Variations on a tune by Tadpole the elephant

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The Independent Online

The conductor of this orchestra has no musical training and can't even sing in key. At more than seven feet tall the oldest player towers over him and the youngest weighs 178 stone. The members of this orchestra, in truth, have much in common: they are all grey and wrinkled, flap their ears a lot and love bananas. And they don't play with their hands, or their left feet, but with their trunks.

The conductor of this orchestra has no musical training and can't even sing in key. At more than seven feet tall the oldest player towers over him and the youngest weighs 178 stone. The members of this orchestra, in truth, have much in common: they are all grey and wrinkled, flap their ears a lot and love bananas. And they don't play with their hands, or their left feet, but with their trunks.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra has just seven members but makes enough noise to fill a concert hall twice over. Rehearsals began in January this year and the first CD comes out next month. The project is the brainchild of Richard Lair, a veteran elephant expert who lives in Thailand, and Dave Soldier, a musician whose new record label, Mulatta, promises to bring the listener music "both challenging and bizarre".

Challenging and bizarre the noise certainly is, but is it music? Mr Lair describes it as "difficult to listen to but compelling, full of subtleties and variations". Although the sound is not something humans would do, nobody would question it wasn't made by humans if they didn't know, he says. Each track certainly sounds different from the last.

Rehearsals take place under the trees at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC) in Lampang, northern Thailand, where 46 elephants are cared for by individual handlers and earn their keep by appearing in a show for tourists or taking them on short jungle trips. Mr Lair, who works for the Forest Industry Organisation that runs the centre, says the story behind it is a grim one.

Their traditional jobs gone, most of Thailand's surviving domesticated elephants are left with two options: working in the illegal logging industry or at often badly managed tourist venues. Going back to the forest is not possible: there is not enough forest left. The TECC is one of the best places a captive elephant could hope to end up.

Thinking up harmless but lucrative jobs for elephants has become something of a crusade for Mr Lair. Elephant paintings, some of them from Lampang, fetched more than £60,000 at Christie's in March. "Many people will say that these noble animals should not be forced to mimic human activities," Mr Lair said. "I agree. Elephants should not be in captivity but sadly, virtually all elephants in Thailand must work for a living. Being allowed to bang on musical instruments and make gorgeous noises of their own volition and invention is at worst very soft duty and for most of them is quite clearly a great pleasure. So these elephants are unjustly incarcerated - but what better job than to be in the prison band?" Watching six-year-old Tadpole, "the Buddy Rich of elephant percussionists", banging the drum in perfect time with his trunk, it is hard not to admit he looks as if he is enjoying himself. At worst a couple of the orchestra members look bored and lose concentration, nothing a good tug at the ear and prod cannot rectify. Mr Lair tries to keep some sort of order but the elephants choose their notes and rhythms.

Most of their instruments have been specially made for them: xylophones out of industrial pipes, a mallet with a golf ball, a gong from a confiscated logging saw. But some are original: the harmonicas tend to get drowned in spit and need constant replacing. A 10ft keyboard spooked them at first but later entranced two members. The large "trunkpieces" on the reed instruments weren't popular. "They were afraid a snake might jump into their nostrils," Mr Soldier explains on his sleeve notes.

Most of the first CD will be pure elephant music. The second will be mixed to create a more "populist" sound. Proceeds will go to the TECC.

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