Thailand's elephant music
Lampang--The elephants of Thailand used never to be short of work hauling timber. But most of the country's forests have been cut down, and logging is now banned to save the few that are let. The number of domesticated elephant left in the country is now only 2,500 or so, down from about 100,000 a century ago. Though being the national animal of Thailand earns an elephant plenty of respect, that does not put grass on the table. Thai elephants these days take tourists on treks or perform in circuses, and are sometimes to be seen begging for bananas on the streets of Bangkok.
Some of the 46 elephants living at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, a former government logging camp near Lampang, have found new life in music. The Thai Elephant Orchestra is the creation of two Americans, Richard Lair who has worked with Asian elephants for 23 years, and David Soldier, a musician and neuroscientist with a taste for the avant-garde. They provided six of the centre's elephants, aged seven to 18, with a variety of percussion and wind instruments. Those familiar with Thai instruments will recognize the slit drums, the gong, bow bass, the xylophone-like renats, as well as the thundersheet.
The elephants are given a cue to start and then they improvise. They clearly have a strong sense of rhythm. They flap their ears to the beat, swish their tails and generally rock back and forth. Some add to the melody with their own trumpeting. Elephant mood-music could have a commercial future, Mr. Soldier believes. He has even produced a CD on the Mulatta label -- it is available at www.mulatta.org -- with 13 elephant tracks. It is real elephant music he says, with only the human noises removed by sound engineers. But is it music? Bob Halliday, music critic of the Bangkok Post, says it is. He commends the elephants for being "so communicative". Anyone not knowing that it was elephant music, he says, would assume that humans were playing.
Some of the elephants in the band have also tried their hand at painting, tending to favour the abstract over the representational style. Their broad-stroke acrylic paintings last year helped raise some $25,000 at a charity auction at Christie's in New York, and a London gallery has also taken some of their work. These art sales, together with profits from the CD, are helping to keep the centre going. A second CD is on the way. It will be less classical, more pop.
Copyright © 2002 Jennifer Gampell