868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (66) 2-237-3362
Mobile: (66) 1-925-7187
Just two years ago,
little Luuk Pong used to spend most nights wandering the polluted and
congested streets of Bangkok begging food from passersby. Nowadays the
four year-old leads a well-nourished existence at his secluded rural home,
a former teak plantation nestling in the rolling hills of northern Thailand.
To pay for room and board he plays a xylophone-like Thai instrument called
a renat in a small orchestra that performs for local and foreign
visitors. He's also taken up painting, and recently showed his abstract
acrylics at two international galleries. These would be impressive achievements
for any four year-old…even more so for one who happens to be an elephant.
As Thailand's national animal, the majestic elephant commands great love
and respect. Unfortunately veneration alone doesn't put grass on the table.
The rapid decline of Thailand's forests has thrown the domesticated elephant
population out of work. Desperate for viable alternatives to their traditional
job of hauling timber, many Thai elephants and their mahouts (handlers)
have sought work in the tourism industry. At the growing number of camps
throughout the country, the elephants spend long hours trekking with tourists
or performing humiliating circus tricks (wearing tutus, doing headstands),
often in extremely unhealthy conditions.
Compared to most of his fellow tuskers, Luuk Pong lucked out. The monk
who rescued him from the Bangkok streets donated him to the Thai Elephant
Conservation Center (TECC), a government-owned elephant sanctuary located
north of Lampang. Twice daily he and some of the 45 other multi-ton residents
entertain tourists with non-demeaning demonstrations of their skills.
These include hauling logs, painting, and their newest accomplishment--musicianship.
The members of the Thai Elephant Orchestra, a rotating roster of six or
seven elephantine players, help lug their specially designed instruments
onto the open-air dirt stage for each performance. At a signal from their
human conductor, the elephants begin their improvisational riffing. Clasping
a small wooden mallet firmly in his long trunk, Luuk Pong repeatedly strikes
the metal keys on the renat, all the while flapping his ears and swishing
his tail in time to the rhythmic beat.
Today, Luuk Pong's fellow musicians include Phumpuang on renat, Luuk Kob
on temple drum, Phrathida on a contraption of stainless-steel plates nailed
onto plywood, and Phangkhawt on thundersheet and gong (a saw blade salvaged
from an illegal logging operation). Chapati (an Israeli elephant donated
to TECC) strums the diddley-bow bass while JoJo rocks back and forth and
vigorously inhales and exhales the tiny harmonica balanced in the tip
of his trunk. Transported by the excitement of the moment, JoJo passes
the harp to his mahout, lifts his trunk skyward and trumpets on his own
The Thai Elephant Orchestra is the brainchild of Richard Lair, an American
expatriate who's devoted himself to elephant causes for 23 years, and
David Soldier, an avant-garde musician who also works as a neuroscientist
at Columbia University in New York.
Lair, who in 1997 authored the definite reference book on the status of
domesticated Asian elephants, is always on the lookout for job opportunities
for both elephants and their mahouts. He has little patience with animal
rightists and others who claim the government-owned TECC musicians are
being held in captivity and forced to mimic human activities. "Thai elephants
have always worked hard for a living," he insists. "Being allowed to bang
on instruments and make gorgeous noises of their own volition and invention
is at worst very soft duty and for most quite clearly a great pleasure."
If indeed the elephants are unjustly incarcerated and made to do slave
labor, he quips, what better job than to be in a prison band. "Besides,"
he says, "It's the best music ever produced by Thai civil servants."
© 2001 Jennifer