do with them if abuses take place. Where we work is outside the National Park zones, so I can't really comment on what goes on there.

The Baka tend to blame the WWF , or 'Dobi Dobi' as they call them) whether they are involved or not, but my take on this is that they are morally responsible. The reason that the Baka blame Dobi Dobi is because this abuse started in their name.

WWF found that they couldn't control their local workers, and pulled out, but left the setup they had created in place. It isn't therefore surprising that the Baka think of all ecoguards as Dobi Dobi.

When we were building the music house a WWF landrover arrived at 2am. Several paramilitary people got out and started accusing us of illegally cutting down the tree that was used to build the house - even though we had all the correct papers.

Eventually we sent them off, but we are educated white men with much more power than a Baka. It was intimidating enough for us, but why they were coming at 2am, and whether they were actually WWF workers, or just chancers trying to extort money - we don't know. They were definitely in a WWF marked vehicle though.

I believe that the WWF are still morally responsible for the abuses as they set up the infrastructure and still share offices with the departments that still abuse the Baka.

After working with the Baka for over twenty years - what continues to captivate you about the tribe and draw you to their cause?

To start with it was because the musical recordings that I had made, and the songs that our band, Baka Beyond had recorded, which had earned money for the Baka that belonged to them, so we were obliged to find the best way to get as much of it as possible directly to them.

I have now seen more people born and more people die in this community than I have in the UK so they are very much family. Now I see people who weren't even born when we first arrived taking part in the band Orchéstre Baka Gbiné, and having children of their own.

What the future holds for them is difficult to see, but we do have an outside perspective that can be of help to them. Regularly staying in the rainforest with them is something that I will continue to do as long as I am physically able.

In 1995 Baka Beyond set up the Global Music Exchange, tell me about the aims of this charity?

Our charity Global Music Exchange (GME) works on two fronts: helping the Baka in coping with a changing way of life, whilef ighting for their right to have access to the forest. Apart from that, the tagline is "To help indigenous people help themselves through music."

When we first visited Cameroon in 1992 we noticed that all the best musicians seemed to think playing bebop was far superior to playing traditional music. This was because there was more prestige for it and you could get work playing in posh hotels.

At that time there was beginning to be a growing interest in traditional 'World Music' so we had the idea of recording music, selling it in the west, and then using proceeds to help the communities.

At the time we thought that small amounts raised from very niche recordings would go a long way in the communities. That was true, but we now find that the longer you stay the more things need money. Healthcare particularly is a bottomless pit - I'm glad I don't have to run the NHS! And as CD sales get taken over by downloads (many of them for free) it is harder to rely on just the income from music.

We have done projects apart from the Baka. In 2005 and 2006 we helped organise the Festival of 1000 Stars in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, and in 2010 we organised the Under the Volcano Festival in Limbe, Cameroon. Both festivals celebrated the diversity of traditional cultures. 'Unity through Diversity' being the motto.

Baka Beyond are playing a special fundraiser concert on June 14. Please can you tell us about this new campaign you are helping launch.

This is to raise money for Survival's Parks Need Peoples campaign and raise awareness of our next Forest Voices Tour. By touring an all Baka group around other Baka villages we aim to attract Baka who would otherwise stay out of sight in the forest, albeit at the edge these days, to come together and give them information about things that are happening that affect their lives.

We also want to encourage debate and encourage people to talk to camera so we can collect direct statements - and make sure decision makers know the Baka's views. Watching this short film explains it best.



Concert: Baka Beyond will be playing a concert in support of the Baka 'Pygmies' of Central Africa at London's Bush Hall on this forthcoming Sunday 14th June 2015. Tickets are on sale through Eventbrite.

Matthew Newsome is a journalist based in East Africa. His articles appear in the Guardian, the Observer, New Internationalist and Inter Press News. He is also a contributor to BBC's World Service and Radio France International.

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