February 27, 2020

Song of the Silent Forest

Pippa Ehrlich

“Time, space and energy, the foundation of music, of waves, of nature.”

Yo-Yo Ma

So says the world’s most famous classical musician as he takes up his bow and prepares to play a suite from one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s symphonies. Yo-Yo Ma has been playing these suites since he was 4 years old and is on a world tour: The Bach Project. What is surprising about this performance is that it’s taking place outside, at a private home on the very tip of Africa.

As I watch Yo-Yo’s hands dancing up and down the strings of his cello, my eyes catch glimpses of kelp glistening on the ocean behind him. Birds crowd together on a familiar rock in the distance and I am surrounded by some of my very best friends – people with whom I have shared such powerful experiences in nature, that the memories overwhelm me. I am taken by surprise as tears start to roll from my eyes. Perhaps it’s the power of Bach – a symbol of the pinnacle of modern human culture. Perhaps it’s an emotional hangover from the morning’s earlier performance of My Amphibious Soul, a song that we spent months creating to invoke the spirit of the seaforest, the magical submarine kingdom that my friends and I have committed our lives to. Either way, I feel overwhelmed and I wish I could grab my sunglasses. I hate crying in public.

Photo by Austin Mann

The story of Yo-Yo Ma’s journey to hear the seaforest anthem started on a cold winter’s night almost 4 months earlier, at the same home looking over False Bay in Cape Town. We were crowded around an indoor fire listening to a story told by Jon Young, the Father of the Wilderness Awareness Movement and a good friend of Craig Foster’s whose home we were at. His story was an initiation into songcatching, an ancient indigenous practice that would come to steer the course of the next few months of our lives. Jon told us the story of how a friend of his had caught the song of the Elderberry Tree. Quite spontaneously, while sitting next to the tree, a stream of specific chords and lyrics had formed in his mind. This process of receiving music directly from elements in nature is something that human beings have been doing for thousands of years. Some might argue that the San trance dance, our earliest expression of spiritual connection to the nature world, involves an element of songcatching in its most primal form. In a more modern context, songcatching is the origin of Bluegrass music.

Craig was entranced by Jon’s story and despite having almost no musical knowledge, embarked on a quest to “catch” the song of the seaforest: a place he has come to know intimately, after nearly ten years of diving and tracking here everyday. On land, forests are full of sound: birds alarm calling, wind moving through branches, animals creeping through the litter of dead and dying leaves and frogs singing from dark pools. In these environments, sound becomes the primary sense for the tracker, but an underwater forest is comparatively silent and you need to use your eyes to find your way around. Sometimes you might hear the croak of a cracker shrimp, or the deep roar of waves as they crash overhead, perhaps even the rare song of a whale, but unlike birds and frogs and footsteps, these are not sounds that an earthbound listener would recognise. To the terrestrial world, the sounds of the seaforest have remained a secret and so I wondered what we would unlock by bringing them to the surface.

For the first few weeks, Craig’s attempts were unstructured and sporadic. Some words came to him, but nothing that might resemble a song. Then, as if by magic, he got an unexpected, serendipitous phone call.

Photos by Craig Foster and Faine Loubser.

“I remember Craig getting off a call and saying ‘A nice lady just called. She contacted me through SANBI. There is a musician Yo-Yo Ma and he is coming to Cape Town and wants to meet and do something with oceans and conservation. I’ve got so much going on though, that I am not sure there will be time. Anyway who is he?”

Swati THIYAGARAJAN

She was flabbergasted that he did not know that Yo-Yo was “the most famous cellist in the world and a classical musician known to presidents and Kings” and quickly convinced him to call them back for more details.

The Bach Project was coming to South Africa and they wanted to collaborate with us as part of their “days of action”, a campaign which aspires to create locally relevant events that have global significance and demonstrate the power of culture to create positive change and inspire a sense of unity for people from all walks of life.

Craig submitted a proposal and suddenly, as if caught in a raging river of sound and energy, the Sea Change team, Swati Thiyagarajan, Carina Frankal, Faine Loubser, Ross Frylinck, Jannes Landschoff and me were swept into the hunt for the song of the silent forest, a place which we were soon to discover, was full of sounds we had never heard before.

