Julian May, producer of 'David Attenborough – My Field Recordings from Across the Planet', explains how this extraordinary album came about, with photos courtesy of David Attenborough
This September Sir David Attenborough admonished the BBC – it should make more arts and culture programmes, he suggested. ‘I don’t think the BBC does enough,’ he told the Radio Times. ‘It’s not enough simply to say: ‘Well, it doesn’t get a big enough audience. If you’re a public service broadcaster, what you should be saying is: ‘We will show the broad spectrum of human interest’.’
His comments reveal a forgotten aspect of Attenborough’s character and career. Last year 36.7 million people watched Blue Planet II, that’s more than watched any other programme. But the man narrating the series had become, in 1965, the head of the new television network devoted to alternative programming – BBC2. As well as snow leopards, giraffes and whales, Attenborough brought Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Igor Stravinsky into our living rooms. Attenborough is as interested in the arts as the sciences, in people as much as animals. And he loves traditional music, of many kinds.
His interest was sparked in the early 1950s by programmes on the BBC Third Programme (now Radio 3), presented by Alan Lomax. The American collector had made historic recordings for the Library of Congress of Jelly Roll Morton, Aunt Molly Jackson and Leadbelly. The BBC brought Lomax across the Atlantic to make programmes about European folk music – flamenco, for instance.
When Attenborough heard these he had the idea of doing something similar on television, showcasing the indigenous music of Britain and Ireland. The BBC agreed; Lomax set off with great enthusiasm and soon traditional musicians from all around these islands were gathering in the studio at Alexandra Palace to sing, play and talk to Lomax. The series, broadcast in 1953, was called Song Hunter. Among people interested in traditional music it has an almost mythological status.
Attenborough recording music in a Dyak longhouse in Borneo
Attenborough’s career, then, began with folk music. Around this time the BBC’s great collecting endeavour, the Folk Music and Dialect Recording Scheme, was gathering thousands of songs, tunes and stories in pubs, schools and people’s homes. Simultaneously, pioneering work was going on in natural history broadcasting. For a while the Folk Music and Dialect team and the young Natural History Unit shared premises in Bristol. The BBC issued LPs of both folk songs and of birdsong, made by the same people, with the same gear, in the same office.
It struck me that the process of filming a snow leopard and recording a shy fisherman singing a folk song are fundamentally the same: go to them, wait patiently, unobtrusively, in their environment until they get to know, trust or ignore you. And be ready. The collecting of traditional music has much in common with the way that, to this day, natural history programmes are made. His early involvement with folk music broadcasting, I suggested, influenced the work for which Attenborough and the BBC’s Natural History Unit have become world renowned.
Balinese gamelan orchestra
I put my thesis to Attenborough, although I’m not sure he was convinced. Still, we explored this idea in David Attenborough and the Natural History of Folk, a programme about Song Hunter we made for Radio 2 in 2014. The venture he embarked on after Song Hunter proves my theory. This was Zoo Quest, films made on expeditions to catch exotic animals for London Zoo. From 1954 to 1963 it took Attenborough all over the world.
“Wherever I came across music,” he told me as we left the studio, “I recorded it.”
“What did you do with it?” I asked.
“I gave it to the BBC sound library.”
So, I searched the BBC’s sound archive and discovered more than 60 recordings of music – from West Africa, South America, Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Pacific Islands and northern Australia – all credited to David Attenborough as collector. A few had been used in those films, but most had lain in the archive, unheard, for more than half a century. I listened to them and was amazed by the quality and range of what Attenborough had gathered. It is a sonic treasury.
A quindina player in Sierra Leone
I suggested we make a programme featuring the music. He liked the idea more, astonishingly, than the commissioning editors of Radio 2 and Radio 4. Music from all over the world... unheard for half a century... David Attenborough telling stories... irresistible, surely? No. Rejections came from Radios 2 and 4 – repeatedly. The workings of the minds of commissioning editors have ever been among the imponderables of life. Radio 3, thankfully, was keen.
I sent Attenborough all the recordings he had made. One winter’s morning he came to Broadcasting House and I recorded him recalling how he came to gather this material as a young man, and his response to hearing the music he had captured almost 60 years ago, and hadn’t heard since. It was a memorable, rather moving, session.
“Back in the 1960s,” he said, “there were still parts of the world where European music had not been heard and where the traditions that had been developed over centuries were still continued with no knowledge of Western styles of music, which since then have enveloped the world. So these sounds which I captured with that clumsy tape recorder 60 years ago have a quality that you wouldn’t be able to replicate today.”
‘That clumsy tape recorder’ was the L2, one of the first (just about) portable machines. It was the size of a concrete block, was powered by ten big torch batteries and had to be rewound by hand. There was a switch that turned the microphone into a small loudspeaker, so recordings, which were of good quality, could be checked. Attenborough used it to make recordings, officially, for use as background music in the films, but, really, because he was enthralled by what he heard. “While I was in Bali theoretically looking for pythons,” he told me, “in the evenings I was recording all these different kinds of orchestral groups.”
A valiha player in Madagascar
The first Zoo Quest expedition, in 1954, was to Sierra Leone, in search of the scarcely enticing bald-headed rock crow. The music proved more interesting. “One of the lovely instruments they have in Sierra Leone is the balange and I recorded one of these,” Attenborough said. The balange is a kind xylophone, similar to a balafon. “I thought I’d play it back to the instrumentalist. He listened intently... He said, yes, he could understand how the machine had managed to learn that particular tune because it was pretty simple. But he would play something, if I wanted, that would really show if it could learn a piece of music of any complexity... He played a dazzling piece full of scales and rapid notes. Having finished he said, more or less, ‘How about that then?’ I rewound and placed the speaker to his ear. He rolled his eyes with pleasure at hearing the very complicated music that he in fact had produced. He was very impressed.”
