Concert Series To Benefit ‘Hippie Chimps’

On May 14 the musical collective Groovananda will gather in DC for a concert to benefit the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI). Groovananda leader Wynne Paris is working closely with BCI to develop a benefit series he hopes will attract major artists to the cause. Check out their Facebook invitation for details. (Disclosure: I’ll be performing alongside them.)

BCI was honored at Copenhagen's Convention on Climate Change for leading the effort to create the 11,803-square-mile Sankuru Nature Reserve in 2007 and the 1,847-square-mile Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve in the Congo in 2009. The rainforest reserves protect gravely endangered bonobo apes and okapi, a rare forest giraffe.

The Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve is the pilot for the Bonobo Peace Forest, BCI’s proposed constellation of community-based nature reserves. Every step of the reserve’s creation was run by the local Congolese NGO and Kokolopori villagers.

The bonobo is the great ape most closely related to humans, sharing 98.4% of our DNA. In contrast to the aggressive, male-dominated culture of our other relative, the chimpanzee, bonobos enjoy a peaceful matriarchal society.

Bonobos are pansexual, earning them the nickname "hippie chimps." Other than humans, bonobos are the only primates who often have sex face-to-face. Unlike chimpanzees, who sometimes fight to the death to resolve conflicts, bonobos ease bad vibes by sharing food, grooming, and having sex. Kind of like Burning Man.

Our survival as a species may pivot on whether we behave more like chimpanzees or bonobos. What valuable information will we lose if the “hippie chimps” disappear?

Wynne Paris (at right, with sarod) is the creative director of Groovananda, a loose collective of musicians who play rock-and-jazz influenced kirtan, yoga gospel music. (Listen to Groovananda here.) The former rocker took up the sarod, a 23- string Indian lute that looks like a guitar but sounds like a sitar, and become a yoga troubadour.

The upcoming Groovananda album, Omspun, features an array of musical luminaries including Mark Karan from RatDog, Rick Allen of Def Leppard, J.T. Thomas and Doug Derryberry from Bruce Hornsby's band, former Miles Davis percussionist Badal Roy, free-jazz clarinetist Perry Robinson, and chanter Krishna Das.

We spoke with Wynne about his devotion to saving the bonobos and his benefit-concert plans.

HeadCount: What is kirtan?

Wynne Paris: Kirtan means “to glorify” in Sanskrit. It’s the gospel music of India, with a lot of the same elements – ensemble singing, creating a spiritual experience through the participation of everyone, including the audience. Groovananda has one foot on the yoga mat and one hand on a Stratocaster. We strive to transform audience and bandmembers alike into a grateful chorus of celebrants singing, clapping, and grooving on the eternal One. It’s like "Iko Iko" all night!

What did you discover about bonobos when you began volunteering with the Bonobo Conservation Initiative?

I learned that the Congo Rainforest, where the bonobos live, is threatened and that bonobos are almost extinct. When the current DRC president, Joseph Kabila, became the country’s leader in 1997, multiple wars going were underway in the Congo. Food distribution was nonexistent and people resorted to eating "bush meat," which included bonobos. Millions of people died and nobody even mentioned it on US television. Now that the wars are mostly resolved, powerful interests are pushing for access to heavy logging in the Congo Rainforest, the planet's second lung. So not only is it critical to protect the Congo Rainforest to save the bonobos and other species, it's critical for ourselves, too.

Of all the causes you could choose to be involved with, why is this one so important to you?

Bonobos are matriarchal, bisexual, and nonviolent. It would be terrible to lose them without having the opportunity to learn what they have to teach humans about coexisting peacefully. And bonobos are musical! They like to make music. I’m a hippie at heart and bonobos embody the hippie values of peace and love. We need to let people know about these great apes that are such an important part of the primate story, our story. It would be tragic if they were to vanish. I focus on bonobos because they’re so underserved. Much as I love Tibet, plenty of great musicians are already performing to benefit Tibet.

What makes BCI different from other conservation groups?

[BCI leader] Sally Coxe was honored in Copenhagen because typically when a nature reserve is created, the natives are kicked out. In contrast, Sally has partnered with the local people, involving them in maintaining the reserve so it will be more economically beneficial to them than trading in “bush meat.” BCI commissioned Papa Wemba, the Congo's most famous singer, to record a song in the dialect of the local people [video below]. It tells them not to eat the bonobos and encourages them to revere them, instead. This is their national heritage, after all.

We are fighting some long-held traditions, however. One is: “If I eat an ape’s hand in a soup, my child will grow strong.” Our goal is to raise enough funds to really protect this forest, so it's not just a line on a map.

What are your plans for this concert and upcoming events?

The May 14 public concert and private fund raiser on May 15 will mix kirtan with rock, jazz, and jamming. Sally Coxe will give a presentation on BCI. Some great artists are performing including the legendary Badal Roy on tabla, who has played with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and many other jazz artists. We'll also have clarinetist Perry Robinson. Perry is one of the original founders of the free-form improvisation that bands like Phish have carried so far. I’ve been meeting with artists and promoters constantly to raise awareness of this cause. Some exciting plans are in the works. We’re putting out the call to artists on all levels to help the bonobos. They can contact me directly through my website or Facebook.

Debra is the lead singer/guitarist for rock band Devi, playing Sullivan Hall NYC Thurs April 29 @ 8:30 pm.