If any novelist wrote a tale about a young Israeli orchestral musician who became a world expert on the music of the Aka Pygmies of Central Africa, thereby directly influencing Steve Reich, Herbie Hancock and Madonna, readers would deem the story unlikely. Yet this is exactly what happened to the veteran French-Israeli musicologist Simha Arom (born Fred Arom in Düsseldorf in 1930). Arom, who is an emeritus director of research at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, has just published his memoir, “La Fanfare de Bangui: Itinéraire Enchanté d’un Ethnomusicologue” (“The Bangui Fanfare: The Bewitching Itinerary of an Ethnomusicologist” (Éditions La Découverte)), to explain how it all happened.
After narrowly escaping deportation in 1942 as a refugee in France, Arom grew up in Israel, where he studied music. In 1954, he returned to France to obtain a diploma as a French horn soloist at the Paris Conservatory. For five years, he dutifully played the horn in the Kol Israel Orchestra, a radio ensemble that was formed in the 1940s and eventually became the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. In 1963, feeling that he was in a rut, Arom was entranced when Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited him, as part of a cultural exchange program, to travel to the Central African Republic and put together and train a new local brass ensemble or “fanfare” — referenced in the memoir’s title — in the capital city of Bangui. Instead, Arom was immediately distracted when he heard Pygmy musicians singing outside his hotel window in Bangui. Arom writes:
I felt that their music came from the back of time, but also, to a certain extent, from my own depths. Yet I could never have known it, never having heard anything like it before. It was insane. How did the musicians achieve this? I was dumbfounded.
Comparing this music to a “Jungian archetype,” Arom was astounded to see how the Pygmies managed to sing complex call-and-response music with a dense musical structure, yet with total liberty and assurance and without a conductor’s help. He describes the sound as an “intricate abundance” nonetheless marked by “rigorous rhythmic and melodic organization”; he titled a later article “Everything Is Measured, but Nobody Counts.” This acutely paradoxical achievement occurs despite the difficult conditions in which its creators survive. The Pygmies, a minority population, are permanent quasi-refugees who are sometimes obliged to flee their enemies by escaping into the rain forest.
Arom befriended these elusive people, treating them with respect and humorous affection. He spent years patiently analyzing and recording their music, making sure that elders were present whenever younger performers gave their versions of the music, to make sure that traditions were being respected. If one of the elders “shook his head with a doubtful expression, I stopped recording,” Arom writes. Armed with a tape recorder and a pair of headphones in the early years, Arom concocted a method to dissect the labyrinthine works, asking each musician to listen to a playback of the group recording and add his own individual portion to the sound landscape. Arom reports: “The musicians good-humoredly accepted the white researcher’s absurd demands, since they clearly understood what I was looking for, which gave them food for thought.”
When Arom’s recordings were first published in the 1960s and ’70s, the Aka Pygmies won a measure of fame and even made a concert tour to Switzerland and France. Although it was the first time they had left the rain forest, Arom notes, the Pygmies quickly learned how to operate a flush toilet and the TV remote control. Arom never tired of these musicians and their exquisite sounds, and just recently, as part of an online chat for France’s Libération newspaper, when a reader asked what Western musical style most resembles Aka Pygmy music, he replied: “None. Pygmy vocal polyphony is unique, as much by its complexity and by its beauty.”
This view was shared by a number of keen musical ears, including Hungarian-Jewish composer György Ligeti (1923 –2006), whose fascination with “the other” as a source of musical inspiration was joined with identification, like Arom, with the Pygmy people as survivors against the odds who achieved dazzling artistic intricacy. In a foreword to Arom’s magisterial “African Polyphony and Polyrhythm: Musical Structure and Methodology” (Cambridge University Press, 1991), Ligeti describes his discovery of Arom’s recording, “Banda Polyphonies”:
Having never before heard anything quite like it, I listened to it repeatedly and was then, as I still am, deeply impressed by this marvelous polyphonic, polyrhythmic music with its astonishing complexity…. For composition, [Arom’s research] opens the door leading to a new way of thinking about polyphony, one which is completely different from the European metric structures, but equally rich, or maybe… even richer than the European tradition.
Asked by interviewers to cite sources for his rhythmically variegated piano music, Ligeti would later claim: “Chopin and Pygmies.” Italian composer Luciano Berio also used Arom’s recordings to elaborate his vast “Coro” for chorus and orchestra, and jazzman Hancock incorporated an imitation of Pygmy music in his “Watermelon Man,” as did Madonna in her album, “Sanctuary.”
None of these aesthetic resonances, however, duplicates the true emotional basis of Arom’s pioneering studies. “African Polyphony and Polyrhythm” is dedicated to the memory of his parents, Liba and David, “who died in Auschwitz, as did so many other innocent victims of the worst consequences of racism.” Arom has remained profoundly sensitive to the perils of racism; on the occasion of a landmark 2003 London concert that combined performances of music by Reich, another musician influenced by Pygmy music; Ligeti, and the Aka Pygmies themselves, Arom was asked by the The Independent newspaper why such a concert had never been assembled before. His answer was succinct: “We’re working against racism.”
By defeating preconceptions about so-called primitive peoples, we learn that those who are underestimated may be, in fact, revelatory creators. Although his bibliography includes studies of liturgical music of the Jews of Sana (Yemen) and Ethiopia, among many other subjects, the fight against racism is the most resoundingly permanent lesson of the triumphant life and career of Simha Arom. To watch a recent interview with Arom click here.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.