Louis Sarno Dies at 62; Moved to Africa to Preserve Ancestral Music


The music “seemed to stir in me a vague memory, something that might have come from a dream,” Mr. Sarno wrote in a memoir, “Song From the Forest” (1993), “voices blending into a subtle polyphony, weaving a melody that rose and fell in endless repetition, as hypnotic as waves breaking on a shore.”

But Yandoumbe, where Mr. Sarno immersed himself among the Bayaka clan, was no sub-Saharan Walden.

The pygmies were bullied by other tribes and suffered from alcoholism and addiction. Poaching and logging encroached on their natural environment. The Central African Republic, where they lived — a landlocked country that ranks lowest on a global index of life expectancy, education and per capita income — was periodically ravaged by civil war and ethnic conflict.

Until they grasped Mr. Sarno’s deep appreciation of their culture, the Bayaka greeted him leerily, demanding money, cigarettes and alcohol and feeding him grubs.

Even as he evolved into their doctor, interpreter, educator and chief negotiator with outside buyers and suppliers, he often found himself in a paradoxical position: A Westerner committed to safeguarding the ancestral cultural traditions of a clan that was growing accustomed to — and even preferred — modern comforts.

“Maybe I’ve damaged them in some way, that they’re unsatisfied with the traditional way of life,” he told Newsweek in 2015.

The critic Luc Sante, a friend, said of Mr. Sarno in an email: “The encyclopedic breadth of his recordings has its tragic aspect. Because of the much shorter average life spans of the pygmies, Louis outlived two generations of his friends, and the third, far more westernized, now attends to the rituals much more perfunctorily.

“The traditions appear doomed.”

Mr. Sarno amassed thousands of hours of cassette recordings, which provided the basis for his book and two films: “Oka!” (2011), a fictionalized biography, and “Song From the Forest” (2015), a documentary in which his 13-year-old adopted Bayaka son accompanies him to New York City. Another book, “Bayaka: The Extraordinary Music of the BaBenzl Pygmies,” came with a compact disc. And an audio collection is being digitized by the Reel 2 Real Project at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford.

Bayaka Video by mdsled

Other researchers, including Hugh Tracey, Simha Arom, Michelle Kisliuk and Mauro Campagnoli, have studied the indigenous music of Central Africa. But Mr. Sarno’s devotion to recording the polyphonic singing and polyrhythmic drumming of the Bayaka people “is an unprecedented and unrepeatable ethnomusicological achievement,” said Noel J. Lobley, a professor at the University of Virginia as well as a researcher at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The earthy natural and man-made soundscape is mesmerizing. In his foreword to “Song From the Forest,” the journalist Alex Shoumatoff wrote that the pygmies were “basically doing karaoke with the sounds of the forest.”

In 1993, the British newspaper The Independent wrote of Mr. Sarno and his research: “There is a problem with describing this ethereal music. He writes about its ‘intricacy, subtlety and profound emotional content.’ But to get any real idea of what it actually sounds like, you would probably have to send off for a cassette. There is a risk in that, of course. Look what happened to him.”

Louis John Sarno Jr. was born on July 3, 1954, in Newark, to Louis Sarno, a professor, and the former Helen Dahar, a teacher. An aficionado of classical music early in life, he attended Northwestern University, where he befriended the future filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

“I knew he was a very strong person, and I had a strong feeling he was going to live his life as he chose,” Mr. Jarmusch wrote in an email. “He’s not someone who was going to find a job in an accounting firm or anything.”

Mr. Sarno transferred to Rutgers in New Jersey and graduated with a degree in English. He did postgraduate work in comparative literature at the University of Iowa, then moved with his wife, Wanda Boeke, to Amsterdam, where she was a Fulbright scholar.

Mr. Sarno worked in a laundromat there, conducted research into ethnic music at the public library and frequently joined his wife on visits to her family in Scotland.

Within months of the epiphanous radio broadcast of Bayaka music, and after contacting the anthropologist Colin Turnbull, Mr. Sarno flew to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, then traveled 600 miles overland in search of the forest people (or pygmies, according to the colonial terminology), who average less than five feet tall.

He separated from his wife, remained in Africa more or less permanently beginning in 1988, was granted citizenship in 2005, married at least two local women and adopted two sons.

“He is eccentric, yes, definitely an original,” Mr. Shoumatoff wrote of Mr. Sarno. “How many people would reinvent themselves as a pygmy (to the extent possible)? — but he is not a kook.”

Acculturating could be frustrating. He described taking Bayaka language lessons from a villager named Mowooma, whom he paid with cigarettes.

“Bhembpungungwa,” Mowooma said.

Mr. Sarno repeated the word, wrote it down and read it aloud.

“ ‘But what does it mean,’ I asked, ‘in French?’

“ ‘Never mind what it means in French!’ he replied impatiently. ‘You already know French!’ ”

Song From the Forest: A Musicologist’s Life in African and Urban Jungles Video by Andrew Revkin

A two-line poem that Mr. Sarno wrote in English on a beam of his frond-topped hut proved prophetic: “Here I lie in house of earth/Waiting for an upper berth.”

He went home to New Jersey last fall, his body racked by bouts of malaria, leprosy and cirrhosis resulting from hepatitis B.

In addition to his brother Steve, he is survived by another brother, Robert; a sister, Maryanne; and his mother.

After spending nearly half his life in equatorial Africa, Mr. Sarno had embraced the Bayaka philosophy.

“You’re living in the present; the past doesn’t exist any more,” was how he described it. “And it’s good, otherwise you get hung up about problems in the past and grudges. The past is finished. You’ve got to make the present as pleasant as possible. And the future, well it hasn’t happened yet, so why should you worry about it?”

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