The new album A Guide to the Birdsong of South America is not as scientific as the title might suggest, but the recording does capture the voices of actual birds — whistling, hooting, daybreaking, joy-making and, yes, even angry-sounding birds. They sometimes seem to be singing to a cumbia beat.
The album evokes both landscape and culture in tracks by 10 notable artists from South America known for music informed by tradition and technology. They include Argentina’s Chancha Via Circuito, Peru’s Dengue Dengue Dengue, French-Ecuadorian DJ and producer Nicolá Cruz and Brazil’s Psilosamples. Each created an original track inspired by and incorporating the recorded song of an endangered bird species.
A Guide to the Birdsong of South America can be purchased as a download from Bandcamp, where vinyl copies are also available, along with T-shirts and prints from some cool album art by Scott Partridge illustrating the different birds. Proceeds from the album and merch will be donated to organizations devoted to birds and their habitats in Ecuador.
The project was the idea of Robin Perkins, a DJ, environmental activist and, not surprisingly, lifelong bird-watcher who is releasing the album on his own Rhythm and Roots label (also the name of his blog). Perkins started the project with funding from a Kickstarter campaign and did research to come up with a list of threatened birds in the artists’ respective countries. He was able to obtain the recordings of the birds with the help of an online bird call-sharing community called Xeno-Canto, and he asked the artists to pick the bird that spoke to them for their piece.
Billboard caught up with Perkins in Mexico to find out more about A Guide to the Birdsong of South America:
What were some of the artists’ reactions when you first approached them about recording with birds as vocalists?
Most of the artists were surprised, inspired and I think delighted. This is a very different starting point for making a piece of music. It can be both challenging but also very inspirational. For some artists it went even further than just incorporating the song. For example, Lulacruza chose the Niceforo’s Wren, a bird that originated from the same place as [the group’s singer] Alejandra’s paternal family: the northern Colombian Andes. So in this sense, for many the inspiration went beyond just the birdsong but also encapsulated the species, its habitat, its situation or its beauty.
Have you visited the bird habitats?
Before launching this project I lived for a year in Argentina and was able to travel pretty extensively throughout the continent from Patagonia to Ecuador. I got a real appreciation for the beauty and diversity of the continent’s nature but I haven’t [yet] visited any of the actual reserves where these birds are found. It would be a dream come true to be able to do so. We are currently discussing with [bird conservation foundation] Fundación Jocotoco to see if we can arrange for Nicola Cruz, who worked with the song of the endangered Jocotoco Antpitta, to visit the bird’s home reserve in southern Ecuador. Introduce the artist to his muse. Who knows, maybe we could even play back Nicola’s track to the bird — see what they think of it!
Did you model this project on others you have heard or seen, in terms of looking at other examples of music activism? Or was it simply something that sprang from your own interests?
The idea of using music as a tool for activism was really more of an evolution of the project itself. The idea was born from the concept of using birdsong to make music, and then this soon evolved into using specific species, then to endangered species. The idea to use music as activism really sprang from this evolution of how we could transform what was, I thought, a novel idea into something meaningful — give it even more depth and make it nonprofit. It also made sense to me, uniting my three passions: music, South America and conservation. Music can be so many things. It can be a shoulder to cry on, a reason to feel happy, a memory or, in this case, a vehicle for a wider message. In this case it give us both a new way to talk about conservation and a new method for musical creativity.
Tell me more about yourself. You live in Mexico now. Where are you from?
I was originally born in the north of England and grew up in a small town called Glossop [near Manchester]. Coming from a family of bird-watchers and nature enthusiasts, I was always surrounded by conservation, from family holidays to nature reserves to volunteer days with the local wildlife trust. I ended up studying Latin American studies and over the past few years have lived in Argentina, Holland and am now back in Latin America living in Mexico City. The continent has always fascinated me – its music, its history, the meeting of many different cultures and of courses its incredible biodiversity.
Do you feel encouraged by the results to do other projects in this vein?
It has been incredible to hear the reaction of people from those that supported on Kickstarter to receiving messages from other producers that would have loved to have worked on the project. It has also been wonderful to work with and feel the appreciation from organisations like Fundación Jocotoco that the project will support. For them this is also something new, exciting and gives their work a whole new audience and a new angle. For me this is just the beginning. My dream is to take the project to the next continent, following the same rules and concept but in a different context with different species and different artists. A complete series of A Guide to the Birdsong of…!