The Man who Makes Music for Elephants

“The elephant has worked for humans for too long. It was used in wars, it was used to deforest its own home. What is the little thing I can do as a human to say sorry, for my species for what we have done to them?”

says Paul Barton, the man who dragged a piano up a mountain to play for aging injured elephants.

Remember Prince Charles talking to his plants to make them grow better? You probably don’t. It was thirty years ago after all. At the time he took quite a pasting in the press. But studies prove that plants do indeed seem to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ different sounds. Clearly HRH’s plants’ taste in voices is different from mine!

Then someone discovered that plants also like music, Mozart proving top favourite on the plant-playlist. The Japanese went into this big. They found that ‘Mozart bananas’ and ‘Mozart tomatoes’ ripen more quickly and taste sweeter. And it wasn’t just the plants. Other food products like miso and soy sauce turned out better when made to music. Japanese sake develops “a richer fragrance and milder taste” when treated to an hour of Mozart played twice a day for the month it takes to ferment. Or so its brewer claims.

And – and this is about as nuts as it can get – how about playing Mozart operas to microbes in a sewage works? Well, going nuts with melodious Mozart saves money it seems. A sewage works just south of Berlin has a specially designed sound system to faithfully recreate the proper spread of orchestral sound you get in a concert hall. Playing Mozart operas – and yes, it has to be operas – speeds up the breakdown of the biomass, saving them €1000 a month, which is not to be sniffed at. (Sorry!) Poor Mozart. He could never have dreamed he would be brought so low. Once performing to the glitterati of Europe, now to sewage microbes.

So this is all my roundabout way of saying, should we really be so surprised that many non-human animals enjoy music? I guess most of us have seen the delightful Jazz for Cows. Now watch this wonderful man jamming some 12-part blues with Peter the elephant at Elephant Stay. Have those ellies got rhythm!

Paul Barton’s duet partner as well as the pair’s avid audience are very special elephants – old, injured, many blind, still bearing the injuries sustained in their lives working in Thailand’s teak forests, but now enjoying a peaceful retirement in two not-for-profit sanctuaries.

Teak was the palm oil of the twentieth century – in such great demand in the 70s and 80s that commercial logging destroyed swathes of irreplaceable forest land and made extinct hundreds of plants and animals. Tribal peoples were forced from their forest homes. The elephants too were victims, many blinded by the twigs and branches scratching their eyes as they hauled out the heavy logs –  being made to tear apart their own habitat. And being abused and mistreated along the way.

When Thailand finally put a stop to the deforestation in 1989, the elephants and their mahouts were out of a job. A mahout will not keep a burned out elephant that no longer makes him money, so some were just abandoned. After enduring so many years of pain and deprivation, they were left without the skills to survive alone. Those still capable of providing their mahouts with a living  were put to work for tourists, carrying them on trekking trips, being made to perform in circuses, or begging in the city streets. Out of the frying pan into the fire. The elephants used for trekking are made to carry very excessive loads, worked for 10 hours a day, and inadequately fed. Please never go on one of these camps, and tell all your friends too. Likewise circuses.

Their fate in the cities was no better – I say ‘was’ because the Thai government no longer allows elephants in the cities where the hot asphalt scorched their sensitive feet and they never got enough to eat.

One such victim of human cruelty is Para, blinded by the logging she was forced to do and then cast aside when she was no longer any use. It’s so good to know she now lives peacefully on the banks of the River Kwai in ElephantsWorld, a non-profit ‘retirement home’ for old, injured and distressed pachyderms.

Enter Paul Barton, English artist and musician.  When he reached 30 Paul decided it was time for some adventure in his life and applied for  a 3-month teaching post at the Piano School in Thailand, a part of the world he’d always wanted to visit. That was in 1996. Paul’s three months turned into 20 years. He found his adventure. He also found love, and a wife. And it just so happened that his wife was interested in animal conservation and activism. What do you get when you join together in holy matrimony an animal activist and a musician? Why music for elephants, of course! And this is how Paul came to be playing the piano to Para, in his own words:

I had previously worked with blind children for two years and seen the impact music had in their lives. So I wanted to try out that theory with these blind elephants. This elephant [Para] in particular was so intelligent, I thought she would appreciate some music. I thought hard about what kind of music she would like to hear and finally settled on Beethoven. Her reaction was so surprising.

Elephants eat a lot of food. A lot. When an elephant gets to eat, it’s a bit like a dog. A dog will eat its food so quickly because it’s not sure if it will ever eat again. And elephants are the same. Once they get their hands on some juicy leaves, they will eat and eat and nothing can tear them away from their food.

That morning I brought the piano in early to the sanctuary. Plara was taken to a field full of juicy bamboo shoots and she began eating with a single minded dedication. I started to play Beethoven and she stopped eating. There was this half eaten bamboo shoot sticking out of her trunk while she stared at me. That was a reaction never seen before. An elephant stopped eating because of music. That was the beginning of this project.

Paul has been playing music to elephants ever since, at both Elephant Stay & ElephantsWorld.

For his 50th birthday, Paul decided on something special.

The elephant has worked for humans for too long. It was used in wars, it was used to deforest its own home. What is the little thing I can do as a human to say sorry, for my species for what we have done to them?” he said.

He dreamed up a special challenge to raise funds for his elephant friends  – dragging a piano up a mountain where they liked to gather. And there he treated them to the soothing tones of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, the slow movement.

If you play classical music to an elephant, something soft and beautiful, something that human beings have been listening to for hundreds of years, something that is timeless- and you play that to an elephant that is blind and they’ve never heard music before- the reaction is priceless. There is a special bond between you and the elephant. You are communicating with them in a different language. That language is neither our nor theirs. There is something infinitesimally wonderful in a piece of Beethoven that connects me to that elephant and that feeling is otherworldly.

And here he is with his appreciative audience.

 

If you can’t get enough of Paul’s music for elephants, he has a playlist of 23 videos.

PS Paul would like people to know that the keys of his piano are plastic, NOT ivory.

If you would like to donate to ElephantsWorld, you can do so here.

You can also stay at ElephantsWorld and work as a volunteer for one month.

Sign the petition to TripAdvisor to stop promoting cruel wildlife tourist attractions here.

With grateful thanks to dear friend Lisa Ladysa for bringing my attention to this heartwarming story.

Sources

Music for Elephants: How Paul Barton is apologising to blind elephants for crimes of humanity – Your Story

Man Hauls a Piano Up a Mountain in Thailand and Plays Beethoven for Injured Elephants – Open Culture

Music for Elephants

 

 

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