The first step was to get some actual musicians involved. First, came Craig’s son Tom, only 17 years old, but already a talented drummer and guitar player. Next Craig contacted Ronan Skillen a master percussionist who plays unusual instruments from all over the world. Ronan led us to Jonny Blundell, music producer for Rootspring House, an organisation dedicated to fostering local and indigenous music talent. Craig’s next call was to Zolani Mahola, previously lead singer of Freshly Ground and one of South Africa’s most talented vocalists. Later, Pedro Espi-Sanchis joined the group as an expert player of the kelp flute. Jonny also has a long-standing relationship with Madosini, a Xhosa elder and master player of the Mhrubhe mouth-bow, one of the very first instruments created by humans and perhaps the oldest string instrument.

At the same time, we started to experiment with making music from instruments that came from the kelp forest itself. Years earlier, Craig, Tom and myself had created rough video sequences using kelp forest imagery and music that Tom had made by playing on dried kelp, beating ocean-smoothed stones and drumming on water. These raw ideas now evolved into increasingly sophisticated and imaginative musical creations: a string instrument made from an abalone shell, shakers made from shark egg cases, giant mussel shells, kelp flutes, musical turbo shells and a traditional woer-woer made with a cetacean bone. Bit by bit, every surface in Craig’s house, including the dining room table was surrendered over the to kelp forest orchestra.

Photo by Austin Mann

The first step was to get some actual musicians involved. First, came Craig’s son Tom, only 17 years old, but already a talented drummer and guitar player. Next Craig contacted Ronan Skillen a master percussionist who plays unusual instruments from all over the world. Ronan led us to Jonny Blundell, music producer for Rootspring House, an organisation dedicated to fostering local and indigenous music talent. Craig’s next call was to Zolani Mahola, previously lead singer of Freshly Ground and one of South Africa’s most talented vocalists. Later, Pedro Espi-Sanchis joined the group as an expert player of the kelp flute. Jonny also has a long-standing relationship with Madosini, a Xhosa elder and master player of the Mhrubhe mouth-bow, one of the very first instruments created by humans and perhaps the oldest string instrument.

At the same time, we started to experiment with making music from instruments that came from the kelp forest itself. Years earlier, Craig, Tom and myself had created rough video sequences using kelp forest imagery and music that Tom had made by playing on dried kelp, beating ocean-smoothed stones and drumming on water. These raw ideas now evolved into increasingly sophisticated and imaginative musical creations: a string instrument made from an abalone shell, shakers made from shark egg cases, giant mussel shells, kelp flutes, musical turbo shells and a traditional woer-woer made with a cetacean bone. Bit by bit, every surface in Craig’s house, including the dining room table was surrendered over the to kelp forest orchestra.

“On one particular day, Craig and I painstakingly sorted through specific grains of sand to ensure the right consistency of size, as Tom watched over, his incredible musical ear guiding us in determining which granules made good shaker sounds and which didn’t,” remembers Faine.

“As the days progressed, it became unusual to walk into Craig’s house without picking up a piece of sea-related debris or biological artefact and tapping or blowing on it, trying to find some kind of fascinating sound that emanated from it.”

Faine
One day after a dive, Jannes and Faine discovered a huge rock drum: a giant 5 ton boulder that could be rocked back and forth and made a wonderful sound. Together with Craig, they discovered a set of five of these incredible “rock ‘n roll” rocks, some were half submerged and could be heard underwater deep in the forest while being played on shore. The act of rocking these giant boulders puts one into a mild state of euphoria. The rocks have been created over millions of years by the moving tide scouring the anvil shapes. We had been to this dive site thousands of times but never noticed them. Jannes even discovered a dead rock drum that had once rocked and now has fallen over, its ancient rocking track cut deep into the base rock.
Photos by Craig Foster, Faine Loubser, Pippa Ehrlich and Ross Frylinck

One of our most staggering discoveries came about midway into the process. Years ago we shared an experience inside an underwater cave. There were humpback whales in the bay at the time and as we swam into the cavern, our ears were filled with their song, the sound amplified within the rocky walls. As part of the song catching process, Craig suggested that we take a whale bulla (ear bone) into the cave and play it underwater. The ear bone made hardly any sound when tapped or played on land, but in the spirit of it, Faine and I went along with the idea. She was to be the bulla bone player.

