Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (66) 2-237-3362
Mobile: (66) 1-925-7187
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June, 2001

Trumpet Tracks
Jennifer Gampell

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 built-in horn.

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."


Copyright © 2001 Jennifer Gampell