Oka! - The Greatest Musical Act of the Last 50,000 Years
An Essay on a film by Lavinia Currier
by Geoffrey Clarfield (September 2014)
Part One - The Jungle Comes to My Living Room
It is an unusual gift to have discovered a film about a marvelously remote place and its indigenous people that you have visited, and then come home and watch a drama that was filmed there on location, utilizing so many of the local people that you met on your journey, in color, on your living room screen. So when Oka!, a film produced and directed by Lavinia Currier, was finally released on DVD, I hurried to find a copy. I had already seen an online Vimeo on how she made the film and now, in reverse order, it was time to see the dramatic film itself.
Some months ago I wrote an article in New English Review (March 2014, “Last Days in the Garden of Eden-Among the Pygmies of the Central African Republic,”) describing my visit to Louis Sarno in his home in the village of Yandoumbe. Sarno is a man from New Jersey who has lived among and recorded the music of the Pygmies (the Bayaka) of the Central African Republic for almost three decades.
It was there that he told me that he had worked closely with American director Lavinia Currier on an as yet to be released dramatic film that was based roughly on his adventures among the Bayaka and their ambivalent Bantu overlords or “hosts,” and, on his long term effort to comprehensively record and archive their remarkable musical traditions.
(You can explore his archive online at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the following link:
The Pygmies loom large in the world of anthropology and musicology (including the evolutionary geneticists who are studying Mitochondrial Eve and the Out of Africa hypothesis). When I was Director of Research and Development for the Alan Lomax Archive in Manhattan (run by Alan’s dynamic daughter, Anna) we all held Pygmy music in an honored place. It was Alan who first articulated the hypothesis that the Pygmy musical style is the “ur” music of early man and probably originated in the forests of Central and East Africa, from where our own ancestors emigrated some 50,000 years ago. Alan and his colleagues believed that all later musical styles emerged from that Pygmy musical nexus. That musical style has survived to this day in the Kalahari Desert and the Central African rainforest where Louis has made his home. It was this that propelled me to go on a musical pilgrimage two summers ago to visit someone who was following in the footsteps of Alan Lomax, but this time in the African rainforest where the music all began.
As I watched Oka! in the living room of my Toronto house (for the third time) I recognized many places and faces; the market in the town of Bayenga, the village of Yandoumbe where Louis has a small wooden house and of course, the rivers, elephants, lizards, birds, snakes and gorillas who live amongst the trees and meadows of this Central African rain forest, whose forest canopy seems to rise endlessly skyward, like living versions of the urban skyscrapers of New York city that Louis has rejected, and whose other worldly soundscape is a form of music that Louis has recorded for his archive, and really, for those of us who cannot leave our urban lives behind as he has done.
As the film used local Bayaka as actors, I recognized people that I had met there, old men and old women, younger men and women and small children. Above all, while watching the film I relived the experience that I had had when I was there, listening and watching Bayaka singing, dancing, drumming, their playing of the zither and “Pygmy Harp” which is just one expression of the musical virtuosity of these remarkable and kind people.
Above all, as I watched and rewatched the film, I marveled at how Currier had captured the majesty of the rainforest and the friendly and ever spontaneous social interaction of Bayaka society; their humor, playfulness, artistry and their love of life, all which have never failed to impress every anthropologist or ethnomusicologist who has ever spent time among them, starting with the great Colin Turnbull famed author of The Forest People and who also recorded their music, so many decades ago.
I also enjoyed and appreciated the subtle way she developed scenes which quickly went back and forth among different people and places in what unconsciously feels like a seamless stream of images but, is really the expression of sophisticated story telling and editing. The film deserves an Academy Award.
The only other filmmaker who has managed to evoke the rainforest with the same sensitivity has been Werner Herzog in his magisterial drama, Aguirre the Wrath of God, set in the Amazon jungle. I am sure that Currier has probably watched every film that Herzog ever made, at least as many times as I have watched Oka.
Part Two - The Storyline of Oka!
