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In harmony with nature

A  Kew magazine reader has drummed up the innovative idea of using music to promote conservation and reach young people, producing a CD in collaboration with Kew's Millennium Seed Bank.

Cover for Seeds for Life CD (Image: RBG Kew)

One day last year, on a visit home, Dan was casually thumbing through his mother’s copy of Kew magazine. A feature on Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partnership (MSBP) caught his eye, and as he read it he suddenly had a brilliant idea. Why not use music to promote the conservation message, and reach young people? Why not produce a CD filled with good music and songs with a conservation theme?

In Dan’s case, this wasn’t just an idle thought as he is a talented young music producer with nine years’ experience in the industry, and a degree in geography and environmental issues. Committed to world music, he has already worked with and recorded musicians from Britain and North Africa.

Putting an idea into action

Back at his desk, and keen to put his idea into action, Dan soon managed to grab the attention of MSBP director Paul Smith’s inbox.

Paul quickly saw the potential and passed on Dan’s email to his colleague Tim Pearce – the MSB’s East Africa co-ordinator, and a guitarist himself. Tim enthusiastically backed Dan’s idea and suggested they record what would be a first, pilot CD in Kenya.

Tim proposed Kenya because he knows the country well, having lived and worked there for nearly 20 years. Tim also knew that the music project would feed into Kew’s ongoing Seeds for Life project, a partnership between five Kenyan environmental agencies and Kew. Seeds for Life is designed to enhance the conservation and sustainable utilisation of indigenous flora in Kenya, particularly threatened plants of the drylands.

 With a very modest start-up fund, Dan and Tim set off for Kenya in May 2008. ‘Hotel rooms, school halls, hired backstreet rooms, the Kenyan National Theatre’s rehearsal rooms and even the countryside were Dan’s recording studio,’ says Tim.

Making it happen

In Nairobi, an eclectic mix of performers agreed to contribute to the conservation CD, including a children’s choir and hip-hop rap artists Ukoo Flani, who spread the word that ‘we’re living in nature, you cut down trees, bury your nation’ and ‘we need trees to live, let natural beauty flow, just let it grow.’

With lyrics variously in English, Swahili and local dialects, acoustic guitar and nature recordings from the bush provide evocative accompaniments to haunting solo vocalists Babi and John Williams, and a recitation by poet Oneko in praise of trees: ‘seed grow into tree, gives shade for free, and bee makes honey for thee… the waters’ motion can cause no erosion.’ 


And in the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenyan superstar Teddy Kalanda Harrison, of Them Mushrooms fame, agreed to record a new song for the CD that includes the powerful lyrics ‘seeds bring life, seeds give life, seeds for life.’

At one stage during his three weeks in Kenya, Dan joined Tim to travel out into the countryside on a seed-collecting expedition for the MSB, with his mobile recording studio in his backpack. When they reached the Taita Hills, Dan recorded tribal music, including traditional drumming accompanied by local women singing and dancing.

‘The chants of the Taita dancers tell of the need to maintain the balance between human livelihoods and our environment, passing on the skills of sustainable land husbandry between the generations,’ says Tim.

‘The drummers lamented the fact that the big tree trunks needed to make their quality drums were now no longer available,’ he adds. ‘These days they’re forced to complement their ageing wooden instruments with skins stretched over oil drums.’

It’s a vivid example of the need for the restoration of natural forests. The Kenyan bushland was also home to an abundant supply of wood from a tree species highly prized for making the finest violin bows and woodwind instruments – but no longer. ‘You won’t find easily accessible and mature specimens of Dalbergia melanoxylon anywhere in Kenya these days,’ remarks Tim.

Spreading the word about the importance of plants for life

The goal of this pioneering venture was never to make a profit, and any proceeds from the sale of the CD will go straight back into the project. ‘We hope to sell enough to be able to make more CDs,’ says Dan. ‘Most of all we want Kew to believe in the idea and to recognise what a powerful medium this is – and then to expand the project to other countries that Kew is working with.’

Tim agrees, ‘Kew’s global partnerships can reach an untapped wealth of tradition and passions through music and the arts. The Seeds for Life CD has helped us make the first tentative step.’

The CD is part of the Seeds for Life project – a collaboration between Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partnership and five Kenyan institutes, with the aim of enhancing conservation in the region and encouraging sustainable use of native plants. The nine-year project involves seed collecting and working with local communities to leave a lasting legacy in the country. The MSB has a new campaign to help aid this vital work.

Author: Gail Vines, Kew magazine 


Buy Seeds for Life on CD 

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30 September 2009
I love this. I heard one of these on the Kew YouTube site. Wicked.