The Genesis of Zygmon

Zygmon is a quartet I lead that plays instrumental adaptations of Cameroonian Baka Pygmy music.

When I was nine years old I borrowed a book from my dad by Louis Sarno entitled “Song From the Forest:My Life Among the Pygmies”. What I read captivated me and was the beginning of a life long fascination with Pygmy music of the Ituri rainforest. The book is an account of Sarno’s initial time spent living with and recording the Bayaka tribe of the Congo. At the time I had yet to become serious about music, but I was struck by Sarno’s presentation of a music and lifestyle that were deeply intertwined with a stunning natural environment. And I was seduced by his description of the music, which evoked a timeless pulsating twilight similar to what I feel today when listening to my favorite Pygmy records.

After reading “Song from the Forest” I was always scouring cd stores for a recording of Pygmy music. At the age of 15 I found “Anthology of World Music: Africa: The Ba-Benzele Pygmies” in Boone, NC of all places. I immediately began transcribing a whistle solo similar in style to what Herbie Hancock copied for the intro to Watermelon Man.

Hindewhu (whistle) solo

Soon afterwards I got together with my friend and drummer Brad Wentworth and we played duo using the whistle solo as our improvisational vehicle. It was a pivotal early musical experience that I remember vividly. The emotional and energetic effect of the material was new for me. It was devoid of the harmony and melodies of the jazz standards that I was struggling with at the time and instead lent itself to a rhythmically cyclical manner of playing that produced something of a trance state. I remember a long silence as we processed what we had just played.

From that moment on I was always looking for new recordings and started to amass a collection. One specific album lent itself to many listens, “Heart of the Forest” by the Baka forest people of southeast Cameroon. Part of what differentiated this album is that Martin Cradick put great care into the recording quality of the material and track selection. Each track had its own compositional stamp that separated it from the rest of the album. Whether it was water drumming, funky nursery rhymes, odd metered harp solos or yodelling with up to five rhythmically independent voices.

My first attempt at transcribing a more complex polyphonic pygmy performance was in college. A year after thinking I had completed my transcription of “Song of rejoicing after returning from a hunt” I revisited what I had written down only to realize that I had mistaken the third triplet of each beat for the downbeats! I worked on an accurate transcription, and similar to the first time I used Ba-benzele music as an improvisational vehicle my mind dilated as the implications of what I had written down sunk in. I could see a window opening into a rhythmic world which was completely foreign to me.

Song of rejoicing after returning from a hunt

Coincidentally it was around this same time that I began to study Afro Peruvian music and play with a handful of bands that performed Afro Peruvian music. The rhythmic language was completely foreign to me and I hopelessly struggled to not get lost in a world that existed somewhere in the cracks of the western concept of rhythm that I was programmed to think in. For a number of years I listened to and studied the rhythmic patterns and time feels of Afro Peruvian music. Later when I began transcribing the Baka Pygmy music that would form the basis of the arrangements on Zygmon’s debut album I used what I had learned about Afro Peruvian music as a guidepost to navigate and attempt to absorb the rhythmic language of the Baka. The commonalities between the two should come as no surprise given that the slave coast is on the fringes of the Ituri rainforest.

Also during my college years I was exposed to the music of Miguel Zenon, who became an extremely important teacher and inspiration for me. Miguel’s compositional fusion of Latin music with eclectic influences spoke to me. Particularly impactful was the time I spent with him dissecting his compositional process. When doing my first arrangement of Ba-Benzeli music I found myself using compositional tools that Miguel had shown me. Hence the name of that song and of the group, Zenon + Pygmy=Zygmon

Zygmon(track based on “Song of rejoicing after returning from a hunt”)