Oka! begins with a scene where Sataka, a Bayaka elder is seen putting drops into ethnomusicologist Larry Whitman’s eyes in his hut in the middle of the rainforest. Then suddenly we are in New Jersey, where Larry is smoking a joint in his mother’s house and vowing that he must return to Africa. As he sits in the crowded basement of his family’s home listening to Pygmy music that he has recorded in Africa, he tells his Mom that it is like Beethoven to him.
The camera then switches back to the forests of the Central African Republic where it focuses on Larry’s extended Bayaka family that has “adopted” him, and as we will see, have allowed him to live among them. The camera shows them moving through the rainforest.
As they emerge from the rainforest onto the logging road created by the companies who are cutting down the rainforest, they put on some western clothes, all the while taking great care to pass around a small baby who is treated with the fantastic love and care for which the Bayaka are known (one anthropologist has playfully given Pygmy fathers the Best Father of the World award). They are now on the road leading to the village. Then, without a break in the music which provides psychological continuity for this introductory part of the film, we are back with Larry listening to his recordings in his basement.
Then, just as suddenly, we are back in the rainforest where Larry’s adopted father/uncle/brother, (Sataka), a senior and respected Bayaka elder known for his former prowess as an elephant hunter, is approached by his wife as they both bathe in the calm, clear waters of a forest river. She tells him, “It is time to call the White.” He cries out and it is as if Larry has heard the call in his headphone. We later find out that her name is Ekadi. She is probably my favorite character in the film; a woman who was born to act.
We are then with Larry in the Holland Tunnel underneath the Hudson River on his way to Manhattan (strangely enough a short subway ride from the Lomax archive where I used to work and where decades earlier, Alan came up with his Pygmy music thesis). Larry is going to the doctor.
Larry (that is the name of Louis Sarno in this dramatic adaptation of his life) is played by actor Chris Marshall. He is having serious medical issues. At his doctor’s medical practice somewhere in the city, Larry is told that he has leprosy but that he should not worry. At the same time, he is also told that his liver is shot and there is more than a hint that he needs a transplant. The doctor reassures him that his leprosy is entirely curable but, his tinnitus is not. When Larry protests that he must go back to the rainforest to find the last instrument of the Pygmies, the Molimo, his doctor tells him bluntly that his “Africa days are over.”
As he leaves his doctor’s office to go to his donor Lydia’s upscale Manhattan apartment, the camera cuts back to his Pygmy family as they walk towards the village on the main logging road and then cuts back to his visit. He explains to Lydia that he has one more trip left in him and that he must find and record the Molimo. She is a hip young woman, the kind that may be a member of the Explorer’s Club that has its annual gala down the street, and cuts him a cheque for his next trip.
That is how it used to be done, way back when, when anthropology and the recording of non-Western music were once thought of as a marvelous partnership between the cash strapped and driven explorer and the enlightened and supportive donor. (One can only hope that that those days may return before all of Africa’s traditional music disappears!) As Larry enters the private elevator to leave Lydia’s apartment he sees Sataka standing there with his hunting net. Clearly, Larry is being called home to his real life with his Pygmy friends in the forest.
In the next scene we are driving through the rainforest on a dirt road, in a local transport packed with Bantu villagers, Larry and two young European travellers, who ostentatiously announce that they are visiting threatened, indigenous peoples. While Larry is eating insect food that is being passed around the vehicle, the German and English young men argue over whether a pagan tribe in Mali, called the Dogon, are or are not a threatened people. They have also arrogantly declared that they are travelers and not to be confused with tourists. They think Larry is a Peace Corps volunteer. Now that they have all arrived in the village Larry leaves them after sharing tea. It is clearly and humorously shown that they do not quite know where they are.
