Living It: Emerging Explorer Josh Ponte
Q+A: Josh Ponte, Live from Gabon
Music explorer Josh Ponte sets out to preserve a country's ancient culture of sound. Text by Mary Anne Potts Photograph courtesy Josh Ponte
||A mongongo, mouth bow, player in Makonge gets his close-up.
Hear the Music
Listen to National Geographic Emerging Explorer Josh Ponte's Gabonese music.
This new composition, "Ethni," is based on indigenous rhythms and melodies and features Gabonese pop star Annie-Flore Batchiellilys.
Listen to "Ethni" >>
Now hear two polyphonic, polyrhythmic Pygmy music field recordings from the village of Ikobe, the spiritual center of Gabon.
Listen to "Ikobe I" >>
Listen to "Ikobe II" >>
This Gabonese music will be available soon on a two-CD album entitled People: Gabon, from National Geographic World Music.
National Geographic World Music: More music from Gabon >>
More Living It Q+As:
David de Rothschild: Talking Trash >>
Tony and Maureen Wheeler, Founders of Lonely Planet: Lonely at the Top >>
THE MAN: Josh Ponte, 36, British documentary filmmaker and music producer
THE MISSION: A 3,400-mile (5,500-kilometer) road trip—yielding a film and two CDs—to showcase Gabonese traditional music and draw attention to the importance of cultural conservation in developing countries
How does a music promoter from London end up archiving Gabon's musical legacy?
In 2002 President Omar Bongo announced the creation of 13 new national parks. I was working for the Wildlife Conservation Society at the time, and a whole group of us—including Pierre Akendengue, the godfather of Gabonese folk music, and Annie-Flore Batchiellilys, the nation's hottest pop star—set off on a trip to get the word out about the parks to the people living around them. But the music and culture we found changed the whole scope of our project.
What sorts of sounds did you encounter? Ethnomusicologist Ivan Lantos, who traveled with us, said it was like finding a living example of an animal thought to be extinct. This is some of the rarest music on the planet. Traditional Gabonese singing is predominantly polyphonic and polyrhythmic, which means that they do autonomous melodies and rhythms at the same time. You'd imagine that would be awful. But they're in the forest, where you've got a billion insects, gorillas, and mandrills shouting at once. The village music represents that same thing. There might be 50 women, each singing a different song, but the combined noise is audio perfection. Beautiful, insane, and raw.
Did you tour rock-and-roll style?
It was nuts. We had high-end audio equipment, but no water. We had extremely nice cameras, but not much food. Even in the dry season, the roads were bloody hell. Still we drove ten hours a day, danced every night, and recorded over a hundred hours of music and video.
What was your wildest moment?
On my last day in Ikobe, this exquisite village that's in the heart of Pygmy country, in the spiritual center of Gabon, some villagers rushed me into a smoky little temple and started singing, flicking my hands, and blowing on me. Suddenly these kids were spitting in my ears. I thought, Well, this is a bit unfortunate. But then I realized that it was the pinnacle of our journey—a Pygmy benediction.
What's the ultimate goal of this project?
The rural people of this country—where human evidence dates back 400,000 years—are shifting into the modern world. Of course, they have every right to improve their lives, to build schools and hospitals, but does development have to spell the death of traditional culture every time? I hope to show where Gabon is today, in a changing world, with this astonishing music at its heart.
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