Thursday, November 30, 2006

Old Songs in Changing Times

In the Kathmandu valley, there are 800 year old religious shrines next to internet cafes. Barefoot sadhus walking side by side with modern businessmen. Loudspeakers on the sidewalk play Nepali Hip Hop as well as the old sarangi tunes. During our two months here in Nepal, we've worked to document the endangered songs of the villagers and have listened for the links to our own rural culture. But just as plenty of Americans don't listen to Bluegrass or Old-Time Appalachian tunes regularly, many young Nepalis find their way to the city where pop music is the soundtrack of life.

Younger Gandharbas are unlikely to be wandering minstrels like their parents. Some become studio musicians or find regular gigs at local restaurants. But most work the streets of Thamel, noodling on miniature sarangis for disinterested tourists, in hopes of selling one (and sending the money back to their village). Other Nepalis seem uninterested as well. The Gandharbas still bear the prejudice of the racial slur Gaine, which means "to hassle." They are stereotyped as demanding and dishonest, and the "untouchable-ness" still lingers in the minds of some Nepali castes.

When Nepal was first united, the king sent Gandharbas out to deliver the news to the remote Himalayan villages. But as more villages get electricity, televisions, and internet access, the Gandharbas are no longer singing the news, and Nepal loses a bit of its cultural heritage. Modern music influenced by India and the west begins to replace the creaky melodies of wandering Gandharba minstrels.

In searching for the old songs, it's often frustrating to hear cheesy synthesizers playing Nepali melodies. But cultures are not static. The words "authentic" or "traditional" are subject to interpretation, just as the same fiddle song might be played differently in Kentucky than it is in Ireland, or might even be remixed over electronic beats by a producer who's never held a fiddle. The same technology that allows you to download these songs and videos is the same technology that is replacing the village storytellers in Nepal. I wonder if our grandkids will think about mp3's the same way we might think of a reel-to-reel tape recorder. In any case it makes those rare songs and stories all the more precious.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Guest House Studios

Back in Kathmandu, we've spent the last few weeks mostly in our recording studio. Most professional recording studios we've found here are great for radio voices but too dead for acoustic instruments, so we've converted Tara and Danny's hotel room into a decent space, complete with hot showers for the musicians, something the Gandharbas don't get too often. The studio isn't perfect, and we have to stop for airplanes, water tanks being filled, or the odd Maoist rally in the streets below.

This last week has been a big one for Nepal. Maoist leaders signed a permanent ceasefire with the Nepali government, approving a new constitution that appears to have made everyone happy. The UN is excited (it may be one of the few recent cases of UN mediation actually helping achieve peace), and Nepal is gearing up to be a tourist destination again, with new trekking routes in the works and an optimistic plan to bring the country out of third world living standard within a decade.

But we've got a record to make, and several Nepali and Appalachian songs to teach each other. We can't play you the cuts for the disc, but here's Danny and Buddhiman making a little fusion of the ubiquitous Nepali folk song, Resham Firiri.

We've just got a few days left here in Nepal, but I'll try to keep the blog updated as we get through the footage. We'll see if we can get Tara and Danny to make a couple posts too.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Return to Lamjung

Buddhiman and I hop in a minibus back to Kalimati in Lamjung, cross the creaky bridge and walk through the now harvested rice fields to his home in Pipal Tari. Neighboring farmers ride their plows on the backs of water buffalo as others wave straw platters at the rice piles, blowing the chaff away. Everyone is friendly, a welcome respite after the unending touts in Thamel. At night the stars are vast above the open fields, with thousands of crickets chirp in unison and the occasional rhythm of a distant madal drum.

It's nice to have another few days off from the grime and hustle of Kathmandu. I've left Tara and Danny in the good hands of Monga. Between Danny's ears and Monga's computer knowledge, they should be able to keep the recording sessions running smoothly.

We came back for a Puja, a religious ceremony that Buddhiman's wife was going to hold. But she consulted a Brahmin priest who advised her to wait until December. In any case, we're here with camera and mic, and we spend the next day climbing up the ridge again to Moria (which means Banana tree by the way), and further along the ridge to a small shrine to Shiva, where Buddhiman plays a few tunes before clouds engulf the mountains to the north.

