“The quality of his work is so high…he is a great recorder and as soon as I heard it I ran around telling everybody. There is a good network of people around this collection who want to do good”.
Noel Lobley, Ethomusicologist, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
In January 2012, NPR featured the tale of Louis Sarno, a man “who found meaning” among the The Bayaka Pygmy Clan in the Central African Republic (CAR). Its peg was a movie made on Sarno’s life by filmmaker Lavinia Currier, based on Sarno’s unpublished memoirs.
Sarno is something of an NPR favourite – in the piece in question, host Robert Siegel recalls interviewing him some 20 years previously – because of the apparent romanticism of a life abandoned to spend studying a remote clan’s music (Siegel praises “the stunning music…their voices…and their use of virtually everything around them, the trees, the water, as musical instruments”). There’s a British link to this ongoing saga: Oxford’s Pitt-Rivers Museum is engaged with archiving thousands of hours of Sarno’s recordings of the pygmies’ work. Ethnomusicologist Noel Lobley, one of the project team, told me: “Louis thinks it’s all changing and wants to record it before it’s too late. We know it’s not so simple as that. How can these recordings be meaningful back in the CAR?”
But it’s been something of a horrific twelve months for Sarno. Earlier this year, he took to his Facebook page to speak of Seleka rebels coming to his town in the CAR, shooting a boy to death and looting his possessions. They ransacked Sarno’s house, forced him to flee into the forest, where he stayed for three weeks. “Nothing is left,” he writes. “Not even my flute [the tribe’s last, after its player bequeathed it to him, then died a month later]” (sadly such tales are not uncommon: read Mark Townsend in the Observer here).
This week, a piece published in Haaretz relays Sarno's full ordeal: how he turned hunter, lived off wild mushrooms and escaped up the Congo to flee to New York. The paper reports that he has only just returned to his tribe after the political situation has normalised.
He says: “Tragic reports always added up to no more than a minor nuisance here. And also, call me naive, but we live in the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage site. I assumed that the world would not let anything too awful happen to us.” Rob Sharp
All photos are taken by Louis Sarno and copyright and courtesy the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. For more information on the Louis Sarno Archive, see here.