The next scene cuts back and forth between the return of Larry to his village of Yandoumbe and the arrival of the Mayor, a tall Bantu government bureaucrat named Bassoun. The film shows that the majority farming Bantus of the area have always looked down on the hunter/gatherer forest dwelling Pygmies. Bassoun is no exception. He is a menacing character and like many government functionaries in that part of the world, is always on the lookout for situations that will help benefit him personally. Chris Marshall experienced more than a taste of this while making the movie (I suspect it supported his method acting).
Larry’s Pygmy “chief” Simboki, has already spotted Larry on the transport while Bassoun is seen arriving by plane with a Chinese businessman, Mr. Yi. Larry and his companions pass by the sawmill and witness first hand the destruction of the rainforest and how it feeds the international lumber business. Finally, as Larry and his companions pass the local bar/restaurant with its women of the night in attendance, they meet up with Bassoun who cynically greets them. He says to his Chinese guest, “Larry is almost a Pygmy himself.” Bassoun calls on one of Larry’s companions for a private chat in his jeep. He asks him to contact Sataka in order to kill/poach elephants for him. We know that there is something sinister about all this.
Larry is now back in his village. He awakens and a group of elders have taken up residence in his house. They share a pipe of pot and tell him that the Mayor has forbidden that they go into the forest. He asks for Sataka’s whereabouts but they tell him that he is away in the forest. Then he gives out presents to the men and is swarmed by the women to whom he gives underwear. One of them acts very flirtatiously. Larry is quite taken with her and finds out that she is Sataka’s granddaughter.
Meanwhile, back at the lumber camp/sawmill Mr. Yi meets the Mayor at his office. The Mayor tells Yi that his request to fell trees in the areas given to the Pygmies and where the elephants are protected by the wildlife clubs, has been denied by the government. He suggests that he knows a Pygmy who will kill an elephant for them, implying that if that happens, the government will give him the logging concession. Yi gives Bassoun a fat bribe.
Back in the village Larry witnesses a haughty Bantu picking a fight with a local Bayaka, accusing him of not coming to his village to do agricultural work as was the custom in the past. Then, to his surprise Larry is presented with a fait accompli. The bicycle that he did (not) order is presented to him. He has to pay and Sataka’s granddaughter flirts with him, saying that one day he can take her for a ride on it.
Larry is then visited by the Mayor who gives him a letter from the president saying that they are “systematizing” the Pygmies, and they are now a modern country. He leaves with his jeep and his white-gloved Bayaka lackey “Kiri Kiri,” who has clearly turned on his own people.
Larry is in his village and Sataka’s granddaughter flirts with him telling him that he cannot hunt and gather. His friend who presented him with the bike asks him to come out with him as the local Bantu who was fighting earlier in the village, is now hiring Bayaka to work on his farm. He drives him to the farm and everyone is chosen to work except for Larry and a white albino Bayaka, who are left forlornly standing in the field. Such is and has been the life of the Bayaka as agricultural serfs when they leave the safety of the rainforest and take up village life.
Meanwhile in the bar, the Mayor is eating meat and drinking beer with Mr. Yi. They discuss the fact that maybe the French during colonial times did not penetrate the deep forest because they were frightened of it. Mr. Yi replies that maybe they feared the legendary dragon that people think still lives there. The Mayor insists that the Chinese have machines that can penetrate and cut down anything in the forest. But Yi does not confirm this. The Mayor is uneasy.
Meanwhile in the forest Sataka and his wife take the dead animals from the hunt into their house and remark that the White Man has not yet come and Sataka must summon him. Mr. Yi then visits Larry and talks about the dragon and suggests that the Pygmies are the ones who can talk to it. Larry explains that the Bantu are frightened of the forest. Then his Bayaka neighbours come in and talk about the Dragon. They imitate its sounds with hilarious antics and make so much noise that Mr. Yi leaves in disgust.
The mayor then sends a letter to Larry requesting that he come to his office. We see the letter go from one person to another until it finally arrives in Larry’s house. Larry comes to the Mayor’s office and is told that the rules have changed and that he now needs a permit to record local music. He then tells him that his recording equipment should stay in the mayor’s office. Larry argues and protests that this is useless new bureaucracy and the Mayor in anger, asks him from which culture did all these rules and papers come from his, or Larry’s?