Buddhiman's son has joined us, and he picks up chesnuts for us along the walk. With Buddhiman in Kathmandu most of the time, Suman is mature for a 15 year old, hooking up the electicity in his house with simple wires and bartering for rice with the neighbors when Buddhiman's sarangi sales in Kathmandu aren't enough. I give him the sound kit to run for awhile and we film and record a passing donkey caravan and some local villagers doing odd farm chores.

Suman will probably never go village to village like the previous generation. Buddhiman's made enough for him to stay in school so far, and he'll be done in a year or two. After that his prospects are most likely getting married and going to Kathmandu to sell sarangis to indifferent tourists. But in any case, he's 15 and enjoying the cd player Tara and Danny gave to his father. He plays the rough mix of a song Buddhiman sings on nonstop.

We walk back beneath the ridge, passing round mudbrick huts, bamboo groves, and a small snake on the side of the trail. It's no bigger than an earthworm but Buddhiman holds us back. Really poisonous apparently.

"Do you ever see cobras down in Pipal Tari?" I ask.


"How big do they get?"

He holds his hands up to indicate the girth; about the size of a grapefruit. Then he tells me about how down in Chitwan, some snakes will latch on the the breasts of sleeping mothers to suck their milk. He says it's not uncommon for new mothers to die in their sleep from suckling cobras.

We cross the ridge and I ask Buddhiman to play a tune while the light's still good. He plays this song (video from the cheap camera operated with my third hand--others busy recording sound, running the DV camera, and shushing loud passersby). The song is about Sagarmatha, better known to you and me as Mt. Everest. It's hard to tell how old some of the songs are. An old song can mean 5 years old to a Gandharba, as if there's no way to distinguish between the recent and distant past. And the Gandharbas are so used to improvising that a "new" song might just mean the one they just made up. Not the easiest stuff to document, but the melodies are often passed down, if not the words.

Back in the village we sit on Buddhiman's porch drinking raksi and eating dahl baht. Buddhiman tells me about how his father and grandfather were known to play songs to bring the rain. The rain would last the duration of the song. This skill has been lost, but was witnessed within living memory of some Gandharbas, like the ones we met in at Manoj's home in Chitwan. There was apparently a book containing the words to these rain songs in the Gandharba language, but this text was supposedly stolen by a Nepali and sold to an unknown foreigner.

Buddhiman plays a few more songs and we sleep, catching a bus the next morning back to Kathmandu. There's an accident on the road and we walk the last few miles into the valley, catching a ride on top of an overcrowded bus.

That evening Monga, Dan, and I discuss cultural preservation and what we're really doing to encourage it among the Gandharbas. There's no way we could stop younger Gandharbas from listening to Hip Hop or wanting to move to the city to become street hustlers with miniature sarangis as tourist trinkets. Radio and television, which have replaced the Gandharbas as the storytellers in most rural villages, are not going away anytime soon.

Sure, we've donated recording equipment and helped some children go to school, but I think if we have any real impact, it will be on the kids of the elder Gandharbas we recorded, the ones who noticed someone else was interested in Grandpa's old sarangi, collecting dust on the wall. Maybe a few of those kids might ask for a lesson. But we'll never know.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Back in the big city, we rehearse and scout for studios to record a CD that will capture the best songs that we think show the similarities between Appalachian and Himalayan folk music. No small task, since drums are rare in Appalachian music and Nepalis don't use pickup notes; everything starts on the downbeat. There are all sorts of tempo issues which make multi-track recording a challenge. And of course there's keeping the atmosphere relaxed. But so far so good. The gear has more or less survived the rattling of three weeks in a van and we eventually decide on a hotel room that is relatively quiet.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. There's songs to be learned. The songs that both Nepalis and Americans can recognize, even if the tune comes from some backwoods halfway across the world, where people might be Buddhist instead of Baptist. Where the civil war might refer to something else entirely. But there's something in the a few of the songs that is mysteriously connected. Here's Danny and Buddhiman playing a few licks from a tune called Paina Coppara, or "No News from You."

