Cross-Species Music-Making: A Real Phenomenon (ft. Peter Gabriel)
There is a very special group of bonobos who began their lives at Georgia State University (GSU) in a very privileged setting. Scientists were studying bonobos’ capacities to language the way we humans do. There were no expectations of them vocalizing words since they don’t have the physical apparatus to do that. But engaging in building communicative language skills is a social learning process in our species and therefore these bonobos, our closest primate cousins (Pan paniscus), were raised in an intensely integrated human-bonobo environment very much the way human children are raised. They heard a lot of different kinds of music and were encouraged as toddlers to try using different musical instruments. They also used technology to interact with humans and showed preferences for making musical sounds with instruments, including synthesizers.
Peter Gabriel, the renowned pop musician, intrigued by these bonobos’ interest in music, traveled to meet them at GSU to see if they could make music together. Panbanisha, a young female bonobo, sat at her synthesizer while Peter sat at his synthesizer with a glass wall between them. Panbanisha, pointing to a card of lexigrams (a set of novel symbols used in the language lab to represent nouns, verbs, and adjectives), decided that they would improvise a ‘grooming song’ and Peter agreed. Grooming others is an intensely social and bonding activity in all primates so the improv was soft and slow (for a bonobo). The resulting Grooming Song improv between Peter and Panbanisha is a beautiful example of two highly socialized species meeting in the musical moment to create a spontaneous statement together. Both are listening closely to the other and reacting to the other’s musical moves. As they musically arrive at the conclusion, Panbanisha immediately points to the lexigram for ‘good’, and Peter reacts with excited speech and applause.
This musical experience with Panbanisha changed Peter forever. It also changed my life because when I saw this video, I knew that I needed to be engaged in this research. And I’ve been doing this research with this group of bonobos and their progeny and relatives for 20 years. They now live in Iowa at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative (https://www.apeinitiative.org/) and that’s where I do this research.
When you see this video, you will understand why this kind of scientific research can greatly advance our understanding of the evolutionary trajectory of cognition, communication, and music-making. In fact, some scientists hypothesize that music-making was the first primate language.