In the Footsteps of the 1946 Ogooué-Congo Mission

Fascinating sound and visual material

The Babinga Pygmies’ “yodels”

During his stay in the Babinga Pygmies’ camps near Gandicolo, Gilbert Rouget had the opportunity to attend several ritual ceremonies that he would later describe and analyse.

As he underlined in his 2004 article L’Efficacité musicale: musiquer pour survivre - Le cas des Pygmées, the musical practices of the Babinga Pygmies are closely linked to the elephant hunt. Among the sounds collected during the Mission are several examples of Yeli, a polyphonic “yodeled” choir performed by a group of women and led by the wife of the chief hunter to encourage hunting success. This vocal technique fascinated Rouget when he first heard it. It also caught the attention of the famous Romanian ethnomusicologist Constantin Brăiloiu, who wrote about it in his 1949 article A propos du Jodel after listening to the sound recordings of the Ogooué-Congo Mission.

Listen below to a recording of Singing Yeli: women's choir

During their stay, Rouget and Didier also recorded several pieces of Edzingi, a ceremony that takes place after a successful elephant hunt. This ritual lasts for several hours and combines chants, percussion instruments and dances. It introduces a dressed-up and masked character who symbolically represents the elephant.

A key milestone in the history of French ethnomusicology

Because of the quantity and quality of the resources and their scientific importance, the sound recordings collected during the Ogooué-Congo Mission mark a key milestone in the history of French ethnomusicology.

A large body of 500 recordings, now available on Europeana Collections, allows us to discover some emblematic music instruments from the region, such as the sanza, a small “thumb piano” made of wood and metal tines; the pluriarc, a plucked string instrument; the xylophone; the nose flute and several percussion instruments.

They also feature paddlers’ songs, recorded on the Ogooué River in Gabon, that Rouget and Didier compared to African American spirituals afterwards.

Listen below to a recording of a paddlers' song.

Documents dispersed over several French archives

The entire Ogooué-Congo Mission’s sound archive is part of the collection of CNRS-Musée de l’Homme, managed by CREM (Center for Research in Ethnomusicology). In addition to the sound recordings, many other documents were collected and produced during the Mission: 120 artefacts, 3,000 photographs, very detailed field notes, drawings and films.

These documents are now dispersed over several public and private archives in France. The Musée du Quai Branly - Jacques Chirac owns a large collection of artefacts collected during the Mission, including musical instruments, agricultural tools, weapons, hunting instruments and wickerwork items. The numerous photographs taken by Noël Ballif and André Didier are a fascinating visual addition to the sound recordings. They also reveal portraits of the Mission’s members and document their daily life on location.