Louis Sarno was born in Newark in 1954. While living in Amsterdam in the mid 80s, he was struck by some ethnic recordings playing on the radio which the station did not identify. Captivated by the music, he did some research until he discovered that the music was Baka pygmy music from the forests of the Central African Republic. After reading Colin Trumbull’s The Forest People, he decided to go and find and document more of this music firsthand. He ended up living most of his adult life with the Baka pygmies as a member of the tribe, marrying a pygmy woman, adopting a son, and recording hundreds of hours of music over a period of around 20 years. The documentary “Song from the Forest” documents his life in the forest and is readily available online. One of the episodes from the film recounts a promise he made to his sick infant son; holding him in his arms and telling him to breathe, and that if he lived he would bring him to America for a visit. His son lives, and the movie documents Sarno and his young son Samedi to New York City.
The Baka pygmies are hunters and gatherers. Hunting is done with nets and sound. Their way of life goes back eons, and over the course of the last 30 years, has become threatened by trade, enslavement by neighboring tribes, and progress in general. Like almost all pygmy tribes their life in the forest is permeated by music and singing in multiple aspects of their everyday life. The forest itself is seen as a sacred, living presence that provides for their needs. After seeing this movie it is not hard to understand Sarno’s attraction to the pygmy culture. In the age of globalism it is impossible to watch this and not marvel that such a beautifully natural lifestyle is still within the realm of possibility. Truly inspiring.
Sarno died in 2017 in Teaneck. Illnesses picked up in Africa probably accelerated his demise. He left hundreds of hours of field recordings housed at the Pitts River Museum in Oxford, England, some of which can be heard here. In my book, he led one of the most fascinating lives of our time.