The Love, Joy, Playfulness, and Passion of the Thai Elephant Orchestra

Thai Elephant Orchestra with Dave Soldier & Richard Lair – Thai Elephant Orchestra
Thai Elephant Orchestra with Dave Soldier & Richard Lair – Thai Elephant Orchestra (Mulatta Records, 2000)

Thai Elephant Orchestra with Dave Soldier & Richard Lair – Elephonic Rhapsodies (Mulatta Records, 2004)

Thai Elephant Orchestra with Dave Soldier & Richard Lair – Water Music (Mulatta Records, 2010)

Never in my wildest imagination did I ever expect to review CDs by elephant musicians. True elephants play music differently than humans, but when we consider that they are limited to a trunk and their front feet, the music they do make seems extraordinary. Little did I know ten years ago, living in Seattle and testing recordings out on squirrels and crows that musicians with a scientific bent in New York were actually playing music with birds and elephants.

While there are likely animal advocates who will think that human musicians encroach upon the non-human’s space for ego gratification, I would disagree. The musical interaction and interludes between humans and animals or humans and birds reconnect humans to nature. It feels as if the animals are reminding us to play more. Anyone who has ever watched crows frolic would understand the need for all species to have fun.

Consider that the fourteen elephants who comprise the Thai Elephant Orchestra (on Water Music) would be giving rides to tourists or lifting logs with their trunks to show off their strength (tedious and boring), if they didn’t paint (yes, the elephants paint) or play percussion instruments.

When you listen to the male elephant Jojo play his elephant xylophone on the debut CD you can hear him trumpeting in excitement. When you watch the elephants in the documentary (check out YouTube for the 5-part documentary on the Thai Elephant Orchestra), the handlers known as mahouts can’t get the elephants to stop hitting the gongs or playing the xylophones.

Water Music
Elephants are intelligent, social, and playful creatures who fight back when they feel exploited. We have witnessed this with circus and zoo elephants, but clearly this is not the case with the elephant musicians. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, Thailand offers the elephants a respite from arduous and abusive lives. I also watched a video about a hospital for ill and injured elephants. Again, you witness an interaction between humans and elephants, this time with the human musicians giving music therapy to elephants.

In 1999, Richard Lair (an elephant conservationist in Lampang) met with musician/science professor Dave Soldier in New York where the idea to teach elephants how to play music was launched. First, instruments strong enough to withstand monsoon weather and the strength of the elephants were built or purchased. Next, the mahouts and Soldier taught the elephants how to play the instruments using their trunks. Finally, the crew and elephants produced three recordings and a documentary portraying the process. The end results of the two recordings that features the elephant orchestra (the 2nd CD has a mix of human-made music and elephant music), sounds like musical sculptures played by elements (wind and rain). Some of the pieces such as Thung Kwian Sunrise and Temple Music that open the first CD sound like relaxing wind chimes. Harmonica Music (elephants blow on the harmonicas with their trunks) sounds bluesy.

All of the songs possess intangible qualities of love, joy, playfulness, and passion. I’m reminded of young children in a musical jam session and I hear the same innocence with the elephants’ music that brings tears to my eyes at times.

Anyone who loves animals and feels sensitive to musical vibrations, especially percussive instruments would feel at home with these recordings. It helps to have an open mind and heart too.

Thai Elephant Orchestra with Dave Soldier & Richard Lair – Elephonic Rhapsodies
The most accessible of the CDs, Elephonic Rhapsodies plays like a music revue where Richard and David introduce each of the elephant musicians of the orchestra. The commentaries amuse as do the elephants who do their own thing. Produced for children and tourists (and as a fundraiser for the conservation efforts), this recording features mainly human musicians performing elephant theme songs and the Ganesha Symphony (Thai musicians) musically telling the story of the Hindu god Ganesh. You’ll also find Baby Elephant Walk composed by Henry Mancini and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony First Movement on this CD. Of course, I can hear that human music any day, and I prefer to listen to the elephants play instead.

I listened to the 2010 recording Water Music over headphones so I could hear the nuances. I felt mesmerized by the music. Since I know that elephants performed these songs, it’s hard for me not to feel some bias. I wish that I had heard the songs before knowing the identity of the musicians. If that was the case, I would have thought that the music came from an indigenous culture untouched by western civilization. The instrument makers designed and constructed the instruments for Thai scales so that in itself sounds exotic. The clanging of gongs and the vibrations from the thunder sheet remind me of temple music and others have also made that observation (as seen in the documentary and liner notes).

Featuring 14 elephants ranging from age 3 to 29, the songs sound lush with the elephants keeping good time, and weaving repetitive, yet intricate patterns. It seems as if the elephants listen carefully and play with intent. The Last Monsoon of Summer features gentle percussion with relaxing overtones. A sound healer could even use this song to relax clients.

The elephant who plays the thunder sheet does seem enthusiastic, but the low vibration of the thunder sheet has a relaxing quality, especially for people with a dominant Vata dosha. Bathing in the River features a stunning percussion groove played in an Asian mode. Whereas, Sun Breaks Clouds sounds slightly discordant in an avant-garde manner, yet also feels festive with strains of harmonica and bubbling xylophone. I’m reminded of Jeffrey Thompson’s brainwave CDs.

The overall feeling is amazement, wonder and hope. I feel humbled by this music because never in all my years of playing music did I ever play with innocence and total abandonment in the manner of these elephants. This is heart-chakra opening music at best.

Patricia Herlevi founded Whole Music Experience blog in 2007 to promote healing with music and music preservation. She is currently working on the companion book “Whole Music” for an independent publisher in Washington State. Interspecies music projects grab her attention.

Author: PatriciaHerlevi

Patricia Herlevi is a former music journalist turned music researcher. She is especially interested in raising music consciousness. She is looking for an agent and publisher for her book Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit). She founded and hosts the blog
The Whole Music Experience and has contributed to World Music Central since 2003.

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