We swam out to the entrance of the cave and she started test tapping the ear bone with a make-shift drumstick. “At first, nothing happened, but then the ocean began to vibrate around us as the craziest bass sounds started to radiate from the bulla, appearing to match the tempo of our beating hearts. Craig and my eyes met, widening in disbelief,” recalls Faine. She tried to play it again, but the sound seemed to have disappeared. After some experimentation, she discovered that it was only by trapping air and holding the bulla in a specific position that the sound could vibrate freely. As the bubbles begin to escape, the pitch of the note begins to shift.

We swam into the cave and the note of the bulla resonated through us like a heart beat, creating a sonic connection between us and the greatest conservation story of our time: the return of the humpback whales.

Pictures by Craig Foster & Faine Loubser.

Now that we had created an arsenal of kelp forest instruments, the musicians started to rehearse. Tom and Ronan ran some experimental percussion sessions and made their own breakthrough: wet kelp stipes cut to different lengths could be tuned and played like a drum. This became our first living instrument: the eight-armed (and pitched) octopus drum. Each time the instrument is to be played, new lengths of washed up kelp have to be collected so the instrument is never the same. Tom and Ronan also played abalone and giant limpet shells on the surface of water, creating an organic set of water drums. One of the most unique sounds came from the turbophone; Tom discovered that, by pouring the right amount of water into a turbo shell and turning it in a swirling motion, he could create a completely unique watery note.

The last piece of the puzzle were the lyrics that would tell the story of the seaforest and our connection to this place where our ancestors lived for at least 150 000 years. It was here that the oldest human engraving, oldest drawing and oldest chemistry kit were discovered. If classical music represents the apex of modern human culture, this coastline represents the origin. Zolani took on the challenge of expressing the voice and soul of the seaforest, but as she had never dived before, she needed a kelp forest initiation. She had a powerful reaction when Craig took her into the water for the first time. “I could see she had the experience of primal joy that comes with diving in the cold without a wetsuit. She could feel the seaforest. She got drunk on the cold and the wonder of the place and it was quite something to hear her singing through her snorkel while we were swimming through the seaforest,” Craig recalls. Over the next few weeks he sent Zolani the raw sentences and poetry that had come to him during his songcatching experiments. Using both English and Xhosa, Zolani weaved the words into the lyrics of My Amphibious Soul:

 

My Amphibious soul

Listen to the words of the old ones calling out

Look at this world – this beautiful gift

Open your eyes you human being

Go down below the water

Flesh and blood

We’re tied to the ocean

Creation is calling your name

Deep inside you

Here to remind you

The voice of the ages calls you … amphibious soul

 

Have you forgotten

Your spirit is healed by the ocean

Please remember

Your spirit is healed by the earth

 

Go down below the water

You who is wise

Remember this knowledge

Oh you amphibious soul

 

BRIDGE:

Those of the ocean

Those down below

The children of nature are afraid

Our home is bound in chains

Remember who you are

 

Oh amphibious soul

Hurinin … flow with me x 2

 

Go down below the water

Oh great love

Deep forest dreaming

You of Flesh and blood

Hurinin flow with me

Leave my head on the shore

Free my amphibious soul

Photos by Craig Foster.

Finally, just days before the arrival of Yo-Yo Ma, Craig’s lounge had to be transformed into a space for the very first performance of My Amphibious Soul and there was a mad rush to get ready. Furniture had to be rearranged, recording equipment set up and fragile instruments had to be repaired after being put through their paces during rehearsals. This led to our most beautiful seaforest musical creation, made by Jannes. “The shark-egg rattle was a last-minute invention that suddenly sparked in me. We had filled many shark eggs with sand and gravel and they make good enough shakers on their own, but we wanted something more profound. In the ocean, the adult sharks lay their eggs onto various structures, including sea fans. I realised that it would work really well to attach the eggs cases to the skeleton of an orange sea fan,” he remembers. “The look and feeling of the instrument, became most profound when its design was closest to that of nature. Us humans can learn so much from nature when we just listen and observe it,” he continues.

