Abatwa (The Pygmy) – Why Did We Stop Growing Tall

Album Review | Glitterbeat | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 3/5

The Abatwa ‘pygmy’ tribe is identified as one of the most marginalised, voiceless and endangered populations in Africa.  This album, the forth volume of Glitterbeat’s acclaimed Hidden Musics series, follows volumes bringing together, Hanoi Masters, Khmer Rouge Survivors and Every Song Has Its End: Sonic Dispatches From Traditional Mali.  Producer Ian Brennan is a man with a mission, a kind of international cultural crate digger, recording the lost, the disappearing and the obscure.  This collection brings together performances that are strange and abstract, often beautiful and sometimes disquietingly raw.  “Beautiful Rwanda” (Rwanda Nziza) blends a passionate vocal from Emmanuel Hatungumana with the Umuduli a percussive one string instrument, and manages to be both delicate and edgy.  “Stop Crying Now” (Ihorere)  is a beguiling duet between Emmanuel Habumuremy and Ange Kamagaju, husband and wife with accompaniment by the eleven string Icyembe a plucked instrument that sounds like a resonant guitar.  The track is a hypnotic masterpiece, with vocals from another world.  “War Song” (Urwanikamiheto) features 67 year old Beatrice Mukaeungi, leading her sons in song.  There is a gospel call and response; quality to the beautiful vocals with its circling drum pattern.  More unexpected and rawer are tracks like “Child Of The Streets” (Umwana W’umuhanda) and “Come Closer” (Igira Hino).  Featuring Rosine Nyiranshimiyimana and Bihoyiki Dathive, these are passionate gritty raps with grimy textures provided by battery operated loop machines.  Energy and a sense of urgency come through on every note, but shot through with a raw savage beauty these are a different kind of discerned gem. Not always an easy listen they are always compelling.  “Protect The Enviroment” (Umuyange) is a passionate duet, accompanied by the bluesy sounding Icyembe and bursts of bird song.  “Night Street Walker Who’ll Care For My Children” (Cyabusiko) has a keening vocal over a layer of Mbira textures, the thumb piano with additional found metal distorters sounding treated like digital ambience, its notes sounding clipped like a loop or sample. But this is not a studio soundscape, this is the sound of a relegated people, making their music and being given an international audience.  Abatwa, titled in an attempt to rehabilitate a pejorative name, a slur, gives a voice to often otherwise voiceless people.  The collection of haunting solo and group vocals, accompanied by more traditional stringed instruments and often almost post-apocalyptic sounding loops and samples, grabbed on the crudest of machines, is by turns sweet and melodic, then edgy and discordant.  That this is, as the series suggests, an otherwise hidden music serves to remind us of the rich diversity of songs, sounds and messages in Africa.  There is a whole continent of musicians and singers who are adeptly using traditional forms and appropriated forms like Rap to make beguiling music.