Abatwa (The Pygmy) ‘Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?’ LP/CD/DIG (Glitterbeat) 3/5

Berlin-based indie label Glitterbeat have made it their lasting objective to showcase the supposedly commercially unviable musical projects that other labels would simply ignore. In so doing, they have performed the vital task of bringing hitherto unknown artists with important stories to tell about themselves and in this global village in which we all now inhabit, that is an extremely worthwhile endeavour.

Rwandan roots music has been given a boost in the last fifteen years with the unexpected success of Konono, but the music within this project is and definitely no glossy studio refinement either, though the recording quality is excellent on state of the arts equipment. Rather, producer Ian Brennan, has played the role of a latter day Alan Lomax, travelling to the most places in order to chronicle the folk music and seek to explain how it relates to the socio-political surroundings.

In the case of the Abatwa, or Pygmy peoples, they are an endangered community that have been marginalised by the larger nation-state and their music is a genuine plea both for help and greater understanding. The instrumentation is as basic as it gets, but in some ways this harks back to the origins of the blues in the United States, which does share common roots with west Africa, and from this perspective alone musicologists will be fascinated by some of the sounds that they hear within.

Resembling more a surfboard than musical instrument, the eleven-string icyembe, conjures up the Delta blues on a wonderful vocal duet with call and response elements on, ‘Umuyange’ (‘Protect the environment’) by Teonesse Majambere who also happens to have composed the piece. An outstanding example of the Abatwa’s musical heritage. Another instrument, the one-string fiddle, or iningidi, curiously has echoes of the folk roots of the Appalachian mountains and male vocalist, Jean-Baptiste Kanyambo cooks up a storm on, ‘Nyirandugu’ (‘The hard worker’). Needless to say modern technology is something in short supply in such a rural setting, but the Abatwa are nothing if resourceful and on a battery operated loop machine comes their unique take on rap, with the young teenage voice of Bihoyiki Dathive who improvises on, ‘Igira hino’ (‘Come closer’) and this creates a lovely bass-synth sound plus handclaps with a rap that makes even 1970s US rap sound somewhat passé. In the Abatwa community, music is something to be shared between generations and they can teach western society a thing or two in this respect, with, ‘Urwanikamiheto’ (‘War song’) a song performed by a sixty-seven year old mother and her sons. In the government designated villages, the Abatwa community are left to their own devices and this, sadly, results in alcohol addiction and depression. This mirrors the plight of Native Americans in the United States and it is to be hoped that projects of this nature will finally shed some much-needed light on the community and their desperate need for a hand up and greater recognition of and remedies to the difficulties they face. .

A very worthwhile project, but one point deducted for the paucity of time. Under thirty-five minutes for a CD, especially one compiling various artists, however interesting, is selling the listener short.

Tim Stenhouse