KOLJA  (the booklet)
Polyphonies from the Asua Pygmies

Pygmies from the Northeast of the DR Congo, called Mbuti, fall into three groups, the Asua, Efe, and several Sua and Kango subgroups. The Asua and Efe speak languages ​​from the Central Sudanic family; the Sua and Kango speak Bantu languages. These semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer communities are therefore distinguished by linguistic criteria but also by the links they maintain with neighbouring peoples who are forest farmers. The Asua are close to the Mangbetu and related groups, Medje, Makere, Malele, Mapopoi and Babeyru. These peoples refer to the Asua Pygmies by the name Aka or Basa. The territory where the Asua are found is located West of the Bafwasende-Avakubi-Isiro road in the Northeast of Congo. The region where the Asua live is quite large and is part of three administrative entities: Tshopo, Haut-Uelé and Ituri.

When the German botanist Georg Schweinfurth met, in 1870, a pygmy at Chief Mangbetu’s Mbunza place in Tapili, North of Bomokandi, he was one of the first to remove the doubts of the European world as to their existence, which had been considered a myth since antiquity. The Asua are known from the studies of Schebesta1 (1952) and Turnbull2 (1965), but their music is still largely unknown.

The musical life of the Asua manifests itself on different occasions. Important events feature specific songs and dances. In the forest, there are few evenings without songs. The Asua are also among the main animators of the villagers’ music with whom they have contact, in particular during rituals, mourning lifts, ancestor worship and during the feasts closing the initiation ceremonies. The flexibility and adaptation of Asua singers is manifested by their sense of improvisation allowing them to adapt almost instantly to any situation. The importance of the participation of the Pygmies in rituals varies from place to place, but it is always an essential factor in the musical performance of these ceremonies.

Music concerning the collection of honey occupies a very important place in their musical repertoire. Honey is considered a very precious commodity and the delicacy par excellence. The main honey season is between May and July, but honey is found most of the year in the forest. This season is the time when groups form or split. It is also the moment when young people meet. Hunting often gives the opportunity to sing and dance. This repertory is divided into several categories. The social role of hunting songs is fundamental for the internal and external cohesion of Pygmy groups. Some of this music is played in the forest, most of the time without musical instruments, before or after the hunt. This kind of songs gives everyone their role for the action or for the sharing of the meat.

The recordings on this disc make it possible to hear four of the main categories of these Pygmies’ music: songs of the honey collecting season, songs related to hunting, ritual songs and songs of entertainment. The instrumental accompaniment is limited to percussion: female hand claps, clashing sticks and drums. These repertoires come from music practiced in the forest. The songs presented are of course only a small part of the Asua musical repertoire. Most songs have no titles; rather Asua refers to circumstances to which specific repertoires are linked. The music of the Asua is based on ostinati with variations, as is the case with most of the Pygmy music of Central Africa. The songs have no lyrics, only singers who begin the musical pieces or those who have an important role in them sometimes sing a few words or short sentences. Songs are made from meaningless vowels or syllables. Vocal polyphonies are developed on the basis of several melodies performed simultaneously and rhythmically independent. 

These recordings were made between 1986 and 1990. They come from three distinct areas, distant from each other, of the Asua territory: a region located a little North of Niapu, among the Malele, another West of Nia-Nia among the Babeyru (Nabulu) and another further North, near the Medje. This music comes from a time when Asua groups were still quite free from the pangs of modern times. The civil war that began in 1996, the insecurity that still persists, the different groups of missionaries who seek to eliminate these musical traditions of which they ignore their value, the restrictions linked to conservatism seeing the pygmies as invaders, not to say poachers, in territories where they have lived since remote times, seriously threaten the life and culture of this people of extraordinary musicians. It is to be hoped that these recordings will not be a trace of history, but the testimony of musical tradition still alive. Kolya, the title of the disc, is the generic term for songs among the Asua. 

  1. Schebesta, P. (1952). Les Pygmées du Congo belge. Mémoires de l’Institut colonial belge. Volume 26, fasc 2.
  2. Turnbull, C. (1965). The Mbuti Pygmies : An ethnographic survey. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. Volume 50, part 3. New-York.

