Giving sound and image a central role

After graduating with a degree in ethnology, Noël Ballif, only 23 years old at the time, started organising a scientific mission in Equatorial Africa, whose purpose was to cross Middle Congo and Gabon with a multidisciplinary team of scientists and technicians.

A former student of Marcel Griaule and Michel Leiris at the Ethnology Institute of the University of Paris, Ballif dreamt of following in the footsteps of his illustrious professors, who took part in the famous Dakar-Djibouti Mission from 1931 to 1933.

After overcoming some initial difficulties, he managed to raise sufficient funds for the expedition with the support of the French Ministries of Overseas and National Education. He gathered a multidisciplinary team around him, mainly composed of friends from university and acquaintances. Their ambition was to study prehistory and geology, as well as ethnology, musicology and linguistics.

The Mission also intended to give sound and image a central role, which explains the presence of sound recordings, cinema and the presence of specialist photographers within the team.

A multidisciplinary team

The 12-member team of the Ogooué-Congo Mission included scientists, engineers and directors. It featured ethnologists (Noël Ballif and Raoul Hartweg), an ethnomusicologist (Gilbert Rouget), archaeologists (Francis Mazière and Erik Hinsch), an engineer (André Didier), a physics teacher (Guy Nief), a geologist (Guy de Beauchêne), film directors (Jacques Dupont and Edmond Séchan), a photographer (Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau) and a painter (Pierre Lods).

The only member of the expedition still alive, Gilbert Rouget, turned 101 in July 2017.

He was 30 when he joined the Ogooué-Congo Mission. He had been working for four years as the assistant to André Schaeffner, Head of the ethnomusicology department at Paris Musée de l’Homme. Rouget was the only music specialist in the team.

To make the recordings, he was assisted by Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau and André Didier, a sound-recording specialist working at Paris Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.

A journey through Middle Congo and Gabon

The team left Paris on 17 July 1946 and boarded three Junkers 52 which are former German military planes that had been acquired by the French Air Force. They landed in Brazzaville, the capital of French Equatorial Africa at the time, after a one-week journey and several stops in Algiers, Aoulef, Gao, Lagos and Pointe-Noire.

Carrying a ton of equipment, they first drove the trucks to Ouesso, the last city before the border with Cameroon, around 1,000 km north of Brazzaville.

To reach the Equatorial Forest and meet Pygmy tribes, they continued their trip on pirogues along the Sangha River, a tributary of the Congo River, and landed in Gandicolo, in the Haute Sangha region. Accompanied by guides and carriers they encountered elephants and gorillas.

They finally reached a couple of Babinga Pygmy camps where they spent six weeks in complete immersion, from 26 August to 6 October 1946. Afterwards, they paddled back to Brazzaville along the Sangha and Congo rivers and drove to Franceville, in Gabon. They then went down the Ogooué River to reach Lambaréné, the final stop of the Ogooué-Congo Mission, before heading back to Brazzaville and France.