When a golden bamboo lemur announces itself at dawn, its call brings to mind someone throwing up after a bad shrimp salad. Which makes creating beautiful music with these primate sounds a unique challenge.
But Ben Mirin is up to the task. With help from primatologist Patricia Wright, the musician is putting together his own brand of beatbox music using vocalizations from many of the world's 103 lemur species.
Mirin, a long-time birder, self-taught musician, and science journalist, introduced himself to Wright in 2014 at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival.
"When he told me he'd been using bird song in his music I thought, what a shame," said Wright, of Stony Brook University in New York. "Lemurs make much more interesting sounds!"
Wright has worked with the rare animals in Madagascar for more than 30 years and has an extensive digital library of their calls. Intrigued, Mirin visited Wright and her students at Stony Brook, where they jammed to lemur calls—and lemur beatbox was born.
Mirin hasn't posted the lemur music yet on his website or YouTube channel, The Birds and the Beats. But once he does, he hopes that listeners who feel separated from nature—particularly city dwellers—will reconnect with the environment, as well as learn more about lemurs.
And lemurs need all the love they can get. Of the 103 known species and subspecies, more than half are critically endangered or endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Many have declined due to slash-and-burn agriculture, illegal logging, and hunting. (Also watch video: "Raising Cute Baby Lemurs to Save a Species.")
"I'm giving people music as a gateway to appreciate, reconnect with, and understand wildlife and the natural world," he says.
They've Got the Beat
Beatbox music is a form of vocal percussion—the mouth and all its parts, pressed close to the mic, are the instrument. (Mirin says all you need to beatbox is your face and a willingness to sound silly.)
Behind his self-made beats, he lays down "the most musical moments" he can find in lemur calls. "I'm confident each lemur species has a song to be uncovered; it just takes patience," says Mirin, who has also made music with frogs, horned lizards, and even ants—which make a very nice drumming sound with something called a stridulatory organ.
He doesn't apply effects: "I work with their natural sounds. That's the best way to be a vehicle for their language," he says.
So how do lemurs sound? All kinds of ways. "Some click, some whistle, some howl, some bark, some combine various sounds," Wright says.
Often they call as a group, forming cords. And of course, there's the golden bamboo lemur, which makes the horrid retching noise, followed by a sort of turkey gobble, at dawn: "They un-harmonize," says Wright. "It is so dissonant. For a long time I thought it must be some kind of terrible bird making that sound." (Oddly, the rest of the day these lemurs make sweet high-pitched whistles.)
All these calls have meanings, of course. Lemur communication is quite intricate—they have different calls for different predators, for example—and there are even regional dialects within species. ("Listen: Why Scientists Have Created Music Just for Cats.")
The Malagasy people of Madagascar with whom Wright works haven't yet met Mirin or heard his creative take on their native wildlife, but Wright believes the music will be a hit.
Not only are they heavily involved in and care about saving lemurs, "music is a huge part of Malagasy life," she says. (Related: "Why Did Humans Invent Music?")
"It's just something they do all the time, out in the fields, in the home," she says.
"Once local kids pick up the tunes," she adds, "I bet there will be little Bens popping up all over the place, trying to make the lemurs sing."