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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Elephant Band

Air Date: Week of


CURWOOD: In 1988, authorities in Thailand imposed a ban on logging to protect the country's dwindling forests. But the move also deprived elephants and their handlers of their traditional jobs of hauling logs for the timber industry. Once in domesticity, elephants can rarely go back to the wild. Today, many elephants and their owners wander the streets of Thai cities begging money from tourists and kind-hearted locals. But now, some elephants are trumpeting a new line of work: playing in the band. Gina Wilkinson traveled to in northern Thailand and has our story.

(Music, including elephants trumpeting)

WILKINSON: Reminiscent of Yoko Ono at her most avant-garde, the Thai Elephant Orchestra breaks new ground with this selection of jumbo tunes.

(Elephant music continues)

WILKINSON: The idea of having elephants play musical instruments is the brainchild of New York-based composer and producer David Soldier and pachyderm expert Richard Lair, who works at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang. The duo chose scales used in traditional Thai music, a genre familiar to these 11 talented elephants, and then added a few blues notes before they began recording the album. Richard Lair says many of the elephants took to their new assignment with gusto.

(An elephant trumpets)

LAIR: I'd say for about half of the elephants playing in the orchestra is just a job. But several of them genuinely enjoy it. Particularly Luuk-Op, whose English name would be Tadpole, is a wonderful percussionist, keeps perfect time. If you give him something new to bang on, he'll figure out just where to hit it to get the nicest sound.


WILKINSON: Some of the instruments in this unique orchestra were custom made for the elephants, including a gong fashioned from a circular saw that had been confiscated from an illegal logging operation. Lair says others are traditional folks instruments.


LAIR: Our key instrument is modeled on a Thai instrument called the renat, which is basically a kind of xylophone with a totally gorgeous sound. But we also have big drums; a thunder sheet; harmonicas; and cane, which is a kind of traditional Thai pan pipe; angaloon, which is a traditional hill tribe instrument; and we're working on new instruments all the time.

(Chimes and gongs)

WILKINSON: While the idea of an elephant orchestra may be highly unusual to many, those familiar with the Lampang elephants may not be so surprised. As Lair explains, these artistic elephants have already earned a worldwide reputation for their abstract paintings.

LAIR: It actually spread out of an earlier project, the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, which is the elephants painting. Which comes from when two Russian conceptual artists came here last March. There was an auction; we sold 92,000 U.S. dollars worth of paintings. Some from Indonesia, some from India, but mainly from our center here in Lampang.


WILKINSON: Charles Hyatt is the director of the Human-Elephant Learning Project based in Georgia in the United States. The project is a network of scientists who are studying elephant intelligence. Hyatt says his own experiments have backed up tests carried out by German scientist Bernard Rensch in the 1950s, which found elephants can distinguish 12 musical tones and remember simple melodies, even when played on different instruments at various pitches, timbres, and meters. Hyatt regularly travels to Lampang to further his research. He says far from exploiting these magnificent animals, their new musical job provides the pachyderms with a valuable creative outlet.

HYATT: In captivity, elephants don't have the natural curiosity enhancing activities of foraging for food and tromping about in the forest. So we need to provide them with things to do, and they seem to derive enrichment from the music they've been taught.

(Chimes and gongs)

WILKINSON: The first 12 tracks on the CD have a very Thai flavor. They're followed by human and elephant collaborations, some of which could come in handy for your next rave or techno dance party.

(Music up and under: Thai Elephant Orchestra, "Rave")

WILKINSON: Richard Lair says the debut CD of the Thai Elephant Orchestra is selling well. Proceeds will go toward establishing a milk bank for orphaned baby elephants and provide training for elephant handlers.

(Music up and under: Thai Elephant Orchestra, "Rave")

WILKINSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Gina Wilkinson in Lampang, Thailand.

(Music up and under: Thai Elephant Orchestra, "Rave")

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week, we're off to Mexico's Baja California peninsula. We'll meet some people who study sea turtles, and meet some people who eat them. And hear what both groups are doing to save them.

MAN: Just watching the turtles that I was studying disappear, be eaten, the light went on: You know what? I can sit around and look at turtle DNA for the next five years while these turtles get wiped out. That would be unethical.



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