Sir David Attenborough's Field Recordings From Across The Planet Host Ari Shapiro speaks to the natural historian Sir David Attenborough, who began making documentaries and TV programs in the 1950s. Wherever he went in the world, he also recorded music. Dozens of those recordings have now been released in a new collection, called "David Attenborough: My Field Recordings from Across the Planet."
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Sir David Attenborough's Field Recordings From Across The Planet

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Sir David Attenborough's Field Recordings From Across The Planet

Sir David Attenborough's Field Recordings From Across The Planet

Sir David Attenborough's Field Recordings From Across The Planet

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Host Ari Shapiro speaks to the natural historian Sir David Attenborough, who began making documentaries and TV programs in the 1950s. Wherever he went in the world, he also recorded music. Dozens of those recordings have now been released in a new collection, called "David Attenborough: My Field Recordings from Across the Planet."

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For decades, Sir David Attenborough has brought us the natural world in documentaries and TV programs. He started making these shows in the 1950s, and wherever he went in the world, he recorded music, places like Guyana...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: ...Or Madagascar...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: ...Or Indonesia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Now, dozens of those recordings are being released on a CD collection called "David Attenborough: My Field Recordings From Across The Planet." And we're going to take some time now to listen to them. Sir David Attenborough, welcome to the program.

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You were travelling the world looking for animals, so what made you decide to look for music at the same time?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, I was interested in the people as I was on the animals, to be truthful. And the people made marvelous music in many of the places I went to. So I had one of the very early tape recorders that didn't require main supply to work. You could do it on torch batteries. A big, clumsy thing it was, too, but it worked. And so as I'm interested in music, as well as animals, I recorded music wherever I went if ever I thought stuff was worth recording. And, of course, it nearly always is in almost any society you can think of many of.

SHAPIRO: Many of the people you met had never seen a recorder like this. And there's a great story from Sierra Leone about a musician in 1954 who played a track that's on this album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE BALANGES AND CHORUS OF WOMEN WITH IRON RATTLES")

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, we were working in a village up country in Sierra Leone. And the head drummer - he wasn't the chief, but he was the chief musician and a very skilled drummer too. And the drums, of course, play in groups. And he was very suspicious of our machine. And when I actually played it back to him, which you could do by using the microphone as a speaker, putting it to his ear...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE BALANGES AND CHORUS OF WOMEN WITH IRON RATTLES")

ATTENBOROUGH: He was impressed, but he didn't want to confess it. So he said, oh, well, that box - as he described the recorder - he said, that box may be good at learning some music, but it could only learn simple music. Anybody could do that. But it wouldn't be able to deal with really complicated music. And then he played on his drum really complex rhythms, I mean, marvelous, marvelous stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE BALANGES AND CHORUS OF WOMEN WITH IRON RATTLES")

ATTENBOROUGH: He said, well, now, what about that? And then when I wound it back and put my - the speaker to his ear, his eyes bulged. He had to confess that actually, that box really did rather wonderful things.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE BALANGES AND CHORUS OF WOMEN WITH IRON RATTLES")

SHAPIRO: So many of the tracks on this album are songs tied to a specific event, whether it's the birth of a child or a successful hunt. Can you tell us about one of those events and the song that accompanies it?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, there's a track that we recorded on an island in Fiji called Koro who had a tradition that there was a priest on the island who could call up turtles. And we went to Koro, and we met this - the priest. And he took us to a cliff overlooking a very deep inlet - marvelous deep-blue water. And he started calling to Nakasi (ph), which is the name of the turtle, Chief Nakasi (ph) and vonde (ph), vonde, vonde.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALLING THE TURTLE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Calling in foreign language).

ATTENBOROUGH: And now, to our amazement - or my amazement, initially - up came a turtle.

SHAPIRO: Really?

ATTENBOROUGH: Yeah. And I thought, really? You see? But then the zoologist in me says, come on, dear boy, you know, turtles breathe air. They're bound to come up. And if there's good feeding around there, there's bound to be a turtle, and it'll come to the surface. However long he called, he'd get one in the end.

