Himalayan Bluegrass

Trip Start Sep 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Nepal  ,
Monday, March 13, 2006

With my editor out of town, I take a week off from the Thai-Burma border and head to Nepal for seven days of absolutely no human rights violations, or so I hope. I've been to Nepal before, for two month in 2002, recording musicians of the Gandharba caste.

This is what they sound like

Gandharba music sounds conspicuously like Celtic or old-time Appalachian mountain music, so come September, if the funding comes through, I'll be taking a group of bluegrass and old-time musicians here to jam with the locals. Hopefully we'll raise enough money to send a few of their kids to school too (if you're feeling wealthy and want to help some poor Himalayan musicians, email me at mountainmusicproject@gmail.com, we're non-profit, tax-deductible, etc).

I spent the night in Bangkok on Khao San road, one of the most vulgar displays of tourist influence in Asia. Then from there a short flight and taxi to Thamel in Kathmandu; one of the other most vulgar displays of tourism in Asia. Almost feels like the same place. Less prostitutes in Nepal, Less fake holy men in Thailand.

Anyway, no time for banana pancakes or yoga classes. I have to meet with the US embassy about a possible grant for the project, deliver some donations, and try to get the Gandharba Culture and Arts Organization to agree to work with us. Fortunately they already know me and half of the musicians who'll be coming. They're excited about the project, but since I've promised to let them have some input, every Gandharba in the city shows up to tell me what I need to change about it. The logo is all wrong, the CD design should be this color, I should choose so-and-so to be my guide, the kids who will get scholarship money should be from this family... I can see some of them silently counting rupees as we talk about it.

I know that they're trying to show me which one of them is most deserving to lead the project locally (and thus make more money out of it). I know we'll never raise enough to send all the Gandharba kids to school, and many of them will try to make it look like their kid deserves it. I listen to all their ideas and pawn them off on a tourist who happens to wander into their office. I give a small donation to the committee treasurer (making sure that the CD's I give them to sell will direct some of the royalty money to the artists), ask him to write me some itemized costs for a year of school, and take the best musician, who's been silent through all the shouting, to be my guide for the next few days.

He's Buddhiman Gandharba, who's played on tons of Nepali recordings, and came in second in a national sarangi (homemade upright fiddle) competition once. I bring Shiva Gandharba, a younger guy I remember from 2002 along with us. We take a brightly painted bus on the winding road out of Kathmandu and over the mountains to Gorkha. It's a long winding journey, with steep drops off the sides of the road and several police and military checkpoints. Graffiti on the telephone poles says "don't vote," referring to Maoists killing people who voted in last month's elections.

Nepal is in bad shape these days. There was the assassination of the Royal Family - story goes that an old king wronged a citizen, who said in another life he would return to destroy the King's family; then in 2001 a prince went on a shooting rampage, killing most of the royalty before turning the gun on himself. The King's brother survived and disbanded parliament last year. A royal coup if you will, and far from the American radar to garner much attention. The King recently ordered the military to open fire on any protesters. Big doings in Buddha's birthplace.

Meanwhile the Maoist party, which abandoned its posts in parliament in the late 90's to fight for its ideology guerilla style, has crippled tourism through violent attacks on government facilities (also the American Center in Kathmandu), police and military forces, and also shuts down transportation through fear-induced strikes. The Maoists claim they won't target tourists, but tourists frequently give forced "donations" to them, and there's been one or two foreigners seem to have died in suspicious circumstances. The situation is apparently so bad that the insurgent Maoists have agreements with the other political parties, aligning themselves against the King. Budiman tells me to tell any Maoists we meet that I'm Canadian, (something I generally avoid, eh?).

Naturally, with bus bombs, martial law, and a violent insurgency, western governments recommend that their citizens avoid travel to Nepal for the time being. But the Nepali economy relies heavily on tourism, and the effects are quite visible on the locals, who were already impoverished. The competition for the few tourist dollars left is fierce for the normally friendly Nepalis. They are threatened by a corrupt monarch as well as extremists who want to run Nepal according to Mao's little red book. There are considerably fewer foreigners here since the last time I came and for the Nepalis, no tourists = no beeznees.

Gorkha looks bigger than I remember, but still with curfew (8PM, an hour later this time around) and lots of checkpoints and soldiers. Last Maoist attack was about a month ago, in the hills around town. I meet old Akal Gandharba again, a gravelly voiced old troubador, same adobe house way up on the hill. He remembers me from before and is happy since I've brought him CDs, clothing and money I promised four years ago. He plays a few tunes on his sarangi which I videotape this time. He seems a little excited, plus has a cough, and keeps kicking the grandkids out of the room mid-song; it'll be interesting if any of the footage makes it into a future documentary. He's got a few more grey hairs, but his intense eyes and haunting voice are the same.

Akal's son is a soldier. He gets 5000 rp a month (less than 100 dollars) for standing around looking like a target. His blue urban camo sticks out in anything but morning mist. He says he'll take his uniform off if the fighting starts up. It's dangerous around here he says, the Maoists have attacked here several times. His brother found a job in Malaysia and he's hoping he'll get his own visa soon.

