Thai elephant orchestra thumps to a unique beat

CHIANG MAI, Thailand (Reuters Life!) - The Thai Elephant Orchestra is about to release a third CD and, like all real artists, the world’s only non-human musical ensemble doesn’t give a thump about the critics or the charts.

A four-year-old male elephant named "Phong" plays a xylophone with his trunk as part of an elephant orchestra at Thailand's elephant conservation centre in Lampang, 600 km north of Bangkok, in this September 8, 2002 file photo. REUTERS/Jason Reed

The 14-member group at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampung, northern Thailand, plays simple woodwinds, harmonicas, a few string instruments and drums under the guidance of maestro Dave Soldier, the orchestra’s composer and co-founder.

Soldier, 51, spoke to Reuters about the project, which involves elephants who used to work in logging from which the beasts are now banned.

Q: What did you expect when you started with the group?

A: As far as I was concerned it was a true experiment. Richard Lair, co-founder and Director of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, didn’t have any doubt that they could be trained to hit things using a stick. But as to whether they would make music or learn how to do it, we didn’t know.

Q: Are some elephants more musical than others?

A: You could say that some of the elephants still don’t “play” an instrument. Whereas other ones will walk up and do a solo ... There’s no doubt about it, some have talent.

Q: Are there instruments they can’t or won’t play?

A: We got elephants to play a giant synthesizer, but the elephants didn’t really like doing it so we stopped. We also got them a saxophone-like instrument, where somebody would finger the notes and they would blow. They didn’t really enjoy that either.

Q: Do they really enjoy it?

A: If the elephants don’t enjoy the instrument we just drop it. Elephants are social animals so it gives them something that’s a bit of a challenge and more interesting.

Q: How do you know if they don’t enjoy it?

A: They’ll drop anything. They complain. You’d say “here you know, hold the giant keyboard”, and they’d be like, “ah this is boring, I don’t want to do this anymore”. If you’ve been round elephants I’m sure that you understand that an elephant can be interested in a task or can say to hell with it.

Q: Do they memorise melodies or just jam?

A: We pretty much just tell the elephants to stop and start playing. There might be pieces which have many different instruments with intros and outros, and the elephants can memorise to play melodies. They do one memorised melody two times a day every day. But to make it more fun for the elephants we just let them play whatever they want.

Q: Can you describe their music for the uninitiated?

A: It sounds a little like northern Thai music but of course played very slowly. That's on purpose: some of the instruments are actually elephant-sized versions of natural Thai instruments. A lot of people think it sounds like religious music. Go to here and listen.

Q: What do the critics make of it?

A: I had this poor fellow who was a music critic from the New York Times. He spent a long time guessing. He kept saying all these famous classical groups, like a very sophisticated and very good group that specialises in avant-garde music called Speculum Musicae, and Bang on a Can, a famous group around here, and a couple of others. When I told him it was elephants, he was very embarrassed and very upset with me. The next day he asked to write an article about the group.

Q: They’ve played for the Thai Queen and been featured on the Jon Stewart show. What does the group make of its fame?

A: The elephants, they don’t give a damn. They don’t read the Billboard charts, they don’t read the reviews. The elephants don’t care. They’re going to keep playing the same way that they play if you tell them they’re out of tune, or if you tell them the group isn’t as good now as the previous record, or you know, that the Singapore symphony does it better. They just go out there and they do it the way they hear it. They’re real artists.