Afro-Celt is a term much bandied about, but few bands can claim to genuinely have elements of Africa and the Celtic fringes of Europe in their line up. Baka Beyond can, with Sierra Leone, Ghana, France (Brittany), Congo, Senegal and UK passports in the bands luggage, as they tour the world spreading the word about – and raising money to help – the Baka people of Cameroon.
Formed in 1993 after guitarist Martin Craddick and his wife, singer Su Hart, took a trip to Cameroon to check out the Baka pygmy tribe, after seeing a documentary on TV. Seventeen years, twelve albums and countless gigs later the Baka Beyond project is still thriving and regarded by many as one of the best live bands in the world. They have an ability to tear up dance floors, festival fields, art centres and clubs with a unique sound that seems capable of winning over everyone but the narrowest minded stick in the muds.
Throughout the history of the band the line up has been fluid, both in terms of personnel and indeed the size of the band. We managed to catch up with the one constant, Martin, for a chat in the sunshine just before gig in Pontardawe Art Centre back in 2010 with a slimmed down five piece version of the band.
We start our chat by trying to get to the bottom of what is going on with the different line ups. “Well they are not that different really”, Martin begins, “but we have slimmed down to a five piece so we can do more gigs and smaller venues”. Absent from this particular tour is French violinist Paddy Le Mercier- who has been an integral part of the band from the very beginning. “It can get very expensive to fly Paddy over from France every time we do a gig. The five piece makes us a bit more versatile. Last year Denise Rowe, who sings with us (since 2000), was not able to do some of the gigs, so we asked Molara (formerly of Zion Train) to join in and that has worked really well. She is very versatile, it means that we can do gigs without the violin because the voices adapt and fill some of the gaps, it makes things a bit more streamlined. But then we still do the larger line up, especially at festivals. We are doing a tour of America with the full line up and we are doing as many as we can with a nine piece, which is basically the eight piece plus Molara, which gets us the best of all worlds, it is quite a visual show, she is a fantastic dancer and ties in with the African Celtic thing. It makes a really good stage show. But with eight people and flying people around we have to wait till people are available and prepared to do that”.
The very early recordings were made in the forest with the Baka themselves. Heart of the Forest was pretty much just the Baka, but was quickly followed up by Spirit of the forest, which was Martin using samples of the Baka together with some of his own music to create an album of world fusion. Whilst for many that would have been seen as doing their bit for the Baka, for Martin it was just the start. Soon a live band was put together and studio albums started to flow.
With the flexible line up we cannot help but wonder who gets involved in the studio recordings. The flexibility to slim down for gigs is one thing, but surely albums are for life. “The last album we released was recorded in Cameroon with the Baka”, Martin ponders, trying to think about who appears on which album. “It varies a lot actually. Live gigs and the albums have historically been separate. We have not done much recording recently as a band. We have had some of the live shows with the five piece recorded for live albums recently on a multi track and they have come out really well. I definitely want to get the five piece recorded in the studio for the next album”.
With a band that is spread out all over the world, getting together in one place is not an everyday occurrence, but to progress new songs still need to be written. “I don’t write everything myself” says Martin in his usual modest manner, “but I come up with ideas that are structured in such a way that when others come along they have room to put their own interpretation into it, so the finished result is written by all of us. I have always been open to a bit of improvisation. All the musicians are very talented so you can trust them to come in with minimum rehearsal and put on a very professional show and be really tight. We just listen to each other and work organically. I like that because it means songs evolve with the audience; if the audience know exactly what you are going to do it is a different experience”. Having seen them many times live we concur, you never know what is around the corner and Baka gigs are anything but predictable.
Baka Beyond is about far more than just gigging and recording though. Seventeen years on they are still helping the Baka in Cameroon, proceeds from gigs and CDs go back to the tribe. To maximise this, the band run all their own affairs, releasing CDs on their own label. They run workshops and camps; Martin and Su visit the Baka regularly and help in the community; they have even started running their own festivals in Africa.
“At the minute it seems an awful lot of my time goes into boring administration, tax retunes, Vat and stuff”, says Martin, pre-empting a question we had lined up for him. “But I suppose the work in Africa with the Baka has always taken quite a chunk out of a year. We go there every year and help towards some of the physical work of building. We helped build the music centre and a health centre and a school for them. The administration and paperwork of getting all the strands together can be a pain and none of it earns huge amounts of money so we cannot afford to pass it over to somebody else, but maybe that would pay for its self in the long run. For the latest album, the publishing etc was taken over by Carthage Music and in America a record company called White Swan helped us out. It probably would benefit if we had someone running the record company full time.”
At the moment though, they are happy to run things themselves. “We were signed to Ryko Discs for the early albums and all the royalties from those releases still go directly to the Baka. That is where most of the funding for the Global Music Exchange comes from”. In 2006 they went back to their roots and released Gati Bongo, an album by Baka Gbiné, a band made up of the Baka people themselves recorded in the forest in 2005/6. “Amazingly, Gati Bongo, without ever being advertised, has been in the top one hundred I-Tunes world charts in America since its release. That gets a couple of grand for the Baka each year, which, to them, is a lot of money”.
