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Gibbons: The One-Hit Jabberwockies of the Rainforest

The gibbon is the most dandified primate roaming the forests of Southeast Asia. The Chinese have long considered it to be the wisest and noblest of all animals, and in the eighteenth century the West took over this sentiment when it proclaimed the gibbon to be the animal closest to us in the great scheme of evolution. If you would care to look up the third volume of Richard Owen’s On the Anatomy of Vertebrates (published in 1868) you will find, hidden between endless anatomical minutiae, the first known reference to the distinguishing talent of the gibbon: “They alone, of brute Mammals, may be said to sing.” Ten years later, Thomas Huxley was the first to make a gibbon tune widely available to the general public: “Goek, goek, goek, goek, goek ha ha ha ha haaaaa.” Huxley goes on to mention a naturalist and musician by the name of Mr. Waterhouse, who wrote down gibbon songs in musical notation with the suggestion that a competent violinist “could give a good idea of the gibbon’s composition.” And with these media appearances the music of the gibbon became a cult phenomenon.

The majority of gibbon songs are duets, with the female taking the lead and the male responding as a second voice to their rhythmic “great calls.” Alone or in pair, the gibbon sings with gusto! A typical song can be heard at distances of up to two kilometers and will last, on average, ten to twenty minutes, but songs of over eighty minutes have been reported. Biomusicologists rave about the perfect pitch of the gibbon and its keen sense of rhythm. A white-handed gibbon has been observed to call in synch with a metronome; further examination showed that its favourite speed was a cool and collected 60 BPM. Intriguingly, it is far from clear what this singing is supposed to mean or to achieve. Some researchers think that it is meant to demarcate territory, to make the singer known to possible future mates, or to scare away predators, but research is far from conclusive.

All apes have some form of language in the wild, and researchers have been trying to build upon this faculty for language by teaching human language to great apes. Whether these experiments have had any success is one of the greatest conundrums in science, but I, for one, am gullible enough to believe that they have. Humans have more language than any ape, but it seems reasonable to assume that the ability for language predates us and resurfaces in them. To compress the argument of the newly founded discipline of PrimatePoetics, this means that the language of chimpanzees is a part of our own linguistic heritage. It is as part of this research that I stumbled on the gibbon as an enigmatic border case. The gibbon is the only ape that is not also a great ape; it is its own category­—the lesser ape. How are we to bring it into the fold of the PrimatePoetic?

The gibbon in all its loudness is not saying anything. In fact, it appears that the content of a gibbon song is hardwired. Gibbons sing only at fixed periods of the day, and each species and each sex can sing only its own song. When a gibbon is raised without coming into contact with any members of its own species, but only with those of other species, it will still sing its own song. Can it even hear a song of another species? Hybrid gibbons born in zoos sing predictable hybrid songs. I offer that the gibbon is trying to hypnotize everything that has ears in its territory. The domain of “meaning” is larger than that of “information” alone. Or, as Alice said about the gibbon’s nonsensical wonderland: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

The gibbon condition shows us a parallel line of development of the same ur-faculty that has turned into speech in us. Gibbons’ songs are pure sound, meaningless as a Dada sound poem is meaningless, but totally effective as a form of mind control. Apart from us, all great apes have very little control over their vocal cords; they can’t be taught to speak or sing, but they do have minds that are able to deal with language, with levels of abstraction that are beyond the gibbon. We humans have managed to keep both possibilities, we can sing and we can symbolize. Language is a virus from the greater ape; music is an antidote from the lesser ape. Poetry, in the special sense of the word that we use, keeps them in harmony.


Wilfried Hou Je Bek

The most prolific gibbon researcher is Thomas Geissmann. His website,, contains recordings and pictures of all species as well as the full texts of his research papers and many useful links. The inaugurating publication of PrimatePoetics can be downloaded at the website of the author, Wilfried Hou Je Bek is a blogger from Utrecht, the Netherlands.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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