08/06/2013 01:24 pm ET

Thai Elephant Orchestra Is Thailand's Biggest Band -- Literally

Like a lot of musicians, these guys work for peanuts -- and love it.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra -- easily Thailand's biggest band if we're just talking size -- has been around since 1997 and has released three albums of original material.

The group started with only five pachyderm pop stars, but the orchestra now has 14 members who play a variety of specially built marimbas, drums and xylophones designed for the animals.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra is the brainchild of Richard Lair and Dave Sulzer, a Columbia University neuroscientist who also composes music under the name Dave Soldier.

"Elephants like to listen to music: If you play music they'll come over, and in the morning when the mahouts take them out of the jungle, they sing to calm them down," Sulzer said, according to

"So what we came up with was, well, maybe if we made ergonomic instruments that would be easy for elephants to play -- for instance, marimbas and drums that are giant -- perhaps they would play music."

Sulzer built many of the elephantine instruments himself in a metal shop in Lampang, Thailand, and tuned them using the scales heard in the local music.

"The idea here was to get the instruments to sound like traditional Thai instruments, and make music that sounds like Thai music," he told NPR.

"That instrument ... is using a Thai scale, a northern Thai scale. And when Thai people hear it, they say, 'Oh, that sounds like some of the music that we play in the Buddhist temples up north.'"

Some of the elephant instrumentals are improvised by the animals themselves, while others are performed with humans cueing them on when to start and stop.

These days, the group performs only at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, as a tour would be impractical.

According to the band website, the Orchestra will not be releasing any more CDs, because they were, to paraphrase, only making peanuts on them.




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