Song From the Forest had its US premiere at Austin’s 2014 SXSW festival. Directed by Michael Obert, Song From the Forest chronicles the life and work of Louis Sarno. Sarno is an ethnomusicologist whose work with the Bayaka pygmies has led to him becoming a full member of their community and creating a life in Central Africa, including a wife and 13-year-old son Samedi.
This is an impressive feat considering the Bayaka are somewhat of a mythic mystery even to their surrounding African neighbors. Hunter-gatherers, the Bayaka are currently fighting for survival as their rainforest home is cleared and poachers kill the animals they hunt. Song From the Forest’s webiste indicates that in 2003 the music of the Bayaka people was granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
If not for Sarno’s work, the musical heritage of the Bayaka would likely have been lost.
In the 25 years he’s been working with the Bayaka, Sarno has recorded over 1,000 hours of Bayaka music. The film provides a window into the culture and music of the Bayaka, showing scenes of daily life and children at play. Music seems to be an integral part of Bayaka culture, as in one scene several young boys make complex rhythms while splashing in the water.
In addition to exploring Bayaka culture, Song From the Forest also documents Sarno’s journey to NYC with Samedi. When Samedi was ill and near death in childhood, Sarno promised, “If you get through this, one day I’ll show you the world I come from.” The film is partially about his fulfillment of that promise. Once in America, Samedi meets Sarno’s family and friends, including his closest friend from college, Jim Jarmusch. Some of these people have not seen Sarno for decades due to his rainforest existence.
This section of the film also shows that while Sarno might have found a home with the Bayaka, he cannot completely shake his own Western past. At one point, Samedi says his family will be expecting him to return from America with practical things, like clothing, while his father insists on buying him only children’s toys and movies. There’s also a moment early in the film where Sarno’s wife (whose name we never learn) says she’d love to visit America and meet her husband’s mother, but he’s never asked her. Despite Sarno’s integration into the Bayaka’s more egalitarian culture, it seems he is perhaps still stymied by his American roots.
In some ways, Sarno seems to be afraid he’s outlived his usefulness in Bayaka culture. He’s taken on the role of caretaker for the community, but has limited financial means and is is struggling with his own health troubles. Without the funds to assist the Bayaka financially, Sarno admits to a fear he might have to leave his home there. The Bayaka also seem to be at a moment of crisis, as the youngest generation has yet to pick up the mantle of cultural tradition. What lies in store for the Bayaka remains to be seen, but the work of Sarno and Obert means their cultural heritage will not be lost, regardless of what their future holds.
Any academics will be able to appreciate Sarno’s attachment to those he studied, though Sarno has perhaps gone further than most with his integration into Bayaka culture. Music lovers will also be intrigued by the beautiful polyphonic music of the Bayaka. Additionally, much of the film is set in the lush African rainforest, whose beauty is a sight to behold. Sarno notes that at one point early in his life there, a gorilla came and sat 20-30 feet away from him and the just shared one another’s company for several hours. Sarno also notes the beauty of shared silence he found with the Bayaka, with the sounds of the rainforest keeping them all company. Where else can that way of life still be found?
For those interested in assisting the Bayaka further, US taxpayers can make a donation to Global Voice.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 03/16/2014.