This Quietening Earth

We are all invited to follow our bliss for reasons bigger than we may ever imagine.

This is a story about a man whose life show that – no matter what your passion, no matter how kooky, or weird, or dangerous or lonely the road to following that which makes your heart sing … there is a genius in every daydream. 

It begins with a date-picker in Bahrain.

An unusual place to start, especially as the subject of this tale is a British composer; a self-confessed conservative with no passion for adventure, let alone for dates. But the fact is that it was the date-picker who caused David Fanshawe to be lost in Africa in search of love songs and then adrift in the South Pacific with a microphone recording the voices of the last members of disappearing tribes.

There are no words to describe the sounds that issue, occasionally, from palm trees in the Royal Palace Gardens of Bahrain. When a date-picker sings it is like the cry of a paradise bird, strangling. More passionate than a yodel, quite close to a scream. It is a sound which can both warm your heart and curdle your blood. To achieve it you must rake out a soul-splitting wail, slap the sides of your throat with your open fists and yodel the chant at rapid speed.

Heeee Yoy Yoy Yoy Yoy Yoy…..

When David Fanshawe, at the age of 27, first heard this sound, it was the beginning of an adventure story spanned a lifetime, saw him imprisoned three times, washed to the middle of the South Pacific and be spotted falling from the sky by camel riders in the sub-Saharan desert.

It was the cry of the date picker that lead, 30 years later, to a scene in Sydney Harbour where Fanshawe is teetering off the bow of a yacht, recording celebrations around the Opera House.

“All sound is music,” yells Fanshawe, hanging off the side of the boat, recording the lap of the water on its hull as the night bursts into flame above him. “Even fireworks.”

Since the day he heard the date-picker cross the boundary between sound and music, Fanshawe leapt off his career course as a composer at London’s Royal College of Music to navigate the world to the tunes of rare instruments and the call of the human voice.

What he did not know then was that he was recording the last gasps, the last songs, the last cries of longing to a dying view of the cosmos and the last breaths, footsteps, prayers and lullabies of cultures all over the planet that no longer sing, dance or even speak their native languages 50 years later. Listen to modern-day Geographic explorer, Wade Davis summing it up for TED here – it’s worth it!

wade davis

David Fanshawe’s life’s work has been an exploration of the remote areas of the world and the last moments of the great diversity of human expression as the cultural biosphere collapses into a monotone unprecedented in the entire history of life on this planet.

It’s a journey launched from southern England where, as a 10-year-old boy, Fanshawe dreamed of Africa. Following the gift of his own passion, he went on to become one of the world’s leading explorers, travelling the globe to capture the dying embers of primitive cultures through their music. His journeys – mostly hitchhiked on boats and on borrowed camels and canoes – encompassed Uganda, The Congo, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Thailand, Polynesia, Micronesia and countless lost villages, tiny islands, monasteries, long houses and boat homes in between. He has recorded the songs of pearl divers, headhunters, conch shells played on Easter island, bicycle spokes played in Uganda, the wailing song of a Polynesian Princess being carried away to meet her fates under the cool glare of a heavy moon, and a musical stone in French Polynesia.
David Fanshawe collects the songs of South Pacific reefs, boat engines, African thongs, Muslim prayers, firesticks, storms and feet, dancing in wet grass that is today soy plantation, burnt forest or wasteland on which generations of dancers work as cheap labour and prosititutes. It’s a personal odyssey that has resulted in thousands of hours of tape, the musical DNA of tribes and places now lost or changed forever – all that and a rapid personal education in survival skills.

“I have traveled the world for three decades,” he explains, “Searching for rare sounds. What I’ve wanted to capture is living sound, sound that crossed the borders of continents, race and religion.

“I describe myself as a musical explorer, I navigate the planet to the geography of sound. I’ve found instruments never before seen, heard sounds coming live from the jungles of remote corners of the globe and from the throats of rare peoples, secret tribes, headhunters, medicine men and goat herds.

I have recorded dancers moving and chanting to ancient tunes, celebrating their ancient gods and preserved it all for the time when these things no longer exist.” In the process of finding the musical signature of a dying age, Fanshawe has been arrested as a spy, jailed naked in a Tanzanian jail and negotiated his life with prison guards, hippos and equatorial currents.

“Africa was no joyride,” he says. “These experiences served, in the end, to put me in contact with people who helped me find what I needed. They taught me to believe in myself and gave me an insight to the human condition which has inspired so many of the songs and sounds that people have created in their time in the world.”

Listening to moments from his musical library it’s easy to hear what Fanshawe means.

Among the thousands of hours of recordings are drum sounds with footsteps underneath them; dry mouths and passionate ones, bodies moving, flocks of birds, sheep and dance sticks beating on the earth. There are moments, wrapped in the full texture of the past, bottled for the future where they will exist as echoes of the day that Fanshawe caught them in his music machine.

Deep in the forests of Northern Kenya it is music that marks the passing of time and tells the stories of the Pokot tribe. It is music too that heals their wounds and eases their pain. On the day that Fanshawe arrived, midway through a decade’s work collecting the music of some 600 tribes in the region for his major work, African Sanctus, the Pokot medicine man was preparing his instruments. “The witchdoctor was called in to treat a woman for abdominal pains in a ritual called ‘Liakat’,” explains Fanshawe. “The ceremony lasts all night.

