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Thailand's Elephant Music

My roommate got a pet elephant.  Then it got lost.  It's in the apartment somewhere.

-Steven Wright

The elephants of Thailand used never to be short of work hauling timber.  But most of the country's forests have been cut down; and logging is now banned to save the few that are left.  The number of domesticated elephants left in the country is now only 2,500 or so, down from about 100,000 a century ago.  Though being the national animal of Thailand earns an elephant plenty of respect, that does not put grass on the table.  Thai elephants these days take tourists on treks or perform in circuses, and are sometimes to be seen begging for bananas on the streets of Bangkok.

Some of the 46 elephants living at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, a former government logging camp near Lampang, have found a new life in music.  The Thai Elephant Orchestra is the creation of two Americans, Richard Lair, who has worked with Asian elephants for 23 years, and David Soldier, a musician and neuroscientist with a taste for the avant-garde.  They provided six of the centre's elephants, aged seven to 18, with a variety of percussion and wind instruments.  Those familiar with Thai instruments will recognise the slit drums, the gong, the bow bass, the xylophone-like renats, as well as the thundersheet.  The only difference is that the elephant versions are a bit sturdier.

The elephants are given a cue to start and then they improvise.  They clearly have a strong sense of rhythm.  They flap their ears to the beat, swish their tails and generally rock back and forth.  Some add to the melody with their own trumpeting.  Elephant mood-music could have a commercial future, Mr Soldier believes.  He has even produced a CD on the Mulatta label - it is available - with 13 elephant tracks.  It is real elephant music, he says, with only the human noises removed by sound engineers.  But is it music?  Bob Halliday, music critic of the Bangkok Post, says it is.  He commends the elephants for being "so communicative".  Anyone not knowing that it was elephant music, he says, would assume that humans were playing.

Some of the elephants in the band have also tried their hand at painting, tending to favour the abstract over the representational style.  Their broad-stroke acrylic paintings last year helped raise some $25,000 at a charity auction at Christie's in New York, and a London gallery has also taken some of their work.  These art sales, together with profits from the CD, are helping to keep the centre going.  A second CD is on the way.  It will be less classical, more pop.

Source: The Economist 3 February 2001

And Elephant Art as Well

Top of the Line

Elephants paint on the canvas during new Guinness record attempt of most expensive painting by elephants at Maesa elephant camp in Chiang Mai province northern Thailand.  (AFP/File)


The Adventures of Penny Aldrich

with the elephants at Riddles Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary


Bali Elephant Art

The elephants' paintings, compared by some critics to the works of such great abstract expressionist artists as Jackson Pollock, Williem de Kooning and Franz Kline, have been exhibited internationally and have fetched thousands of dollars apiece at Christie's auction house.

Interestingly, elephants commonly pass time by doodling on the ground with sticks and pebbles.  "Teaching them to draw rewards that behaviour, using different tools," suggests New York art historian Mia Fineman.  Fineman believes that the idea that only humans can create art is an "artificial construct" of the art world.  "Elephants are motivated by something beyond functionality," Ms Fineman said, "and this is called art."


Visions of "Tuskany": Elephant Art Fetches Jumbo Price in Thailand

Bangkok - It's rare enough when living artists fetch outrageous fortune for their work.  When those modern-day Matisses are Thai elephants, however, they charge into the record books.  Eight elephants in northern Thailand have painted their way into the Guinness Book of World Records after an art lover living in the United States shelled out a jumbo 1.5 million baht (US$39,000) for their canvas creation - the highest price ever paid for elephant art.

The four-legged artists in residence, 4 males and 4 females, trained for years at the Mae Sa Elephant Camp near the northern city of Chiang Mai under the tutelage of prominent painters before setting to work on their masterpiece, the camp's director of operations said.  "At first we didn't aim to sell this picture but we had a deep desire to show the world what Thai elephants can do," Anchalee Kalmapijit said.  "They can draw abstract or realistic paintings.  They are the only elephant group in the world who can do this."  When a Thai businesswoman and elephant lover in the United States offered to buy it sight unseen, the Guinness officials expressed interest and their staff were on hand at Mae Sa to confirm the new record, Anchalee said.

With their mahouts, or handlers, on their backs or at their sides, the beasts held brushes with their trunks and gently applied dollops of acrylic paint on the huge canvas measuring 6 x 2.4 metres (20 x 8 feet).  Human artists decided on colour schemes and style and advised the mahouts and their charges.  The elephants remained tight-trunked about their artistic inspirations.  But one glance at their record-breaking work, a pastoral landscape evocatively named "Cold Wind, Swirling Mist, Charming Lanna Number One," suggests impressionism, pointillism - and a hint of the surreal.

Anchalee says the profits from the sale will be spent on care for the 78 elephants currently living at the camp.  More exhibits are planned, she said.  After all, the pachyderm painters are in debt since the camp has spent more than 9 million baht over 4 years of artistic training.  Thailand's total elephant herd population is nearly 5,000, with up to 2,000 of them in the wild.  Experts warned last year that the wild population could be wiped out within 15 years if no action is taken.

Source:  AFP Sunday 20 February 2005

Only 17 Months to Go!

In this picture made available by Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo, an embryo elephant is seen during an ultrasound examination of Tamar, a 20-year-old pregnant Asian elephant at the zoo, on July 31, 2004.  Tamar underwent an ultrasound examination by a team of German specialists, who found her in good shape in her 5th month of a 22-month gestation period.


Keeping Things in Balance

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