When the curfew shuts everything down, we retire to a dim guesthouse where I show Budiman and Shiva photos of the Burmese refugee camps, which pop up on the laptop's screen saver. They look at the photos and say the camps look like Gandharba houses. This isn't true, Gandharbas don't use bamboo. But I begin to wonder about the two respective situations. In Nepal they are also desperately poor, but they can travel even if the economy has nothing to offer them. It costs about 1000 dollars a year to send a Nepali child to a decent school, way beyond the income of most Gandharbas. In Thailand, the refugees cannot work or travel, but they do have (limited) educational opportunities in the refugee camps. It seems very strange to compare the two. Bound by war and poverty, they are not so different.

The next morning we take a series of buses to Lamjung, a few miles off the road between Dumri and Besishahar, one of the trailheads for the Annapurna circuit trek. In 2002 I had to walk this 40 km stretch due to a bandh, or Maoist-enforced transportation strike. This time the weather is clearer, or maybe just earlier in the day, and the Himalayas rise massively above the mist beyond the green foothills, themselves as high as any peak in Montana. We cross the Marsyangdi river on a creaking suspension bridge and walk a mile or so up to Budiman's house. There are barley fields and water buffalo snorting. We pass stone monuments with two trees planted in each, an offering given by couples hoping to have children. Budiman has four kids, the youngest has some medical condition that local doctors can't fix. She groans under a mosquito net the entire time we are there.

The houses are cement and adobe, with roofs of thatch or tin held down by stones. Shiva and I sleep in a barn above the goats and buffalo. The goats make their way up the steep stairs and into our room at times. The night is cool and quiet, with amazing birds chirping like metronomes, others with melodies that must have inspired the many sarangi players from this village.

We walk around the village, Budiman pointing out where every previous foreigner has stopped to take pictures. "Do you know so-and-so? He come here before to this place." The village kids greet us with quick hellos and immediate retreats. Budiman's neighbor's daughter throws baby chicks around like they're toys, and howls something fierce when one of them dies. In a small glen between the hills, an old woman makes raksi, or rice moonshine. Men chop wood into plows or sarangis. Budiman shows off Hiralal's house, which has a flushing toilet and western shower (both locked up while Hiralal, also an extraordinary musician, is working as kitchen staff in Ireland).

Budiman's wife serves us dahl bhat (lentils and rice) and keeps giving me way more than any human can possibly digest, washed down with glasses of raksi or occasionally licorice tea with hay sprinklings. Even compared with the Burmese refugee camps, it's incredibly unsanitary: the hole-in-the-ground toilet is next to well, farm animals hang out in the kitchen, etc. Despite my best efforts, I feel the eggy-tasting burps and stomach pangs of giardia within a day of arriving. Same thing happened last time I was in a remote Nepali village, and I've learned to appreciate western medicine in these cases; the Flagyl in my pack should do the trick.

Lamjung is the birthplace of many well-known Nepali musicians, and there are several Gandharba families in the area, who we invite for an evening of raksi and folk songs. But first, Budiman and Chek, (another Gandharba who remembers me from 2002) hike to the top of the mountain behind Lamjung for a good look at the peaks around the Manaslu Himal (Himal means "massif" in Nepalese), and maybe some scenic video footage for the Mountain Music Project. As we climb the steep trail, we hear wedding music from the next valley, drums and trumpets wailing as we make our way up out of the heat and into the cool Himalayan breeze.

When we reach the top, the air is cool and clean. We pause and I shoot some footage of Budiman playing his sarangi before the clouds engulf the distant glaciered peaks. I'm guessing we're about 10,000 feet above sea level. There's a few houses scattered among the barley fields, and old wrinkled women are tending buffalo. Chek says he traveled through this area the week before, "village to village" like a traditional Gandharba, singing the news at your doorstep for rice or a few rupees. In Kathmandu, the Gandharbas are derogatorily called Gaines, which means "to hassle" in Nepalese. They are considered an "untouchable" caste, the lowest strata in the Hindu hierarchy; not allowed to enter the homes of higher castes. Things are changing, but like anywhere, old prejudices remain. Many Gandharbas have moved to Kathmandu in search of work, but in the city there are radios and newspapers, and the Gandharbas are seen as an annoyance by many Nepalis. Out here, where there is limited contact with the outside world, their services are still appreciated.

Chek heads off to look for a store and, badly dehydrated from last night's raksi, I drink some local water, parasites be damned. Budiman and I walk around a bit more along the ridge, then pass back over and down into the jungle heat and the farmland below. Shiva's got a fever and is sleeping. Chek gives him some medicine he got up on the ridge and he perks up a bit. I dust off the laptop in the room of the barn and show him some videos of Django Reinhart and Stephan Grapelli playing old jazz tunes.

In the evening we record the local Gandharba musicians, including Budiman's wife and stepmother, who sing a song they sang for Radio Nepal twenty years ago. The old woman's voice creaks like an old door, but it has a haunting quality. They guys play the old songs they can remember and after we depart the makeshift studio (an abandoned house with no children around to cough or grab at the microphone), we spend the evening drinking raksi and laughing in broken Nepalese and English.

The ride back to Kathmandu is long and rough, several checkpoints, where the Nepalis have to get out and walk by the soldiers to be inspected. We pass villages of brightly colored signs and decrepit looking buildings, cucumbers and bananas sold by hawkers every time the bus stops. There's a traffic jam at the top of the pass leading into Kathmandu. We walk the last mile or so into Thamel, I drop my bags at the guest house, and head off in search of food and souvenirs for folks back home. The power goes out immediately and I walk the darkened streets, giftshopping by candlelight. A few Gandharbas are out on the streets, playing their fiddles at foreigners, who pass by obliviously.
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