Pianist Plays Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Ravel & Debussy for Blind Elephants in Thailand

Rom­sai the ele­phant wore a red rope around his neck to warn approach­ing humans that he was a dan­ger to both them and ele­phants. A dark patch on his head from a tem­po­rin secre­tion indi­cat­ed that he was in the musth cycle, which only height­ened his aggres­sion. His mahouts at the Ele­phantsWorld sanc­tu­ary in Kan­chanaburi, Thai­land observed that the old, blind ele­phant was grow­ing more dan­ger­ous with age.

And yet, he is the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of sweet­ness, as pianist Paul Bar­ton ser­e­nades him with a per­for­mance of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathé­tique, repeat­ing the melody sec­tion sev­er­al times “as he seems to like it.”

In lieu of applause, Rom­sai places his trunk over the top of Barton’s upright piano again and again, in no way aggres­sive, more the ges­ture of a grate­ful audi­ence mem­ber.

As Bar­ton, a York­shire­man who went to Thai­land over twen­ty years ago for what he thought would be a short piano teach­ing stint only to wind up mar­ry­ing a local artist and ani­mal rights activist, said in an inter­view with YourSto­ry:

All ani­mals like music. Dogs, cats, etc. But ele­phants are the clos­est to human beings in the sense that they have the same neu­rons in the brains as us. Also they have a very good mem­o­ry. If you are treat­ed bad­ly as a child, you are going to remem­ber that all your life. It’s the same with ele­phants. The ele­phant shares that part of the brain with us which has flash­backs. They can nev­er for­get the ter­ri­ble things they have seen and suf­fered… If you play clas­si­cal music to an ele­phant, some­thing soft and beau­ti­ful, some­thing that human beings have been lis­ten­ing to for hun­dreds 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 ours nor theirs. There is some­thing infin­i­tes­i­mal­ly won­der­ful in a piece of Beethoven that con­nects me to that ele­phant and that feel­ing is oth­er­world­ly.

The impulse to play live con­certs for Rom­sai and oth­er blind sanc­tu­ary dwellers was part­ly born from see­ing the pos­i­tive effect music had on some blind chil­dren with whom Bar­ton worked.

He also want­ed to make amends for the defor­esta­tion of the elephant’s home­land, and the way the teak indus­try exploit­ed their labor. It was while thus employed that many of them suf­fered scratched corneas and oth­er eye injuries that blind­ed them, ren­der­ing them dou­bly vul­ner­a­ble when the Thai gov­ern­ment enact­ed a ban on com­mer­cial tim­ber log­ging in 1989:

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? I’ll car­ry this heavy thing myself and play some music for the ele­phant while it is hav­ing some break­fast.

Removed from the plush seats of a con­cert hall, Rav­el feels right at home. A roost­er crows, a near­by child pipes up, and Rom­sai wan­ders in and out of the frame, at times appear­ing to keep time with his trunk.

Cicadas under­score Schubert’s Ser­e­nade.

Anoth­er Ele­phantsWorld res­i­dent, Lam Duan’s (aka “Tree with Yel­low Flow­ers”) still­ness as she lis­tens to Bach is rem­i­nis­cent of Barton’s first musi­cal out­ing with the ele­phants:

Ele­phants eat a lot of food. A lot. It is exhaust­ing try­ing to pro­cure that much food for so many ele­phants. 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. Pla-Ra 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.

Barton’s lat­est record­ing fea­tures 80-year-old Ampan, blind in one eye and near blind in the oth­er, enjoy­ing Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

Sup­port Paul Barton’s Patre­on here. Learn about vol­un­teer oppor­tu­ni­ties or make a dona­tion to Ele­phantsWorld here

via Laugh­ing Squid

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Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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