Back at the village the Pygmies are getting ready for a big dance. During the dance someone promises Larry the Molimo if Larry gives him money. Then Larry is distracted when the virile young dancer goes off to chat with Sataka’s granddaughter.
After the dance Larry is asleep. He opens his eyes and Sataka is quietly sitting beside him. He gets up and Sataka is not there. We do not know if it was real or a hallucination, but the next day Larry is off in the forest to find Sataka. While he is searching for Sataka in the forest the local elders inspect Larry’s house. They wonder if he has gone to America or, to the forest, where he seems to be getting lost after almost walking into a gorilla and later a small crocodile.
Meanwhile, as Larry wanders alone in the forest, the villagers are having a great daytime outdoor dance with a creature dressed in leaves. Finally, Larry finds Sataka and his wife Ekadi who comment that he had really gotten lost! As they move through the forest Larry collects mushrooms to eat. Sataka laughs as they are poisonous and says Larry is going to kill them. Sataka then scurries up a tree and collects/hunts a Pangolin and drops it effortlessly into his wife’s basket.
The Pygmies of Yandoumbe out of concern leave as a group and search for Larry in the forest. With Sataka’s granddaughter they consult an oracle under a waterfall to try and find him. They start to look for him while the camera jumps to Sataka and Larry. Larry laments to him and his wife that he has no Pygmy skills, cannot hunt and cannot dance and so Sataka promises to show him how to track an elephant.
Meanwhile, the Mayor drives up to Larry’s compound, surrounds it with armed men, demands that he come out so that he an arrest him, but finds that the whole village has gone. The villagers who ran away have by now finally found Larry and Sataka and his wife at a river. When they meet up again there is much water play and rejoicing. Larry says it is just like the beach in New Jersey during the summertime.
Soon after we see young girls playing in the river and using the surface of the water as a drum skin as Pygmies often do. As the villagers happily build their huts in the forest, we know that there is trouble ahead, as the Mayor and his men enter the forest with their guns in search of Larry and the villagers.
In the evening the Bayaka are sitting, eating, dancing and playing the harp when Sataka’s granddaughter, who Larry has had his eye on, brings food to his hut. Everyone is watching and it is a moment of romantic tension. The next morning Sataka takes the villagers out for a hunt, leaving Larry behind with the children. Later, a returning Pygmy saves him from a snake. We then watch as a man scales a tree to bring down honey, a great delicacy among these people. Larry is seen eating it with relish.
Back at the lumber yard the Mayor tells Yi that a Pygmy will kill an elephant the next day and by default, the lumber area that was previously denied to his company will be his to exploit, implying that it is the Bayaka who will be evicted because of poaching (by this time the audience clearly understands that the mayor has set up the Bayaka by paying a young Bayaka hunter to kill an elephant for a bribe). As the Bayaka are dancing, the young hunter approaches and dances with his gun held proudly over his head in anticipation of the elephant that he will soon kill. An argument breaks out. The hunter says that he wants to shoot the elephant and Sataka explains to Larry that it is for Larry and the Molimo.
The Mayor and his men are after the Bayaka and they camp at night in the forest while Sataka and the young hunter track the elephant with their spears. Soon they are all converging on the great Bai, the natural meadow in the forest where the elephants rove en masse. The hunter and Sataka, the Mayor and his men with Mr. Yi and Larry and his 12 year old assistant and microphone holder Yekka, are now all at the edge of the Bai as they watch the elephant hunt take place. As all this happens we see a group of Bayaka men take out a long musical horn from its hiding place in the forest. Finally, we see the elusive instrument that Larry has been searching for, for years - the Molimo!