Two years later he persuaded the BBC to let him go to Indonesia, in search of the Komodo dragon. In Bali he was entranced by the gamelan. “They play by memory, none of the music is written down and the musicians are so dedicated that they will rehearse every night,” he said. “The villagers will sit down while the leader of the gamelan orchestra will convey his composition, teaching them, one at a time how to play. And they then play this concerted music with extraordinary precision and real zest. So it is haunting music that you hear every night – or you did in those days, in the villages of Bali.”
In Borneo Attenborough stayed with Dyak people who live together in longhouses. Though they were notorious head hunters, Attenborough found them very hospitable, and musical. As well as a plangent stringed instrument, the gambus, they played trompongs, tuned gongs. “Nearly always someone, somewhere or other was playing gongs, hitting them with sticks and playing long, stately melodies of one sort or another. And one night they seemed to be going on much later than ever and in the morning I said, ‘Was there some kind of celebration going on?’ And they said, ‘Why?’
‘Well, just where I was sleeping, a few yards away, there were people hitting gongs.’
‘Oh that, yes, yes, yes... There was a funeral.’
‘Where was the body?’
‘You were sleeping alongside it. Didn’t you realise?’
‘No, no I didn’t and if I had, perhaps I wouldn’t have gone to sleep so quickly.’
It was remarkable music. And later that day there were more ceremonies held in which people sang to the spirits to accompany the dead man on his way to the next world.”
In Tonga Attenborough recorded wonderful vocal music, some composed by Queen Salote. The Keeper of the Palace Records, Ve’ehala, was a nose-flute virtuoso, and Attenborough recorded his chamber ensemble as they played on the verandah of the palace in Nuku’alofa. In Fiji he found that brass band music had merged with the indigenous tradition and captured the most wonderful rendition of ‘Colonel Bogey’ – played on guitars and banjos – ever recorded, anywhere.
A harp maker in Asunción, Paraguay
Attenborough also described an extraordinary encounter that he had while on the island of Koro. “We were told that the local priest with a certain chant could summon up turtles from the depths. He would do it with a song. So, we went off to Koro and met the priest, a very modest man, and he told us that, yes, he could call a turtle. Not only would he call a turtle but, if he performed it correctly, the turtle would then be followed by a huge white shark that would turn up after that. I was very sceptical, I must say. However, he took us to a cliff overlooking a deep bay where the ocean was a wonderful deep blue, I recall. And he stood on the cliff and he started a chant... and... a turtle suddenly appeared in the deep blue waters... I thought, well, this is obviously a place where there are lots of turtles. No need to be impressed. The turtle swam in these amethyst waters and then slowly dived down again. And while we were just looking, immediately, a large white shark appeared and swam just where the turtle had been. And I was impressed.”
In Madagascar he recorded the uplifting music of the Famadihany or Retournement ceremony. Famadihany translates as ‘The Turning of the Dead.’ “The local people go to the burial grounds to bring out the corpses... and carry their ancestors around the fields to show that the land is being properly looked after. You may think it would be a doleful occasion when you bring out corpses, but, no, the view is that the ancestors should be welcomed with joyful music, and shown that things are very well as the land is being looked after by those that have it in trust at the moment.”
The Zoo Quest team also went to Paraguay to look for armadillos. Attenborough was as taken with the harp music there as he had been with the gamelan in Indonesia. He recorded an album’s worth, mostly performed by Eladio Martínez and his Orchestra – three harps and four guitars, including a big bass guitarrón. Their tune ‘Guira Campana’ (The Bell Bird) is the most famous of Attenborough’s recordings because it became the signature tune for Zoo Quest in Paraguay. Attenborough could claim to have paved the way for world music with this.
“The harp music became very popular because we used it not only in the signature tune but also occasionally when we showed pictures of armadillos trotting across the desert. I think it was the first time that any number of people had heard it in Britain. Soon after that series went out, a real Paraguayan group turned up in Britain, Trio Los Paraguayos, they were called. They played the same sort of tunes as we had been playing on the programme and they were delighted an audience was already prepared to enjoy their music.”
Attenborough checking new equipment in Guyana
In 1963 Attenborough visited Arnhem Land in northern Australia. There he recorded an aboriginal coming of age ceremony involving the creation of a great didgeridoo that became the snake god Yurlunggur. This had a profound impact on him. “When I hear this music it takes me back into prehistory because the aboriginal people have been living in Australia for at least 40,000 years. That’s way beyond the great painted caves of France like Lascaux. They can surely be regarded as having some of the most ancient traditions of any human beings in the world. Certainly it seemed that way when I was filming, watching (and recording) the arrival of the great rainbow snake onto the earth, Yurlunggur.”
The programme David Attenborough – World Music Collector was broadcast by Radio 3 on Christmas Day 2016, with copious supporting and original artwork on its website. It is still available to listen to online. The programme revealed a side to Attenborough’s character and career that people knew nothing of and it was warmly received. Listeners were keen to hear more of the music and wanted to get hold of it themselves. Paul Geoghegan, publisher of Songlines, had the idea of working with Wrasse Records to produce a set of two CDs and now, at last, Attenborough’s remarkable recordings are available with a booklet containing the stories – just a few recounted here – of how Attenborough came to make them.
After listening to the recordings Attenborough told me that they had an impact on him that was quite different from watching his early films, when he was struck by details such as how odd his shorts looked. Pictures emphasise distance and the passing of time. But listening connected him, took him back to those people, places and events. That is the quality of music, the power of sound.
'David Attenborough: My Field Recordings from Across the Planet' is out now on Wrasse Records, and is available as a two-CD set with a 52-page deluxe booklet or as a download:
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This article originally appeared in Songlines #143. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: Songlines Subscriptions