We recently sat down with Martin Cradick of Baka Beyond to chat about the longevity of the band, the possibility of new music, and the environmental causes dear to his heart. It all made for quite an informative chat, which you can read below!
By Jane Howkins
You recently announced a special tour in celebration of the 25th anniversary of your debut album, Spirit of the Forest. Did you ever imagine that you would still be performing those songs 25 years later? And how does that feel?
It’s hard to imagine when you are in your early 30s what it’s like to be in your 50s and I don’t think I could imagine I’d still be playing with Baka Beyond even if I couldn’t imagine ever giving up music.
You’ve released eleven albums over the years. How have things changed for you as a band since then, and how has the music industry changed since then? Has it made it easier or harder to produce and release music?
Spirit of The Forest was recorded almost entirely in our bedroom and the band didn’t exist at the time. When we were asked to perform live I had no desire to recreate the album exactly, but to recreate the spirit of the music with the musicians around. The next couple of albums were a balance between trying to not have a radically different sound from the successful Spirit of The Forest whilst allowing the band’s sound to emerge. It wasn’t until the album Sogo that I feel that this was achieved, but this coincided with the purchase of Rykodisc by Island Music and Sogo wasn’t even released in the USA [our main market at the time]. After that we went independent with our own record company March Hare Music.
The best time for us as an independent company was when music was widely pirated on the internet but streaming wasn’t in the picture. Piracy was always more of a problem for established artists as it would eat into their profits. For independent artists, the increase in exposure by people sharing your music increased sales, and the internet made your music available. I knew many people who downloaded all their music for free, but then made a point of buying CDs of the downloads they liked. Those same people now subscribe to Spotify and feel that they have paid for the music. Now we only sell CDs at concerts and our online income has decreased tenfold.
It’s never been easier to produce and release music, but to turn that into an income has never been harder. It’s been a bit frustrating as the live band has really come together. We are tighter than we’ve ever been and the audience reaction has been fantastic, but we’ve always been outside mainstream genres and difficult to market. Even Spirit of the Forest, that sold nearly a quarter of a million copies, mainly sold them through alternative shops rather than through record shops which is why it was never in the mainstream charts in spite of its sales.
Do you have any plans to release any new music anytime soon? If so, what can you tell us about that?
We were contemplating a Best Of album but Warner, the owners of our earlier albums, were asking too much money to make it viable, and a Best Of without some of these early songs seems a bit pointless. We have some great live recordings from last year’s tour which we are planning to make available during our concerts. Unfortunately, Paddy wasn’t with us last year so we will be recording this tour as well. For me, live is really where it’s at. All the music has space for change so the live performances are always different from the studio versions and I’ve never heard the rhythm section [Kibi, Ayo and Clyde] so tight as on these recordings.
Apart from Baka Beyond, Su has written some music for 14 women’s voices that has had some very successful performances which we intend to record, and I continue to record the Baka’s music in the rainforest. Earlier this year I recorded several new songs by young Baka writers as well as making a 360º film of traditional dances.
I am working on arranging this music for a new album, as well as other music, but I’ve decided to concentrate on writing and recording rather than stressing about having to release anything. When I have enough I’m happy with, I’ll work out how best to release it.
Paddy is rejoining you for this gig. How does it feel to be reunited, and how did that come about?
After the crash in 2008 and austerity, the amount of money supporting the arts took a very noticeable dive. With a touring party of eight people Baka Beyond was expensive to keep on the road. The only reason we started touring without Paddy was that he lives in Toulouse and the expense of flying him to the UK for gigs was no longer feasible. Since then we have done the odd concert with him when we were paid enough to cover his flights, but he hasn’t toured with us for a few years. We all love playing with Paddy, who adds another element to the music. It didn’t seem right to do the 25th anniversary tour without him so we thought, ‘Forget the expense, let’s do it anyway’.
The nearest gig to us is being held at The Chapel in Leeds. Is this an area you enjoy playing in?
We enjoy playing wherever there are people to play to. Baka Beyond’s music creates a certain type of unique party atmosphere so playing to an audience in London feels very similar to playing to an audience in California. It’s a while since we played in Leeds so it will be good to be able to reach out again to our fans around there.
Your music was heavily inspired by the Baka people, and over the years you’ve done much to bring awareness and attention to them. What was it that appealed so much about the Baka, and how did you meet them?
When we first saw Phil Agland’s film People of The Rainforest back in 1989 it was the music that appealed so much. For Su, it was the women’s singing and for me it was that music seemed so part of everyday life with everyone joining in. Over the two years after seeing that film a series of coincidences occurred that found us walking into the forest with a guitar, a mandolin, a sack of salt and other presents. Little did we know how much that would change our lives.
You set up the Global Music Exchange charity to raise funds to support the Baka. Is that still going strong? And what sort of issues are the Baka facing at the moment?
Global Music Exchange is still going strong. As we get to know the Baka better, we find more projects that need supporting, whilst revenue from CD sales diminishes. As a result, GME has had to function more like a traditional charity rather than a fair-trade organisation. There was a time when sales of Baka music could fund all the projects we were involved with but now we have to fund raise, which is definitely not my strongpoint. The main issues the Baka face are due to the continuing and constant pressure on them to move to roadside villages and to “stop living in the forest like animals and become productive members of Cameroon society” [as the Cameroon government and the WWF would have it]. To me it is a human rights issue. The government say they are better off in villages near to education and healthcare but, in reality, they are discriminated against and abused in the villages and don’t have the money for healthcare, and the racism they experience from the villages prevents them having meaningful access to the schools.
This year we are fund-raising for another Forest Voices Tour. We take the Baka band, Orchéstre Baka Gbiné, around other Baka villages. This encourages all the Baka to come to see the band [that they have all heard of] and after the concert we show films that are mainly in Baka which highlight the issues they face. Afterwards we encourage them to make statements to camera so that we can collect their voices. A problem they have is that whenever anyone comes to find out what they themselves want they always work through the villagers. The Baka movers and shakers are never present and the only stories they hear are what the Baka feel comfortable telling in front of the people that oppress them. Forest Voices Tour gets closer to the true picture and has been very well liked by the Baka communities.
Are there any other causes that are dear to your hearts? We assume you’re quite environmentally conscious?
The Baka have one of the lowest environmental footprints of any people on earth. While there are many causes dear to my heart, I concentrate on working for the Baka. Partly because they are now my extended family [over the last 25 years I have seen more Baka born and die than I have people in UK] and partly because they show us how humans can exist completely in harmony with the planet. I have learned that if there is anything we as humans can do to make the world a better place it is to be a gardener! We have the ability to make the world a more beautiful, biodiverse and abundant place. The Baka see the world in terms of abundance. Where there is scarcity it is because people are not sharing properly. Seeing the world in terms of scarcity [as we do in this capitalist society] leads to paranoia, hoarding, over-production and excessive waste.
Why do you think people should come and see you perform, and what can people expect from a gig? How will the reunion shows be different to a normal Baka Beyond gig?
People should come to have a good time. Whether that is by sitting back and letting the music soothe their soul or getting up and dancing their socks off. Our music really doesn’t sound like anyone else’s and yet has a familiar feel. Come with an open mind and heart and you’ll be uplifted and energised. The main difference between these shows and a ‘normal’ Baka Beyond gig is that since Paddy last played with us, the rhythm section has got so much tighter and funkier, so people who last saw us with him will notice the difference, and people who have seen us recently will get to hear Paddy’s amazing fiddle playing which will put more power into the Celtic elements of the band.
Finally, any last words for the fans?