A surprise our first few days back: Akal and his wife show up at my guest house. She's going to get that finger amputated, and is short on cash. We need to test out a studio space, so I tell Akal if he plays a few songs with us, I'll cover the operation. A strange arrangement to be sure, but he sings us this song, about a boy and a girl, while his wife pulls rosin from a tree in the compound of Green Productions, Monga's friend's studio. Here's a link to some Nepali pop music that Neeraz and friends produce there.

I'm off to Lamjung again this weekend with the talented Mr. Buddhiman, but I promise to put more photos, music, and maybe some video up real soon. So check these last few updates again next week and there'll be a few gems to brighten your day...

The Terai

We leave Hum Bahadur and drive out of the Himalayan foothills to the northern edge of Chitwan National Park, where we spend a night in Jyamire with Shiva Gandharba's family, a friend of ours from Kathmandu. Shiva's father builds sarangis and there's about 20 kids in and around the family compound to keep us occupied. Most of the locals here are sharecroppers, and quite poor, even compared to the Gandharbas we'd met in the mountain towns.

The next morning we drive deep into Chitwan to stay at with Manoj's family in an area called Madi. Save for the odd solar panel, there's no electricity around these parts. Vehicles don't make it out here much, so the Mountain Music Project begins the latest phase of it's aid work in the pursuit of folk music. In Nepali English we can now say, "The Mountain Music Project: Also Roads Building." We hold our breaths crossing a few rivers, push the Kia through narrow riverbeds and finally pull out the shovels, rearrange rocks, and stack pieces of sod to get ourselves to Madi by nightfall.

It's peaceful and hot in Madi, the lowlands filled with amber rice fields as locals harvest with short sickles. Since it's in the middle of a national park with tigers, rhinos, and bears, people stay in most evenings, and we play music together by candlelight to the chagrin of our filmmakers. In the daytime we record and are also invited to a few local schools for which the Gandharba Culture and Arts Organization, along with our help, has provided a few scholarships as well as basic school supplies. We are serenaded with tea and marigold necklaces, and a few brave children practice their English.

In Madi we meet some elder Gandharbas who can still speak an old language even Buddhiman, Manoj, and Ganesh can barely understand. This Gandharba language is on it's last legs, but we manage to record a few songs and interviews with the few who can speak it. Manoj takes us to a nearby lake and waterfall where we film Buddhiman playing a bit.

Can't help but wish we had more time, but most of the crew is pretty weary from all this running around the last few weeks, and anyway we're out of cash, so it's back to Kathmandu to work on some studio recordings and filming interviews with the Gandharbas who've moved to the cities. We've been looking for the few Gandharbas who still go village to village, and, just as we're about to climb in the van, an old Damai man comes to Manoj's family compound and serenades us with his buffalo horn. The valleys glow as we follow the rivers back into the mountains and into Kathmandu Valley.

On to Palpa

The road from Pokhara to Palpa curves through rice fields midharvest, deep river gorges with the churning water several hundred feet below the road, and snowy Himalayas peaking through the valleys as we round the endless bends on a five hour journey. Small towns with brightly painted brick buildings, kids who can say "Hello, give me your pen!" - the standard greeting for bideshis (foreigners).

Tansen is located in Palpa district, just north of where Buddha was born in Lumbini. As we approach the hilltop town, there are pine forests and black-faced langur monkeys running along the road beside our van.

Tansen is home to Nepal's largest wooden door, which doesn't look so fancy, but must have been a humongous tree once upon a time. Maoist rebels blew up the police station here a while back and the barracks' remains stand like a miniature warzone in the midst of a cozy hilltop town with stone streets.

There's a significant population of Gandharbas in the Palpa area, but most of them have quit the wandering minstrel lifestyle. We meet Bal Bahadur Gandharba, who quit going village to village a long time ago, still he remembers a song or two as we sit on a rooftop next to his cottage.