Using a long medicine stick, vibrating on goat skin stretched over a gourd the witchdoctor uses music to draw evil spirits away from the patient and collect them in the pot. At the end of the ceremony he removes his vessel and blows the evil spirits into the night chanting maramaramara… you can hear the magic in it.” The tapes tell the story in a rich collection of sounds and whispers. There is the sound of the stick; a nasal call somewhere between the twang of a fat elastic band and the faraway sound of an elephant. There are the sounds of cow horns in the distance, the breath of the witchdoctor, of his spit flying into the face of his patient and then the call; maramaramara – a hot whisper.

“These are sounds that will not endure history,” says Fanshawe. “Much of what I have recorded is already extinct.”

The pearl divers of Bahrain, for example, were legendary. Today they exist only on tape.

There are the sounds of their wooden oars pulling at the Arabian Sea and their voices, chanting the songs that eased their work and appeased the seas they plunged for pearls. They sing to the water; heaving on the pull stroke of their oars, a deep plaintiff drone, like a didgeridoo – like the prayer sounds of Tibetan monks, and then chatter like pigeons on the pause.

“Pearl diving is now extinct and the songs have died with it,” he says. “Most of the divers are dead and their sons drive taxis or mine for oil.”


It would be a serious understatement to describe the man as an ‘individual’.

David Fanshawe is the kind of character who, imprisoned as a spy in a Tanzanian death chamber, begged for his life and got good music as well. “This is what one does for the sake of one’s art!” he quips. “A suspected spy. It was a very bad situation. I was thrown into a cell with about 40 others prisoners – all naked, mostly injured and we sat there, for four days, covered in excreta and soaking in each other’s sweat. There was one drain, it ran intoLake Victoria and was like an express lane for mosquitoes. They drove up that drain so thick you could stir the air.

“I was very, very ill and surrounded by people who all knew there was no chance. These people were gangly, starving. They were rotting, right there and waiting to be executed.” In those four days Fanshawe contracted malaria, the others all died.

“I don’t suppose I can say how I managed it, I just knew the jailer was my way out. I pleaded with that man, I begged him for my life and on the fourth day the door opened, my clothes were passed back to me, washed and ironed. There was forty cents in my pocket and my tape recorders were spotless.”

It was the same guard who later introduced Fanshawe to prayer singers at a Cairo Mosque; “All the music is a story and the stories, they are the journey to the music,” he says.

“I didn’t just wander around with a microphone, I wanted to capture something of the human soul, of the past, the story of the Earth and all the stories we have told about ourselves.

I learnt in Africa that if you want to collect the music of the Ugandan Bwala dancers, for example, you need to be there when it really means something. In that case, just being there meant surviving a small plane crash, being attacked by a hippo and jailed as a spy – three times. I depended on accidental meetings, let chance work some magic. When I finally met this tribe, I did my best to convince them that I wasn’t a maniac or a spy. After that, I learnt their dance so I could move with the music, and record it all live, living, alive.”

Since then Fanshawe has recorded sounds coming live from the jungles and the throats of rare peoples, secret tribes and ritual dancers. He has collected the melodies played by six-player xylophones by tribesmen in tattered business suits, the B’ungo Horn which sings for the fertility of Kenyan villagers and the sounds of 30 million dollars’ worth of devastation caused by Hurricane Oscar one night in Fiji.

When he had exhausted himself of Africa and the Middle East, Fanshawe, still insatiable for sounds, spun the globe and found his finger onViti Levu,Fiji– in the middle of the Pacific.

Optimal conditions for drowning, if you were ever in the position to choose, might be warm water, twilight skies, a full moon rising and perhaps the distant view of a South Pacific paradise slipping off your last horizon. It was this way for Fanshawe. “I had gone for a quick swim after recording the sitting and standing dances of the men in Pulap
when I suddenly realised I had been washed out to sea,” he recalls. “One minute; coral tops under my toes, the next; thousands of fathoms of sea below me and the last view of land; a lone palm tree, slipping out of view rapidly. All I could think about was the voice of the Thai Air hostess: “Your life jacket is under your seat…and it has a light …and it has a whistle.” I could see the island disappearing, I knew there was a least one fat tiger shark out there so I thought, I need a light, I need a whistle.” The light was ingenious. With his left sandal Fanshawe slapped the water, spraying phosphorescent beads against the failing sun. For a whistle he sang the cry of the Bahrainian date-picker. “My life has been saved by children who heard me calling from the sea, a plastic sandal, phosphorescence shining against a South Pacific sunset and my continued belief that somehow, the music and my survival are linked.”


It’s a faith that time tested severely.

“What I’ve learnt about the music is that it doesn’t last forever,” says Fanshawe.

“Every year the world becomes a smaller place. McDonalds pops up in Moscow, the Spice Girls appear with President Mandela in South Africa, Michael Jackson re-makes are on the radio in Polynesia. Whatever happens in technology, communications, politics, road building and tourism is reflected in the music the way it is reflected in the culture. You can hear progress in the sounds of today’s cars, planes and telephones – this is the new music of our world. What we have lost is harder to imagine; the sounds of old songs, of small planes, of pearl divers chanting, of grandmothers singing in the souls of little newborns, of great shaman calling out to ant spirit, and serpent, and puma to guide his healing work, of men pounding the earth with ritual dances on their ancestral land, tying the pulse of the living Earth to the threads of the singing stars and of African dancers who could hitch their heartbeats to the percussion of the universe – all of which no longer exist.

This article first published in Panorama, and Outdoor Magazine, Australia

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