Singing Like Yma Sumac
By Cheryl Merrill
Standing on a termite mound, face-to-trunk with an elephant, I place the flat of my hand against Morula’s fluttering forehead, a forehead as cool and rough as tree bark. She’s burbling, a contented rumble that has the sound of water gurgling in a drainpipe, but she is also making sounds that I cannot hear, yet can feel. Right at the point where her nasal passage enters her skull, her skin pulses beneath my hand, vibrations that reverberate in my chest cavity, drum against my heart. Muscular ground swells of sound roll full and luxuriously out into the bush, bumping into hippos, giraffes, zebras, lions, hyenas, birds, snakes and tsetse flies.
But it is only elephants that raise their heads and listen.
Most of Morula’s vocalizations are rumbles, which fall partially or entirely in the infrasonic range of 5-30 Hz., throbbing, quaking air for which we humans have no auditory perception. Such low-frequency rumbles usually have harmonics and overtones, both of which can be selectively emphasized. As in whale song, each individual elephant has a signature sound, one like no other elephant—their voices as different from each other as our voices are different from each other.
Are you there?
Yes, I am here, right behind you.
When we speak, our vocal cords vibrate with forced, small explosions of air from our lungs. We shape words with our mouths and tongues. Expelled from a chestful of wind, words float around us like little clouds, each one a separate exhalation, creating an atmosphere of meaning, thickening language one word after another. Sounds unfold in time, in agreeable waves pulsing against our ears. When we are lost and listening within a piece of pleasurable music, time even suspends itself. Songs hang on our bones.
Standing on a termite mound, I close my eyes. A palm weevil drones by, a miniature bomber on short stubby wings. Buried deep within a thicket, glossy starlings cheerfully teer-teeer-teer-teer at us. The afternoon has an eloquent cadence. Morula is immobile, as if listening, as if deeply immersed in translation. There is music here, if only I had the ears for it.
I open my eyes. “MO-RU-LA,” I sing.
My voice, like hers, originates in my vocal cords. But my vocal range is barely an octave, limping through the air at 220 Hz. Morula’s range is tremendous, more than 10 octaves, from 5 Hz. to 9,000 Hz. The most athletic human voice in history was that of a Peruvian, Yma Sumac, who had a self-proclaimed range of 5 octaves and a recorded range of 4 1/2, from B below low C to A above high C, from about 123 Hz. to 1760 Hz, as high-pitched as an elephant’s trumpet. This is a woman who could occasionally hit a triple-trill and whose voice equaled that of an upright bass.
Morula would find her vocalizations a lot more fascinating than mine are.
Like all elephants, Morula is able to produce low frequency sounds just because she is big – the larger the resonating chamber (think cello compared to violin), the lower the frequency of its sound. Morula also has long and loose vocal chords and a flexible arrangement of bones attached to her tongue and larynx. In addition to a loose voicebox she also has another special structure at the back of her throat called a pharyngeal pouch, which not only affects her low-frequency tones but also holds an emergency supply of water.
Imagine a vocal instrument that is equal parts cello, double bass, violin, tuba and trumpet, one whose entire body is an expanding and contracting resonating chamber, one that can sing with a throat full of water and triple-trill a rumble, a roar, and infrasound, all in one 3-second call. Yma Sumac would be horribly jealous.
As I stand on the termite mound, a soothing mantle of high-pitched insect noise drapes over my shoulders. I lean against the afternoon, a lizard thawing, a gluttonous lion sleeping off a meal.
Morula slaps her canvas ears against her shoulders. Beyond that dull sound I can almost hear leaves on trees breathe. The single piccolo note of a bou-bou shrike rings out. A bleating warbler cries help-me, help-me, help-me, help-me! The burbling beneath my hand goes on and on and on. My whole body tingles; I listen as if I am a young species, as if my life depended on it.