Bubba’s Extraordinary Playlist

Blog by Nicole Rivard

I love to listen to music, and I love to dance.

I’m not saying I’m very good at it, but I love to do it. The combination of both feels like the best way to express and release emotion. I find it freeing.

So, when I came across an ape study that suggests the urge to dance is pre-human, reaching as far back at the primate from which all humans and chimps descended, I became intrigued.

I think it’s because I have gotten to know and love all the chimps who reside at Primarily Primates over the last six years and feel a wonderful connection with them. I like the idea of having one more thing in common with these beings who share 98% of our DNA.

The study revealed that researchers in Kyoto, Japan, filmed chimps standing up and swaying, clapping, tapping their feet and drumming on the walls of a music booth attached to their habitat when they were played short recordings of strident piano rhythms. The booth was reached by a tunnel connected to the chimps’ living quarters, which adjoined an outside space.

Interestingly, males tended to dance and hoot a lot more than the females.

The study pointed out that while dance has a rich and ancient history in humans, up until now it is considered all but absent in non-human primates. However, it also points out that similar behavior has been observed in the wild with “rain dances.” Aaron Sandel, a PhD student in anthropology from the University of Michigan, observed and wrote about chimpanzees during the rainy season in Kibale National Park in Uganda in 2015.

“Rain often subdues them; at least once heavy droplets break though the canopy. But before they seek cover under a tree, while branches sway in the wind and I hop to and fro zipping up my rain pants, male chimpanzees do something unusual: they dance,” he wrote in National Geographic. “Thunder makes the air vibrate and water ricochets off leaves as Garrison, an elderly male, stands upright and begins to strut, grasping at branches with his hands and dragging them as he walks. He makes large figure eights around the other chimpanzees and me.

“Male chimpanzees are famous for charging displays, in which they pull logs and drum their hands against the towering roots of trees. But these ‘rain dances’ are more methodical. While males usually use charging displays as an intimidating greeting when they encounter group mates that they haven’t seen recently, the rain dance seems to occur at any time and in the company of anyone as long as a storm is brewing,” he said.

Other researchers have seen chimpanzees performing dances by waterfalls.

“It would, if likened to human behavior, seem like a chimpanzee way of expressing amazement toward a force of nature,” said filmmaker Bill Wallauer.

A few weeks ago when I was visiting with chimpanzee Bubba at Primarily Primates, the study popped into my head, so I decided to take out my iPhone and play some of my “liked” songs on Spotify, including a mix of hits by Miley Cyrus, Aerosmith and Ke$ha. 

Bubba’s reaction was something I’ll never forget. He started swaying and bobbing his head. I saw a variety of facial expressions. He went from excited and letting out some panhoots to calm and yawning. And he looked with curiosity at where the music was coming from.

I’m no researcher, but Bubba’s reaction demonstrated to me that perhaps music can transform our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom just like it transforms us.

Brooke Chavez, executive director of PPI, agrees. That’s why care staff members do use music as enrichment for the chimps and that chimpanzee Buck seems to be one of the keenest movers. After all, enrichment is meant to encourage the chimpanzees’ behavior in the wild, where every day would be different.

We are living in such crazy times that I think it would do all human and non-human animals some good to listen to more music and dance like no one’s watching.

As Albert Schweitzer said: “Joy, sorrow, tears, lamentation, laughter -- to all these music gives voice, but in such a way that we are transported from the world of unrest to a world of peace, and see reality in a new way, as if we were sitting by a mountain lake and contemplating hills and woods and clouds in the tranquil and fathomless water.”