Shawn Thompson

Shawn Thompson

The Intimate Ape

Why chimpanzees would dance to Johnny Cash's music

Chimpanzees catch the rhythm of music like us

Posted Nov 13, 2010


Chimpanzees at the Taipei zoo Photo by Shawn Thompson

A few years ago I took a professional French horn player with me into the jungles of Borneo to play music to orangutans. I listened to the song "Jurassic Park" and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" played on the French horn as we puttered slowly upstream by boat through the hot jungle. The music became part of the jungle experience. When we arrived at the Camp Leakey research camp, the orangutans listened and were attentive, the same as keepers in zoos told me they have observed, with differences in age and gender and even type of music.

I thought my musical ape stories were great until I heard the stories from a bluesy, fifty-two-year-old Chicago guitar player with sweet attitude and a warm, husky voice. His name is Harry Hmura and he created a group called Musicians for Apes.

One time Hmura took his guitar to the Fauna Foundation sanctuary for apes outside Montreal, Quebec. The facility is Canada's first for apes who are refugees from laboratory experiments.

Hmura told me that he never gets stage fright as a musician, but he didn't sleep the night before. He was nervous how a crowd that had been abused by human beings like him in "very notorious laboratories" would receive him. He thought he might even "break down" with emotion and be overwhelmed. He said he asked himself, "Would I be able to deal with that as a person and be able to hang with them? How were they going to perceive me as a stranger because they have dealt with strangers in the laboratories all their lives?"

But the reception was as warm and boisterous as it was for Johnny Cash's revolutionary Folsom prison concert. If chimpanzees had been in Folsom prison with Johnny Cash, they would have loved his rhythm and wanted to dance. Music sounds even sweeter in captivity and it is a great liberator.

At first, chimpanzee eyes were staring at Hmura and there was "loud hooting and banging." Hmura was shaking from the emotion of meeting chimpanzees who have been abused. "I felt beyond terror and sympathy for these folks," he told me. He felt appalled by what human beings have done.

Harry Hmura, a musician for the apes

Hmura took some time to let the chimpanzees see him from the other side of the steel grate. He helped prepare food for them. A little later he got out his electric acoustical guitar to play to a lone chimpanzee named Toby. The history of Toby is that he is thirty-two, after spending his first twenty-four years in zoos. Toby took the loss badly of the death a close chimpanzee friend of his in the zoo, but now has a great friend in the chimpanzee Rachel.

Hmura started playing a simple rhythm and Toby liked it. "I just started playing a rhythmic, upbeat, chordal thing, slapping the guitar and strumming. As I started strumming, all of the sudden Toby starts moving a rope back and forth as his head starts swaying back and forth to the rhythm of the strumming. And as he's swaying back and forth and bopping his head, he purses his lips out looking like the bell of a horn and begins to sing ever so lightly, woooing, and he's holding a melody to himself. He was trying to do a pitch. It was relatively the same pitch as mine. He was expressing himself."

Hmura played for another lone chimpanzee, a troubled soul named Billy Jo, who has since died at the age of thirty-seven. Billy Jo was employed with his sister as an entertainer for fifteen years, until he got too big and strong and had is teeth knocked out by a crowbar. Then he was sold to a laboratory for fourteen years. After living like a human being, Hmura told me, these chimpanzees had to endure the next decades of their lives being exploited by science and human beings. "So, Billy was quite confused. He didn't like males very much."

Hmura was with a female staff member that Billy Jo liked and she talked to Billy Jo to introduce the stranger with the guitar. Billy Jo was staring at Hmura with chimpanzee fists clenched on the grating. "I start playing this rhythmic pattern again. He starts swaying his head back and forth to the rhythm and accepting me as who I was with my guitar and enjoying the music. He grooved to the music." Hmura thinks that the chimpanzee who hated males accepted the music from him as an act of friendship and companionship.

Afterwards, Hmura fixed his signature spaghetti sauce from garden vegetables for the chimpanzees, who love spaghetti. The sauce had tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, carrots and garlic. "They love garlic," Hmura says. After lunch Hmura sat on a stool inside the chimpanzee house and "played quietly for everybody." The staff remarked that it was calm and quiet, a sign of acceptance.

Another time Hmura played for two adolescent male orangutans, Chuckie and Radcliffe, at Patti Ragan's Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida. Chuckie, now twenty-five, was born in a zoo, then sold to a circus, where he was castrated, never a pleasant experience. He may have a few circus "issues" now. The tall, thirty-one-year-old Radcliffe is Chuckie's good pal. Radcliffe has some TV experience and worked with Chuckie in the circus, where he too went under "the knife." The pair were reunited at the Florida sanctuary after sixteen years of life "on the circuit." They play together and share food. Chuckie knows how to whistle too. Like Lauren Bacall once said, "You just put your lips together and blow." It's the same for apes.