In terms of signing to another label, Martin is pragmatic. “There are plenty of small record companies that will offer you a very small advance, but then there is always the danger of being left as just another one of their acts – they have bought up all the rights and you just end up earning less money. The ones who can afford to give us the biggest advance have never really been that interested”, a thought that stirs Martin to laugh. “So we just do it ourselves”.
Our chat here in Pontardawe is not the first time we have interviewed Martin. The last time we talked, ten years ago in Narberth, Martin mentioned that they had to be careful when helping the Baka, because it was pretty much a cash free economy and it would be very easy to disrupt the balance of life in the forest. In 2010 things have changed slightly. “They are becoming more and more part of the outside world, in as much as electricity came to the nearest town about 1998 – I think – and even the village they live in has grown and grown. Whereas in 2000 they had no shops or anything there, things have changed since then. When we built the music house, that was the first year they had a shop there, now they have four or five. The young lads have got themselves motorbikes and become taxi drivers taking people into town. Now some of the Baka have become ‘motor-boys’. So all the time they are getting more and more used to using cash”.
Money, as the song goes, is the root of all evil, and even the Cameroon rain forests are not immune to this. “It is the case that some people, when they get their hands on cash, will have a party and spend it all on alcohol. The farmers rely on the Baka for labour on their plantations. The Baka are the majority of the population, they are hard workers, but they also like to party and drink alcohol. The farmers use this to pretty much enslave many of them, they will pay them for work with alcohol, or they will pay them with cash and make sure their mates turn up with bottles of alcohol to sell them and they cannot resist buying off them. Once they have had a couple of drinks they want more, but if they have run out of money they will give them more drink and tell them they then owe them for the drink. The trouble is once they have had a drink they can’t remember how much they drunk so whether it is true or not no one knows. Thankfully, every time they get money a greater portion of it will be used towards the community. It is a learning curve for everyone”
In addition to helping them in the community and spreading the word (and the music) across the world, in 2006 Martin brought Baka Gbiné over for a UK tour – which we imagine was something of a culture shock. “They had a pretty good time”, Martin reports positively. “At first it was strange and very cold, particularly in April, there were no leaves on the trees, which is odd coming from a forest, they were very cold, but they enjoyed it. They keep asking when they can come back. We would like to do it again but it costs an awful lot of money to fly them over. We need to become better at marketing ourselves so we can do a lot more”. Again martin chuckles to himself, knowing what needs to be done but not really having any time or inclination to turn himself into a businessman. We sense that above all this is a labour of love.
In 2005 the crew dipped their toes into doing some work in Ethiopia. “There is an organisation called the Christensen Fund, who run a festival and they wanted some help. They had seen what we had done with the Baka, they could see that we work ethically the money goes back to who it belongs, so they asked us to help with the festival. The first year was really successful, it was more successful the second year but in the mean time we trained an Ethiopian crew to run it as well, so after those two years it was run by the Ethiopians and we took a step back. It was a festival of indigenous music and dance based on Ethiopian traditions”. We wondered if this would be the start of an expansion into Ethiopian music, but that sounds like a non starter. “No, that’s been done; it would just be jumping on the bandwagon if we did that”.
In 2010 they set up a festival on more familiar territory, Cameroon. “My personal job for the first Ethiopian festival was to record the sound. We brought some local people in, using local techniques, which was quite an important thing to us. The stage in Ethiopia was built using local building techniques and was a beautiful construction. My first impression when I got there was – we have got to do this in Cameroon. There are a lot of similarities between the two. They call Cameroon Africa in miniature; it is close to more countries that any other country in Africa. It has desert, it has mountains it has rain forest with gorillas and chimpanzees, it has savannah with giraffes and lions. All the different environments you can find in Africa can all be found in Cameroon. There are two hundred and sixty different languages, lots of different tribes”.
“To me the music in Cameroon is more conducive to western ears I suppose. So I had this idea, we had been talking about it for a few years and this year we managed to put on a festival for the first time in January, Under the Volcano. We hope to do it again next year, but make it a bit bigger. In a way that has become a bit of a focus as well. We get to meet a lot of new musicians, there is so much talent there is amazing”.
That first festival was helped a little by some well meaning lunatics. “The reason we were able to do it this year is because we were providing the entertainment for a party at the end of a trip by the Advenrurists”, Martin explains. The Adventurists are, in their own words, ‘A force for global mischief and global good’, based in Bristol, co-ordinating skin of the teeth rallies across the world and raising money for charity in the process. The travel in old bangers some of us would not want to go down the shop in and sell of their vehicles at the end of the journey.
In 2010 the rally ended in Cameroon and they wanted help with an end of rally party. “We said look, if we build a stage with a PA and do music for your party in the evening, are you OK with us doing a festival during the day? They were really into it so that is what we did”. But the plan is to keep it going.