As the Mayor and his entourage move in to watch the kill, they complain that the Pygmies are hunting with spears. In anger the Mayor hands the gun to Mr. Yi and tells him that if he wants an elephant, to shoot it himself. As Mr. Yi raises the gun to kill an elephant, Sataka and the young man drop their spears and give up the hunt. Larry has discovered a piece of ground that sounds like a large drum and the elders start blowing on the Molimo. The Mayor thinks that it is the dragon of the forest and he, Mr. Yi and his men run away. Larry and his assistant now have the upper hand and they turn on his tape recorder and face his mic to hear this natural drum and the Molimo playing together. Larry has finally found the last instrument in his collection.
Larry then hallucinates that he is on the operating table in New York and it is the Mayor who is about to operate. This nightmare is then interrupted by a line of Pygmies who are trying to wake him as he has fallen asleep from exhaustion in the Bai and they must have built a hut over him for the night, after he collapsed. They rejoice that he is alive and healthy, and the film ends.
Part Three-Life Imitates Art
When I met Louis Sarno in Bayenga in June of 2012 he told me that Lavinia Currier is not your usual kind of filmmaker. An heiress, who lost her parents as a young girl, it took her some time to find her path in life. Originally, she considered making a film about a Pygmy who was brought to the Brooklyn Zoo and who was put on display as a living fossil many decades ago, and who eventually committed suicide due to stress and isolation (you can read about this sad tale in the excellent book by Bradford and Blume, Ota Benga-The Pygmy in the Zoo, 1992).
Instead, Currier heard abut Louis’s work (told with much humor in his book, Song From the Forest, 1994) and made Oka!. Making a film about an ethnomusicologist as hero seems to run in the family, for one of her ancestors was the French ethnomusicologist Baron D’Erlanger, who was among the pioneers in the revival and preservation of the traditional music of North Africa. I first read his work when as an undergraduate I took (and as an oud player maintain) a serious interest in North African and Middle Eastern music.
It is also not surprising to discover that in making the film Currier, her actors and crew, were subjected to the same stress, strain and shakedowns as any other foreigner who has ever tried to work in the Central African Republic and which was so fabulously demonstrated in the Danish mocumentary film made by Mads Brugger about diamond smuggling in the CAR called, The Ambassador (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2048877/).
Chris Marshall, the actor who plays Larry (Louis), recently told an interviewer:
I actually got kidnapped while making a film [2011’s Oka!] in the Congo jungle, where army warlords are ten-a-penny. I mean, I use the word kidnapped very loosely. Basically, the army used to turn up at our unit base and take the producer away whenever they were bored and we would have to pay to get him back. And then one day, when they found out I was the main actor on the job, they took me instead. So, I say kidnapped, but it involved me being led into the back of a jeep, driven away to some army/police office by drunk guys with machine guns standing around for about three hours, before they bought me back for about US$200.
So it is not just the Bayaka who were playing their part in the drama of life; the actors and producers also experienced all the frustration and fear that goes into implementing any serious project in a Sub Saharan African country such as the CAR, which has recently broken out into a civil war, where the Bayaka are now at high risk, caught between warring sides. (A few months ago Louis came to Toronto. Over coffee he told me that the situation of the Bayaka is worse than ever.)
If anyone in the West will be motivated to help the Bayaka, it will not be because another African ethnic group is suffering. It will be because of the magic of Lavinia Currier’s film, a film that is about the Bayaka and by the Bayaka, and one that is made for those who know nothing about them. Through the film, the viewer can effortlessly come to love and appreciate their unique culture and lifestyle. They can also come to appreciate our common humanity, for apart from Chris Marshall and seven other foreign actors, all of the actors in the film are local Bayaka and Bantu. I felt that the two Bayaka actors who played Sataka and his wife, Ekadi, seem to have come directly from Central Casting. They were acting naturally and doing so without a hitch.
If the Academy does not give an award to Currier, they could at least give one to the people of Yandoumbe, for in this film they have put on what I consider to be one of the greatest musical acts of the last 50,000 years. I am sure if Alan Lomax were still alive, he would agree. Will someone out there please nominate them?
Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.
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