Here’s What It’s Like to Perform for Chimps

AJ Haynes (Seratones) faces her toughest audience yet.

“What a nutty family tree! A bride! A groom! A chimpanzee!”
—“Monkey’s Uncle” – The Beach Boys

 “A chimpanzee is not a monkey. A chimpanzee is not a monkey. A chimpanzee is not a monkey…” I recited to myself while getting ready in an early morning haze — and again in the car on the way to Chimp Haven. Like any performer knows, it is always key to know your audience. I would have hated for the chimps to hear the word “monkey” slip my mouth. Saying “Hello monkeys!” would be like saying “Hello Cleveland” on a Brooklyn stage — absolutely unacceptable. Because we would be performing from chimp station-to-station, I just brought my acoustic guitar and my lungs. Back to the basics.

Chimp Haven, The National Chimpanzee Sanctuary — the only one in our country — is just a thirty-six minute drive from my front door, a mere twenty-two miles outside of my hometown Shreveport, Louisiana’s, city limits. My housemate Dr. Jeannie Hamming teaches a course at Chimp Haven for Centenary College, part of their cultural diversity module series. When Jeannie informed me that the Haven invited musicians to perform for the chimps as part of their enrichment program, I had to hop on the opportunity.

Like most musicians drawn to rock & roll’s primitive undercurrent, I have always been charmed by primates…or, rather, the act of posturing ape behavior. I’ve devoured videos of Iggy Pop beating his chest and pacing wild-eyed in evocative Alpha fashion. I’ve re-watched King Louie’s classic number from Disney’s Jungle Book more times than an adult should admit. I was even in a band named A.J. Haynes and the Monkey Business. All the while, I was fairly ignorant about actual apes and monkeys. I had no idea that there was even a difference between them. And there are, indeed, quite distinct differences. [1]Monkeys have tails. Chimps do not. Monkeys typically have smaller bodies and brains than chimps. Most monkeys cannot swing branch-to-branch. Chimps can swing branch-to-branch because of their shoulder musculature. Monkeys were not used for HIV testing. Chimps were.

“It’s kinda like Jurassic Park,” my friend and djembe accompanist Winston remarked as the gates clamored open. The pines and live oaks rustled with the near-feverish hum of cicadas and the occasional uproar from the apes. It was only 9:00 a.m., but the thick summer heat was on the rise. No, Chimp Haven is not Jurassic Park, but it does evoke a comparable sense of giddy wonder and awe. However, unlike the dinosaurs, these chimps are far from gawking tourists and the trappings of capitalist greed.

Funded almost entirely by donations, Chimp Haven is refuge to nearly two hundred chimps. Many were bred for scientific research and testing, while others come from zoos and circuses. Some were even found abused or abandoned in people’s homes. On the lush two hundred acres of their home, the chimps have their own sense of autonomy. Although some chimps remain primarily in an enclosed space for their own safety, they are not shackled. They swing limb-to-limb, run amuck through their playgrounds and do as they please. The chimps are not here to entertain. They are here to be entertained.

 How will they react? What if they hate it? There was something absolutely mortifying about the idea of a chimp — a creature that communicates with a remarkable intuitive musicality — hating my music. If such an honest creature shows disdain for my music, was everything I’ve sung until now bullshit? (Or rather, ape shit?) Pushing my existential anxieties aside, I met with the cordial staff, got credentials as official “chimp enrichment” for the day, and hopped in the golf cart with my guitar, eager to start my rounds.

The Bachelors (Golden Corral)

Fig trees and plum trees punctuate the gravel trails traversing Chimp Haven’s verdant terrain. Although it was too early in the summer to harvest, the fig trees seemed eager, on the verge. (Or perhaps I was just excitedly projecting, making everything appear magical when Louisiana summers are really just drenched in sweat and pollen-dusted…) Chimp Haven works with a local Louisiana nursery [2] to cultivate native plants with which they supplement the chimps’ diets.

As we pulled up to our first stop, the Bachelor compound, also known as the Golden Corral, I could hear the Bachelor group’s collective pant-hoot, the vocalization chimps express when excited, crescendo as I ascended the stairs to the platform from which they could see and hear me best. Zort, one of the more animated chimps, began galloping around the parameters of the compound, throwing cardboard and plaything remnants almost to the edge of the platform on which the crew and I stood. The rest of the Bachelors seemed unconcerned, carrying on with their grooming and snacking.

0ad49dda-df87-4c24-bfe2-95e34f412cc9

At first Zort seemed annoyed with my performance, but he appeared to calm down after grabbing a green plastic barrel toy (nervous energy, I suppose? Typical drummer…). The rest of the chimps remained attentive and respectful while relaxing in the shade, swaying slightly with their powerful hands resting on the ground. Clearly, they were expert concert attendees. Cliff, a sizable chimp with very sweet eyes, was cooing along with me in a low pant hoot. Amy, one of the caretakers, later told me that this was a very atypical behavior. Typically, the chimps’ pant hoot intensifies to a heightened roar. Cliff’s cooing was a way of saying, “I’m over here…I’m listening.”