The next morning we go down the valley in search of a respected elder Gandharba singer. But he's not home, so Buddhiman shows us how to make bowstrings from an agave plant, and how to get bow rosin from a type of pine tree. The musicians take some time off to rehearse and then late in the afternoon, we move everyone up to Srinagar, where there's a hilltop park with teenagers rocking their ghetto blasters. We set up to shoot a session of Dohori singing as the sun sets. Dohori songs are improvised, with a man and woman poking fun of each other in alternating verses, with the crowd singing along for the chorus. The song goes 40 minutes, and apparently they often go longer! I'll have some photos of that for y'all real soon.

Our last day in Tansen, we meet Hum Bahadur Gandharba, who used to travel Nepal in a dance troup which enacted social issues, such as class discrimination. He played us this song, an old one that leaves our translators amazed; although they are folklorists and well-versed in Gandharba music, it's one they've never heard before. We're still waiting for a full translation, but it's basically about a queen who receives a warning not to break her bracelets. Inevitably she breaks the bangles and her husband is killed in the forest. Check out the tone on Hum Bahadur's sarangi. He's using cotton string for his fiddle strings.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Note from Tara and Danny (The American Musicians)

It has been great fun for us to travel around meeting Gandharba musicians, listening to their music, and sometimes playing together. The fallback tune is Reshum Phiriri. It is a great love song, crowd pleaser that everybody knows and all the kids love to sing. Since it the one that they always call for, it is starting to feel like they are calling out for "Freebird."

Some fun things for us are when we have a jam with the Nepalis that really clicks and gets that music magic going. We had one of those jams in a Terai (lowland) town called Jyamire playing Cluck Old Hen with our buddy Buddiman.

Another fun thing is when we get those culturally different moments when we get to teach each other culturally different concepts. Musically, we usually have 2 parts to a tune and play each part twice. That is really hard for them to get the feel of and remember, but is second nature to us. They tend to play a tune with two parts also, but put together differently and usually having an extra half part where the last line repeats again.

There are loads of non-musical differences that are fun too. Having spent a lot of time in Nepal and India we are very comfortable eating with our hands. This trip we got to bring some Nepalis out to a fancy restaurant with a western style of food preparation where they served big peices of uncut meat. Some had never used a fork and knife to cut meat. We showed them a few techniques and one girl settled on the old knife going between the prongs of the fork technique that I showed her. Danny said it reminded him of his first fancy dinner where he was the only one who had never used chopsticks.

We also got teach some Nepalis how to open car and van doors that said they had never attempted such a thing. Many places in Nepal still do not have roads and even in those places that do have roads there are some people who rarely ever would have reason to be in a car.

We get really into doing things that are really normal here that are not normal in the US. For example, what to do when the power comes back on. In Nepal, one should never assume that because one has electricity now that it will still be on in 10 minutes. The fun thing is that when it comes back on you can go really fast between your forehead and chest three times. It is like a quick prayer or showing of respect. One also touches things to ones head here to show respect. So, if someone pays you money, or gives you a book one might touch it to their head to show respect to it.

One thing that can be difficult in trying to have our evening front porch jams in the Nepali villages is the speed with which the sarangi (Nepali fiddle) and modal (Nepali drum) climb out of tune, while our mandolins and guitars are holding steady. The sarangi is in an open tuning and the songs and tunes are all in the key that it is tuned to. Sometimes we have started in G, then within a few songs they have climbed up through G#, then to A and beyond. Do we chase after or keep trying to pull them back? Different days we chose different ways of handling that depending on the cultural situation. One does not want to slow down a Nepali musician with their eyes closed that is really on a roll at a party.

In Kathmandu, we are now trying to start recording a CD project. The fusion process should be interesting since each tradition hears sometimes a different natural arrangement and feel of the music for the same tune. We should probably both expand our ideas somewhat during the process as we share ideas.

On a side note, our guest house has a very friendly guard rabbit named Poppy who roams around at his own free will and never makes a noise to disrupt practice. Obviously, Poppy is very considerate and sensitive to our musical needs.