But the legend also said that the king of the turtles, the Nakasi, was also accompanied by a large white shark who always came up as well. And bless me if, in fact, that turtle took its breath, and then up came a shark. So I had to think that perhaps it was a little more remarkable than I initially thought.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALLING THE TURTLE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Calling in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: There's obviously anthropological value to these recordings. Is there also any concern about packaging up one part of someone else's culture and distributing it in a tidy, digestible form?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, yes, there is. And certainly so because some of the music which we recorded was sacred music, you know. And you do have little concerns that you're making it possible to play it in secular circumstances, you might say, which were not sympathetic. But on the other hand, some of them, I mean, I recorded a marvelous didgeridoo player in Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ATTENBOROUGH: This particular one was actually 10 feet long. It's a hollow - the trunk of a hollow sapling and fitted with a mouthpiece of beeswax. And it produces an extraordinary - because of its length - an extraordinary wonderful vibrating droney (ph) noise...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ATTENBOROUGH: ...Which carries a long way. And it actually serves as being a warning for women to keep away from a very sacred ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: And do you think that putting that on a CD collection like this in any way minimizes the power of something like that?

ATTENBOROUGH: I hope it doesn't minimize the power. And I hope it doesn't offend anyone as well. But I was very particular about asking the people afterwards as to whether, in fact, it would be all right for me to play not only the music, but also the films which we made at that time. And the chief performer - the man in charge, really, of the whole thing - I tried to ask him. I said, you know, is it all right for me to play this? And he said, where are we going to play it? Were women going to hear it?

And I said, well, yes, women would hear it where I was trying to play it. And that troubled him. And then he said, where are these women? I said, well, they're a long, long way on the other side of the world, on the other - way across the salt water, across the sea. And he thought a bit. And then he said, yeah - (speaking foreign language). He said, that's all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: You made many of these recordings very early in your career, some of them more than 60 years ago. What was it like for you to hear some of them again after all this time?

ATTENBOROUGH: My memories of them are very vivid indeed. One of them is a recording of - in New Guinea, we marched with up to a hundred porters carrying goods and food through uninhabited territory. And the porters were singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PORTERS SINGING")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing in foreign language).

ATTENBOROUGH: And that song brings back the aching in my legs, I must say, after tramping up and down those mountains.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PORTERS SINGING")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing in foreign language).

ATTENBOROUGH: Some of them, I hope, will be found interesting to listen to by somebody who's never been to New Guinea or anywhere else around there. The Balinese gamelan recordings we made, I think, transport you back to that magical island.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GAMELAN ORCHESTRA")

ATTENBOROUGH: When I was there - I mean, Bali now is a big holiday island, but in 1954, I only saw one other European on the island. And the gamelan music of the villagers was everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GAMELAN ORCHESTRA")

ATTENBOROUGH: Every village had its own gamelan, the big orchestra of gongs and xylophones and flutes...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GAMELAN ORCHESTRA")

ATTENBOROUGH: ...Playing its own complex music. The Balinese gamelan is the biggest group of orchestral musicians to be found anywhere in the world other than the European-style symphony orchestra. No other orchestra can compare with its complexity. And it's thrilling music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GAMELAN ORCHESTRA")

SHAPIRO: We no longer make music in big communal groups as often as people did in the countries that you were visiting in the 1950s and '60s. I mean, we buy tickets to see professional musicians perform. When you think back to these cultures where people collectively make music in such exuberant ways, do you think we've lost something?

ATTENBOROUGH: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I mean, we're - and I'm as good as anybody. I mean, we're consumers. And we have a professional class to provide us with music. And not to be executant is to miss a major element and enjoyment. I mean, I play the piano as far as I can, but appallingly, of course, and totally amateur. But nonetheless, you can feel what it's like to actually make music as well as just listening to it.

Well, in Bali and Africa and in South America and in many of the other places where I've worked, the only music is the music that you hear. And everybody will contribute to that music. And everybody, therefore, is a critic of that music and those who - when it's bad played or well played.

SHAPIRO: It may seem odd to release a single off of an album like this one, but you've chosen to do so. There's a song from Paraguay called "La Llegada" or "The Arrival."

ATTENBOROUGH: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And before we say goodbye, tell us a little bit about this song, and we'll go out listening to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA LLEGADA")

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, the wonderful thing about the Paraguay is that the Guarani people play on harps, harps that were introduced by the Spanish back in the 16th century. They produce their own versions of harps. But the music they produce is absolutely ravishing stuff. And when it's accompanied by guitars, well, it's a knockout music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA LLEGADA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Sir David Attenborough, it has been an honor. Thank you so much for your time.

ATTENBOROUGH: Pleasure.

SHAPIRO: The album is called "David Attenborough: My Field Recordings From Across The Planet."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA LLEGADA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in foreign language).

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