SONG FROM THE FOREST: My Life Among the Ba-Benjelle Pygmies by Louis Sarno (Houghton Mifflin: $22.95; 301 pp.) He had expected to breathe in the scent of wood smoke sweetened with blossoms, to relax in the rain forest while imbibing the native Pygmy foods--all sorts of meat, wild forest nuts, tasty roots and tubers, strange, delicious fruits, koko, payu kana, bokombu (leaves, seeds and nuts) as well as edible tubers and a small orange fruit with a refreshingly tart pulp. Instead, shortly after his arrival in a Central African Republic Pygmy village, his entire savings account seemed to have won him only a steady diet of boiled tadpoles and a "bed," a rusty old door plunked on a sand patch full of feet-eating worms. A baby boomer from New Jersey who had been lured to the Pygmies by music he heard on a radio, Louis Sarno also had expected to hear magical elephant-hunting songs and deeply longing odes to the forest spirits. Instead he watched raucous drummers play on without regard to the singers and then erupt into drunken brawls.
Sarno, however, is almost infinitely patient with the Ba-Benjelle Pygmies, perhaps out of some realization (unacknowledged here) that he will win their friendship only when he becomes as broke on this Wall Street planet as they are. Indeed, after they have observed Sarno politely enduring enough worms and tadpoles, the Pygmies begin to trust him. The turning point comes when they let him witness an insider's-only concert: Hiding behind immense bushes and leaves, pygmies move with the music and the wind onto a makeshift stage. The leaves declaim in short, rapid bursts of speech, tremble violently, and then screech a grotesque tune, which the bushes take up and transform into "a melody of supernatural beauty."
Sarno, who now lives in the Pygmy village, hyperbolizes when he calls their music "one of the most significant cultural traditions of the human race." But generally his is a humble and spirited account, never too earnest to deprive us of the "Crocodile Dundee" scenes that inevitably occur when New World meets Old. We see, for example, a town being "modernized" by a requirement that men wear shirts (no one ever thinks of applying the rule to women) and a dour, he-mannish Pygmy named Doko haughtily tramps around in his most prized American outfit: a girl's pink blouse, with butterfly designs and puffed sleeves.