Chuckie and Radcliffe reacted differently than chimpanzees to the music, which suits the differences in character between the two species. Orangutans are the engineers and problem solvers of the ape world, fascinated by how things work and are put together. They like to take things apart and put them together again and are ingenious at untying knots.

Hmura started to play a "pseudo-African song," a melodic ballad that he had composed, but with a slower tempo that would be more suitable for orangutans. "That's when I got their attention." The pair came closer and stretched out on the ground to sit intently and listen. "It was the most serene, beautiful moment that they were so taken by the tempo. They were immobile. Very rarely would they ever look up at me. They would look at my eyes for a quick second and look right back down at my hands with intensity. I showed them the guitar up close because I could see the way they were looking at it. You could see the pleasure in their eyes afterward."

Hmura went to a group of male and female chimpanzees. The males started to bang whatever they could to assert themselves. Then Hmura started to play. "It didn't take but a few seconds for everybody to calm down. Everybody just sat and listened." Hmura switched to a more upbeat melody and moved to an enclosure with three chimpanzees, a male, female and child. "The young one started to jump and bop up and down to the rhythm. The adult, Jessie, was nodding her head up and down to the music. The male, Bubbles, Michael Jackson's chimpanzee, was just watching. I'm sure he was reminiscing from his younger days being around Michael Jackson."

Michael Jackson aside, how natural is it for chimpanzees to dance and for other apes to respond to music? Is this wishful thinking on our part or is something really happening here?

Hmura is saying that apes have a sense of rhythm and get pleasure from it. This sounds like an aesthetic pleasure, maybe the beginning of art and culture. Scientists accept that apes, who have the same basic thoughts and feelings that we do, have a rudimentary form of culture too.

Others, like Jane Goodall, say they have observed rhythmic swaying and stamping in wild chimpanzees and interpret it as a form of dance. Goodall observed these “rain dances” in chimpanzees during rainstorms and near waterfalls. Marc Bekoff of the University of Denver's Institute for Human-Animal Connection says that he and Goodall were told at a chimpanzee sanctuary near Girona, Spain, that a chimpanzee named Marco does a trancelike dance during thunderstorms.

The anthropologist Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University also made similar observations of chimpanzees dancing near grass fires in Senegal. Pruetz said that the chimpanzees made a peculiar vocalization at this time that she has not heard at any other time and that they showed expertise at predicting what the fire would do.

And so on. It is all anecdotal and interpretative, as much of life is.

I haven't seen any of this yet myself and would like to judge for myself some time, but I do reflect that how willing we are to accept the interpretation of events like these depends upon how willing we are to believe that apes are akin to us and share rudimentary things with us.

We can indulge in wishful thinking that something is true just as much as we can indulge in wishful thinking that it isn't true.

Do apes really respond to music? That is a tough question to answer. An individual ape could be responding in a social way to the presence of a person or perhaps even showing signs of captivity in anxious, repetitive motions.

But there is video of apes picking up the rhythm of music, such as chimpanzees at the Chimp Haven sanctuary in Keithville, Louisiana, swaying and bobbing to the beat of drums. And the musicians Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney have jammed with bonobos. Bonobos are said to understand pitch and rhythm in music.

Flute music seems to work well with apes, according to Terri Hunnicutt, a former ape keeper at the St. Louis zoo who now works at the Center for Great Apes in Florida. Hunnicutt told me that a particular CD of Native American flute music that she played at the zoo “would always calm everyone.” The apes listened to it, which took their minds off other things. “When this one CD was played all of the apes, even the younger chimps and gorillas, would just sit or lie. I once played it and watched a young male gorilla and his dad lying next to each other on their backs, feet up in the air, both patting their feet in time to the music. The kid was laughing as he did it.”

I know for sure that I don't have any musical ability myself and I can't dance worth a hoot, but maybe chimpanzees and gorillas can pick up a musical rhythm and go with it. I bet that Johnny Cash would have enjoyed playing to a crowd like this.


Online Links:

Hmura Hmura’s Musicians for Apes  

Chimp Haven video

Chimp Haven

Bonobos jamming with musicians 

The Fauna Foundation 

The Center for Great Apes 

Jill Pruetz and the fire dance 

Check out my own Youtube orangutan music video

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