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Rock the monkey

Peter Gabriel collaborates with apes at GSU



It's unlikely you'll ever find hometown celeb Elton John joining bands on stage down at the 9 Lives Saloon. But in recent months another international pop star, Peter Gabriel, has taken great interest in jamming with some other locals.

As previously reported in CL, Gabriel has visited Georgia State University's Language Research Center to explore the possibility of collaborating musically with the highly communicative bonobo apes there.

Though for now, the center, at Gabriel's request, remains fairly tight-lipped about the musician's stay, another member of the local music community -- that is, in addition to the apes -- was on hand at one of the Gabriel/ape duets. Human singer/bassist Andy Gish, who leads local pop trio the Yum Yum Tree, attended a Thanksgiving potluck last year at the center, which coincided with Gabriel's first of three visits so far.

According to Gish, Gabriel and a female bonobo named Panbanisha performed a duet after dinner using identical keyboards. "It was wonderful," she says, of the meeting between the ape and the man who already has played a significant role in expanding the boundaries of western music by popularizing world beats. "[Gabriel] started playing and it was very much like his more angelic stuff, with a Passion [Gabriel's soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ] feel to it. They set one up for [Panbanisha] and turned it on, and she started to play. She actually used both hands and was in key most of the time. She didn't do chords or anything, but she used more than one note at a time. It sounded like she was playing slow little leads. She was generally interested. I wouldn't say it was like jazz musicians listening to each other or anything, but I got the feeling she went over and played it because he was playing."

Gish, who moved to Atlanta from Houston in 1998 to study the apes as a Georgia State grad student, briefly did research at the center before dropping out to pursue music. Though no longer connected to the center, Gish attended the dinner with a friend who still works there. Gabriel, who was accompanied by his daughter, sat across from Gish at dinner, and they discussed Gabriel's former group Genesis and other subjects.

Having tested the waters in November, Gabriel has since returned in December and February to further pursue the project and record the collaborations. During these visits, Gabriel also has played music with a male ape named Kanzi. While center spokeswoman Kim MacQueen confirmed Gabriel's project is ongoing, she had no further information on how far along Gabriel is with the project, when he plans to return to continue his work and when, or in what form, the recordings will be released. She did, however, say, "Panbanisha loved playing with Peter. I saw that with my own eyes."

Gabriel, currently completing what's assumed to be an all-human pop album, could not be reached for comment.

Since 1981, the center has studied the great apes (specifically, bonobos, chimpanzees and orangutans) to gain a deeper understanding of how language is acquired. By placing the apes in a language-structured environment from birth, researchers have discovered they can communicate using symbols on a keyboard and develop the language comprehension skills of a 3-year-old human child. That, in turn, led to the understanding that language is rooted in infancy and the foundation for achieving it lies with comprehension rather than an ability to speak, according to the center's website.

Gabriel first became interested in coming to Georgia State when he learned about the remarkable abilities of the center's bonobos. Bonobos are thought to be closer to humans than other apes in that they are bipedal and have anatomical similarities to pre-human species. In addition, where most apes tend to live in small groups, bonobos form larger societies where cohesion is facilitated by a communication that approaches language. These factors made the bonobos ideal for the center's research into human language development.

"They're perhaps the most intelligent apes on Earth because of the environment they grew up in," Gish says, "so I think that's why he was interested. They've had keyboards for years, and they do play music for them all the time."

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