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February 1, 2001

Polyphonic Pachyderms Play for Paychecks

Jennifer Gampell

Lampang, Thailand -- With the tiny wooden mallet clasped firmly in his long trunk, 3,500-pound drummer Luuk Kob lumbers onto the concert hall stage -- a large dirt clearing at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC). He beats two large temple drums with slow, measured strokes, ears flapping and tail swishing in time to the rhythm. Nearby, five other members of the Thai Elephant Orchestra are improvising riffs on various instruments while their mahouts murmur encouragement.

The free-form instrumental melange sounds vaguely like Indonesian gamelan combined with hints of Thai temple music. The percussion section consists of Phrathida on a contraption of steel plates nailed to plywood, Luk Pong and Phumpuang on two marimba-like Thai renats (lengths of industrial pipe tuned to a pentatonic scale), and Phangkhawt on thundersheet and gong (a salvaged saw blade).

While fellow orchestra members pound away, JoJo, the one-elephant wind section, vigorously inhales and exhales on a harmonica he holds in the tip of his trunk. Occasionally he passes it to his mahout, lifts his trunk skyward and trumpets loudly on his own built-in horn.After 20 minutes, conductor Richard Lair gives a signal, and the musicians amble off to the banks of a nearby reservoir for a well-deserved grass break.

Mr. Lair has devoted himself to elephant causes for more than two decades. In addition to his conducting duties, he also has authored the definitive book on the status of domesticated Asian elephants. Now, with New York avant-garde composer/performer David Soldier, Mr. Lair has co-produced the world's first recording of music by Thai elephants.

Just released on Mulatta Records (, the TEO fulfills the label's promise to showcase the "challenging and bizarre." All 19 tracks were recorded live at TECC last January and contain no overdubs or manipulations, apart from splicing out extraneous ambient noises.

But is it music? Yes, says Mr. Soldier, who works by day as a neuroscientist at Columbia University and by night plays with classical and punk-rock groups. He uses the Turing test, designed to determine whether computers possess intelligence. If people listen to the TEO without knowing the performers' identities, he explains, they might love it or hate it. But they'd never imagine it wasn't created by humans.

For some orchestra members, music is their second foray into the creative arts. Many gained international acclaim after the New York conceptual artists Komar and Melamid came to Thailand in 1998 to establish elephant art schools. The animals' broad-stroke paintings helped raise $92,000 at a benefit auction of Asian elephant art last March at Christie's in New York. Last December the TECC artists also sold works at Bloxham's Gallery in London. They have another show scheduled later this year at the Amsterdam zoo.

For Messrs. Lair and Soldier, all this isn't about promoting cutesy anthropomorphic behavior, but ensuring the elephants' survival. Thailand's elephant population is around 2,500 -- down from 100,000 a century ago. They've lost their jungle habitat to deforestation, and their primary means of support to the collapse of the timber industry, so Thai elephants desperately need work. Some beg on the streets of Bangkok, others do clandestine logging jobs in Burma (where six have stepped on land mines), but most now work in the tourism industry.

"Tourism is the name of the game," says Mr. Lair. The elephants perform two or three short shows daily, ride visitors around in the jungle, and at night munch grass in a teak forest preserve. Animal-rights activists say the elephants are unjustly incarcerated and forced into slave labor. Mr. Lair counters that playing in a "prison band" isn't a bad deal considering the alternatives. Proceeds from sales of the TEO CD will go to Luuk Kob and his fellow musicians at TECC. Messrs. Lair and Soldier already have a second CD in the works. It will be, they say, "more populist, easy listening."

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer


Copyright 2001 Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell