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Giving voice to birdsong

Harini Barath

The Sky Island Beatbox Project combined birdsong, beatboxing and captivating visuals in a series of performances to turn the spotlight on the increasingly threatened “sky islands” of the Western Ghats and their feathered denizens.

The Sky Island Beatbox team
The Sky Island Beatbox team   (Photo: Prasenjeet Yadav)

A sophisticated sound mixer, a projector and a slew of laptops occupied the stage at the Dasheri auditorium in the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore. The stage was set for the last performance of the Sky Island Beatbox Project, an unconventional undertaking that seeks to raise awareness about the distinctive and fragile “sky islands” of the Western Ghats—home to many endemic, and endangered, songbirds.

As the audience trickled in, beatboxer Ben Mirin drew giggles with his vocal acrobatics as he performed a sound check. His fellow performers joined him on stage—bird ecologist VV Robin, Research Fellow at NCBS, and ecologist-turned-photographer Prasenjeet Yadav. What followed was an audio-visual treat, with some serious science thrown into the mix. Mirin matched notes with the birdsongs recorded in his mixer. The catchy tunes had the audience tapping their feet and clapping in time. Yadav’s images of the songbirds filled the projector in the background as the trio shared stories and science about these birds and their shrinking ecosystem. After the presentation, the audience indulged in their share of beatboxing, and even composed a tune or two.

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Beatboxers use their voices to imitate drumbeats and other percussion sounds. It turns out that beatboxing is a surprisingly fitting tool to tell the story of the sky islands. For one, it simply makes the science very accessible and enjoyable. The other, deeper connection is that the real scientific way beatboxing works is very similar to the way birdsong works. Beatboxers mimics thing, are constantly engaged with what is around and picking up new things. “This is exactly how birdsong works. Birds in this part of the world are open-ended learners; they learn song almost all through their lives. And are constantly incorporating new things into their repertoire. Songbirds also have regional dialects, just like beatboxers,” said Robin.

The response to the project has been enthusiastic—their performances in Ooty, Kodaikanal, Kochi and Trivandrum saw large turnouts and extensive media coverage. “People from the audience in Kodaikanal showed me photos of some of these birds on their phones,” said Robin. “They said: these are birds we see in our backyards but we didn’t know they were special. Now we know that these are threatened endemic birds. It was very satisfying to see that we made some impact,” he added. Also satisfying to the trio were the insightful questions from the audience about the research and questions from students about their careers—they wanted to know how they could become scientists or photographers or beatboxers too.

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“We had a sense that this could work, but we certainly didn’t expect that it would work with everybody,” said Yadav. Their show in Trivandrum was a case in point, where officials from the Forest Department were in attendance. They liked the idea so much that they have expressed interest in having an anthem composed for them based on this music, opening the doors to a unique collaboration between scientists and park rangers.

This blitzkrieg of events was planned in less than two months. An avid birder himself, Mirin had made a music video on birds in New York. Robin, who was introduced to his work through an article in the Guardian, reached out to him. They connected and clicked. What cemented the chemistry was the focus on a common goal—creating awareness about the sky island birds, and the dangers posed to their habitats by human action. “These are birds that offer songs that are really anthems of their natural heritage. By making music from their songs, we wanted to make the people who live in and around the Western Ghats connect with these special birds they find in their backyards,” summed up Mirin.


Written By

Physicist turned science writer. I enjoy writing about interdisciplinary research and interviewing scientists about science and careers in science.