I sang my Cab Calloway-inspired version of “Ramblin’ Man” to end the set. When I bellowed the “HI-DEE-HIGH” verse, Cliff the crooner, responded with a call in time with the song. Ever the showman, Zort was rolling the green barrel on its side and beat on the bottom of his drum — again, in time. I always know a drummer when I see one.

Tinkerbell

After trekking through muddy red earth and knee-high Bahia grass, we arrived at our next stop, Phase 2. Chimps with an HIV or hepatitis infectious status live in Phase 2. When I began my set, the chimps meandered down from their respective stoops and hammocks to listen. Tinkerbell, the liveliest of her group, was in the mood to move. Instead of rocking along to the beat like her group mates, Tinkerbell felt inclined to run back and forth from the mesh enclosure, rattling around, raising hell and flinging shit. (I narrowly dodged a turd or two.)

I think Tinkerbell would probably enjoy Seratones more than my solo material, given her penchant for bringing the ruckus.

Spider, the group’s Alpha, was far more pensive and sat in a nearby corner with his massive torso turned away, shifting in my direction when I sang a note that struck his fancy. He turned to me toward the end of “Goodnight Irene” to show his interest and then gently returned to his hammock in the shade when I ended the song.

Get Rhythm

Although I know that chimps are often depicted as musical, I didn’t expect chimps to strike up the band and participate. As a performer, I’ve learned to have no expectations with any crowd. Performing is a terrifyingly delightful act of discovery. Much to my surprise, each group for whom I performed was very engaged. There was always a group member that would be more vocal in his/her appreciation, but Emma was by far the most excited.

Emma was used for cognitive research during her time before Chimp Haven. She is very intelligent and uses easily decipherable body language — pointing at things — to communicate what she wants. Emma wanted to shake things up. Although Emma was attentive during my set, she got very excited when Winston played a large steel guiro. She climbed the mesh enclosure within spitting distance of us and reached through, shaking her hands to signal it was her turn.

Yes, one of the chimps spat at us. Harper does that around company when he gets excited. Both Harper and Emma took to shaking the mesh barricade, so I played Charlie Patton’s “Shake It, Break It.” I think they’re the only ones that got the message in the music.

The Elders

42cd660f-3eec-46f1-ad76-7e938c143c6d

With the afternoon heat threatening to cut our tour short, we decided to visit the elder chimps in the shade. The chimps in Ladybird’s group, dubbed so after their gentle matriarch, are in their late forties and fifties. Many of the Elders are known for scaling trees on the grounds. Most of them are wild born, shipped directly from Africa in the 1960s before the CITIES Act. The CITIES Act prohibited the trade and sale that endangers the existence of a species. Ladybird is often seen helping her elderly friends maneuver around, especially Karen, who is nearly blind. When the Elders saw us approach from afar, they lumbered down to the mesh enclosure and let us get very close to them. Midway through Velvet Underground’s “After Hours,” a fitting song for this subdued bunch, Ladybird offered some vegetable clippings and remnants of a plastic bottle through the mesh. She’s a true patron of the arts and a Lou Reed fan.

Life Finds a Way

The end of our tour brought us to the group where Valentina Rose, Tracy and Natalie, Chimp Haven’s “oops” babies, run amuck. Before arriving to Chimp Haven, all males are supposed to be vasectomized. Chimp Haven’s mission is to promote the best care of sanctuary chimpanzees — not to breed more chimpanzees. It was not until after Valentina Rose and Natalie were born that the Chimp Haven staff discovered just how miraculous a regenerative force male chimps possess. Although their father, Conan, had been vasectomized, his vas deferens had grown back together. Since the “oops” babies, the lady chimps have been put on birth control. The staff has worked closely with a human neurologist to come up with a different method for the males.

The three sisters are the only chimps born and raised entirely in a mostly natural habitat. They therefore exhibit more chimp-like behaviors: climbing trees, making nests and bickering the way siblings do. When we arrived, Tracy and Natalie were in a heated chase after Tracy slapped the back of Natalie’s head in a very heavy-handed tag. After a spat, Natalie resigned to a quick time-out. The sisters made up soon after. Chimps tend to make up rather quickly.

Valentina Rose sat by closely, calm, big-eyed and meek. Instead of attempting to entertain the whole gang, who seemed more engrossed in the bickering sisters, I sang “Keep Me,” a lullaby I wrote a while back, to Valentina Rose only. At the end of the song, she turned back to her cool indoor enclosure. It was too hot to play and a good nap was in order.

As the chimps took to the shade for relief from the relentless sun and the last satisfying sweat bead rolled down my right leg, an immaculate calm buzzed about the Haven grounds. A job well done. Although there was no grand applause, I think the audience approved.

[1] http://www.chimphaven.org/education/chimp-facts/

[2] http://louisianasnursery.com/

AJ Haynes is the lead singer of the Seratones. Their debut album, Get Gone, is out now.

(Photo credit: Chad Kamenshine)