“At the moment it is a traditional music and dance festival. I have got this idea of trying to find a Morris group and the take them over, you can see the connections with what they do with Morris dancing, but finding the right group is proving difficult. Most of the Morris dance groups I have found have been quite tame, it could be a lot wilder, I think the Cameroon’s would love it, seeing English blokes with bells on bashing each other with sticks, it would blow them away”
Whilst the Cameroon gig is going from strength to strength, things in Ethiopia are not so rosy, with the festival being cancelled. “This year, the organiser was actually put in prison by the authorities. Ethiopia is very authoritarian with a highly dubious government, they like a lot of control and don’t really like people coming from outside. The first year we did it there was a real possibility we would have to cancel because they did not like the idea of more than three people gathering together anywhere, but It happened and was very positive for all the people that attended. We had a mercenary who had been at war with another tribe next door for years. The UN had been involved trying to bring peace to the area but nothing ever happened. But they came along to the festival and were saying ‘we have danced and sung along with each other, how can we fight them now?’
There have been problems recently with the World Wildlife Fund. They have been setting up conservation areas to protect endangered animals, which no one would argue with, but in the process they inadvertently turned the Baka, who live in one of these new parks, from traditional hunter gatherers into poachers. “To be fair on the WWF”, Martin comments, “they were involved in that a few years ago, but they have turned their polices around are actively working against that now. Having said that, the problem still exists. In some ways it is irrelevant what actual rights the Baka have, what is more relevant is what rights the authorities on the ground where they live let them have. They are still told they are not allowed to hunt in large areas of the forest. They still do it occasionally, but they have to do it clandestinely. They have the absolute right in Cameroonian law to do that, to hunt, but they are always told that they haven’t and they feel they are being treated really badly. It is still a remnant of what the WWF set up, but they have turned their policy around and are now taking the indigenous peoples more seriously”.
“When the WWF originally went there they only spoke to Bantu the farmers on the outskirts of the forest. They had to, by law, make sure that they did not just turn the area into a park and kick all the people out. They had to work out which parts of the park were being used. It is a bit of a problem because if you are a hunter gatherer you don’t really have any legal rights anywhere, but if you are a farmer you get rights over the land on which you farm. There is an organisation, the Forest People’s Programme who are trying to sort this out and the WWF have asked them for help”.
It seems like just about everything Martin does is connected with the Baka people; it is amazing how watching one documentary on Channel Four can change so many lives. But at the end of the day Martin is just another bloke, he plays in a ska-reggae band around his home town of Bath and he likes a pint. He is a sublimely talented guitarist, intelligent, has a social conscience the size of the moon and has travelled to places that make us extremely jealous. Bastard. We want to hate him, but we can’t, he is an extremely amiable down to earth bloke it is impossible to not like. Double bastard!
The Baka Forest People are hunter-gatherers from the central African rainforest. They mainly live in South-Eastern Cameroon, but a few also live in Congo and Gabon. Sometimes referred to as Pygmies, they are generally shorter than their Bantu neighbours, but are experts in forest life. They are reknowned throughout Africa for their hunting, musical and dancing skills.
Music is central to their lives. As soon as a baby is able to clap it is encouraged to participate in all the communal music-making. There is music for ritualistic purposes, music for passing on knowledge, stories and the history of the Baka people, and music for pure enjoyment.
Martin Cradick & Su Hart of Baka Beyond have been regularly visiting and working with a group of Baka near the Congo-Cameroon border where there lives are changing rapidly. In the time since 1992 that they started working with the Baka from a small village called Banana, they have seen many changes. In 1998 electricity arrived in Moloundu, the nearest town, bringing music and television (mainly French chat shows) to the bars.
In 2000 Banana was a tiny village with a few mud huts and Baka mongolus. Now there are several shops, and an influx of Congolese refugees has put extra pressure on the forest.
Although the Baka have the right to hunt for food enshrined in both Cameroonian and international law, on the ground they are told that they are not allowed to hunt larger animals and are often intimidated into giving up even small game.
Global Music Exchange Is a registered charity set up by Martin and Su. They are actively working to raise the status and self esteme of the Baka, as well as educating them and those around them about their human rights. they have the following aims:
1) Record endangered music and bring royalties from sales back to the musicians’ community
2) Use funds collected to carry out projects agreed by and of benefit to the community
3) Encourage self-worth and respect for their culture by showing that it is appreciated in the wider world
4) Bring all ages, ethnicities and religions together in joyous open-air events by setting up traditional music & dance festivals.
5) Relieve poverty in communities which have provided music for recordings
6) Educate people in Britain about foreign cultures by running workshops in schools and community centres
Projects so far completed include:
1) providing ID cards for the Baka people, thus protecting their human rights
2) distribution of basic necessities
3) establishing a Music House – a Baka Cultural Centre
4) basic medicine