When Yo-Yo finally arrived at Craig’s house, the Seaforest orchestra was ready and we had all found places to sit in this now very intimate living space. Zolani opened the performance with a powerful prayer to all of our ancestors and then speakers including Craig, Loyiso Dunga and Prideel Madjiet from The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) made short presentations. I watched Yo-Yo carefully as he listened to each speaker and I remember his mouth dropping open in delight and awe as Jonny played a recording of the sound of the whale bulla – clearly a sound unlike anything he had heard before. Last to speak was ethnomusicologist Ncebakazi Mnukwana who took us back in time describing the deep roots of African music. Her voice and profound knowledge were mesmerizing. With those words, she made music an integral part of the story that lies at the heart of our work: the connection between human origins, nature and the human psyche.

“When you are talking about the sea you are talking about vibration and resonance…..It starts with the string … pulse, meter, born in the body, expressed on the instrument. Our first teacher of music is nature…. it sits in the DNA, in the bones….once we were hunter-gatherers. We needed that sound and it was part of our ecology.”

Ncebakazi Mnukwana
Photos by Pippa Ehrlich, Ross Frylinck and Austin Mann.

It’s hard to describe the first official performance of My Amphibious Soul. What stood out for me, was the presence of Zolani as she held the other musicians together. I remember Madosini’s focus as she created a rhythm and tempo for the rest of the group, whilst playing the mouth-bow, one of the hardest instruments to play. My strongest recollection from that day however, is held in my body rather than my mind. There is a moment in the song where we move from the nostalgic memory of our ancient connection with nature, to the world we are creating now in which human-made environmental collapse is wreaking havoc with our internal and external realities. Zolani’s lyrics are, “The children of nature are afraid. Our home is bound in chains,” but she didn’t sing them. She wailed. And that wailing filled my whole body with a sense of despair for what we have done and what we have lost. When I spoke to her about it afterwards, she cocked her head to one side, closed her eyes thoughtfully and said that she didn’t know where that sound had come from. It had moved through her from someone or something that was somewhere else. Carina, our Chairperson sensed something similar. “That day is etched in my memory as one of the most magical and joyful of my life. I have not found words to describe it, as that would somehow limit the experience. Everyone present seemed to be in a kind of altered state of understanding that this was no ordinary day,” she wrote to me later.

And as I sat on my friend’s patio, listening to perhaps the greatest living cello player on Earth, with tears streaming down my cheeks, the world seemed to expand and shrink at the same time. The whole day had become a montage of opposites, ancient culture juxtaposed with modern, deep sadness juxtaposed with incredible joy, human technology working with organic nature and in spite of the duality, everything seemed to fit together. I think Yo-Yo himself may have understood it better than me. “The San people are indeed our ancestors. I don ’t know what it will take for everybody on the planet to feel our common ancestry, because if we actually felt that, it puts everything else in perspective… My dream, has always been to integrate the cello into these sounds because that is what we are drawing from… These are the original sounds… the actual abalone shells and whale ear bones… it’s amazing… If you go deeper and deeper and deeper, this is where we get to. It comes from whatever we have experienced and heard before we were born,” he explained.

Photo by Craig Foster.

Epilogue

Weeks later, the dust has settled, but the project has taken on a life of its own. We are raising funds to complete a short film that tells the story of My Amphibious Soul. Zolani Mahola has committed to becoming an ambassador for the Sea Change Project and to immersing herself in a 3-year deep-nature training program under Craig’s mentorship. Our project to help make the seaforest a UNESCO World Heritage site has also been re-invigorated, and we have an even bigger plan which will hopefully make Yo-Yo Ma an integral part of that process – something which he has already intimated that he supports:

“I see a very wonderful throughline from your work to the abstract notion of a world heritage site, which will bring more attention to the planetary discussions that we are having.”

Yo-Yo Ma