CD tracks

  1. Song after collecting honey. Surroundings of Niapu
    Polyphonic song performed at night in a forest camp. The song evolves around two dominant voices, a female voice and a male voice, which sing different patterns around which the other singers are articulated in several groups. A skin drum women hand clapping accompanies the voices.

  2. Song after collecting honey. Surroundings of Kisanga 
    This polyphony is sung by a group of young men, the only percussive element consists of of the singers’ hand clapping. This musical piece expresses the joy of a fruitful harvest of honey in the forest. We may notice the interweaving of the formulas that are performed by the different singers and the balance between the voices.

  3. Festive song. Surroundings of Niapu
    Festive song performed in a forest camp, to celebrate the meeting of the Pygmies with a group of villagers, during an exchange of forest meat for village products. The song evolves around two dominant voices, a female voice and a male voice, which alternately sing different motifs. The male voice sometimes evokes the name of the local chief or important authorities with whom it is best to be on good terms. The other singers are spread over several melodic lines. A skin drum and women hand clapping make the rhythmic accompaniment.

  4. Song after collecting honey. Surroundings of Kisanga 
    This small polyphony is sung by the same group of young men as that of the second piece. The singers hand clapping constitutes the only percussive element. Outside the place of collection, these songs are simple musical pleasure, to express the joy of a fruitful harvest.

  5. Molinga. Mourning song. Forest camp near Kisanga
    Molinga is the name of the songs of mourning between the Asua and the Malele, villagers with whom they are in contact. This music, which has a very organized character in the villages, is very different in the forest or when the Pygmies are among themselves. The whole camp participates in these songs. This one is remarkable for the interlacing voices from which the polyphony originates. A drum struck on the skin and on the sides sustain the rhythm. The role of these songs is to restore harmony, disturbed by death, between the deceased and his family, but also between the Asua and the forest universe. The end of the song evokes the molimo, which is the spirit of the forest. This repertoire is present in all groups of pygmies in northeastern Congo.

  6. Song after collecting honey. Forest camp south of Medje
    This song, intended to thank the ancestors for the discovery of beehives, takes place in a temporary camp set up in the forest, at night around the fire. The men sit in a semi-circle in front of the women and children. Every now and then, a woman gets up to dance in front of the assembly. In these pieces with several voices, the clapping of hands of the dancing women constitutes the rhythmic accompaniment.

  7. Song of a hunt return. Forest camp south of Medje  
    Song of entertainment performed on the occasion of the end of a successful hunt. The women clap their hands and the men clash sticks.

  8. Song of a hunt return. Avangele of Bafwasamoa 
    This piece was recorded in a Babeyru village with which the Asua have a fairly close relationship. The song is accompanied by a drum struck on the sides and by a piece of split bamboo, struck with a stick. In the profusion of voices, bells placed around the ankles of some dancers appear. The Pygmies play this music when they return to the villages to bring meat or to participate in the initiations of young people. It is collective and all the members of a camp participate in it. 

  9. Entertainment song. Forest camp south of Medje  
    This festive song can be performed for any kind of ceremony. A male voice sings the song, which includes a few words that evoke a recently deceased elder. A female choir, who sings a repeating motive accompanied by hand clapping, goes along with the singer.

  10. Entertainment song. Forest camp south of Medje
    The same group of song 9 performs this festive song. Here a female voice is leading the song. A male choir, who sings a repeated motive, accompanies her. Hand-clapping accompanies the women.

  11. Festive song. Forest camp south of Medje
    Song performed at night in a forest camp when two Asua groups meet. The song is initiated by a woman and accompanied by dancing. The singers are divided into several voices; the male voices provide a basis for the melodic developments of the female voices. A slit drum makes the rhythmic accompaniment; a tree trunk struck with sticks and women’s hands clapping. 

  12. Festive song. Avangele from Bafwasamoa
    This song, accompanied by dancing performed by the women, is played with a drum struck on the sides and by a piece of split bamboo, struck with a stick. This song imitates with the voice, the instrument par excellence of the Pygmies, melodies sometimes played with trumpets or whistles. Men's voices produce a hockett polyphony in which each man sings at a determined pitch by varying the rhythm of the note he controls. The ensemble weaves a polyphonic choir that accompanies the dance. The women appear and disappear according to their small dance solos while being accompanied by hand clapping.