Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Old-Time Himalayan Bluegrass

In 2002 some friends and I were traveling through Tibet and Nepal recording traditional music and jamming with whoever we met; guerilla ethnomusicology if you will. We noticed that some of the Himalayan folk music in Nepal sounded alot like old-time Appalachian music. Not the Buddhist monk chants or Hare Krishna organ grinding; these folks were playing homemade fiddles and banjos, making moonshine, and singing about the same things you'd hear about in old-time and bluegrass songs. Himalayan Bluegrass? Have a listen or watch this quicktime video.

These folks are called the Gandharbas. They're a Hindu caste of musicians, sometimes called the singing messengers of rural Nepal. These wandering minstrels walk from hilltop village to hilltop village, play a couple tunes on your doorstep, tell you the news from the next town, and ask for some rice or a few rupees in return. Simple folk. Great musicians.

Now Nepal's seen some rough times lately. There was the royal family being assassinated by a heartbroken nephew. There was the King's brother cancelling parliament and ordering protesters to be shot. And then there's the Maoist insurgency, which has been going on for ten years, scaring tourists away (and their dollars, 40% of Nepal's GDP) and killing lots of police and soldiers along the way.

Lots of rural folk, like the Gandharbas, end up moving to the cities like Kathmandu, where other Nepalis consider them to be
Dalit, or "untouchables." Belonging to this lowest of Hindu castes means you can't enter anyone's house, and typically miss out on aid money to provide for your kids' education, etc. And Nepal's already pretty poor. I read once that in terms of the number of people, there is more poverty in the southern Himalayas than in all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Some Nepalis I met didn't have the basic education to know to keep their outhouse toilets away from their drinking water. In addition to being poor and lacking the means to improve their lives, lots of younger Gandharbas (as they move to the cities) aren't picking up their elders' instruments, so there's a decent chance some of the music will be lost within a generation.

We wanted to help our friends out. We teamed up with a non-profit group called Tundra Club and started learning how to write grants. We're pretty new at the charity game, but after a few years, we've raised enough dough from some generous Americans to go back to Nepal and work with a few Gandharbas in some methods of cultural preservation (like teaching them how to record their grandparents' songs). We've also got a couple bucks to help send a few of em to school. Finally, since we're gonna jam with our Himalayan fiddling friends, we're gonna film and record the whole shindig.

The people we've got on this project are amazing. From Virginia, there's
Danny Knicely, playing fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and maybe a little banjo. He's played with tons of the bluegrass greats, like Vassar Clements, Tony Rice, Sam Bush, and Bela Fleck, and even won the Telluride mandolin competition back in '95. We've got Tara Linhardt, a fantastic mandolinist who used to live in Nepal. Behind the camera, we've got Praveen Singh, whose wildlife films have graced Discovery and National Geographic Channels. And me? I'm Jacob Penchansky, but friends in Asia seem to always call me Jack. I'll be your host on this journey; I'm a wandering sound recordist, semi-competent radio producer, and occasional jug-band banjo player. You can read about my most recent ramble here.

You can listen for us on public radio and possibly some of the more culturally-friendly television programs in the next year, but for now, we're off to find some of the highest lonesome sounds in the world. Stay tuned in the next few months and we'll be sure to post some good tunes and spectacular photos.

If you or your Old-Time music/Nepali culture lovin' friends have some cash kicking around and you'd like to support our efforts, you can write a tax-deductible check to:

Tundra Club, 501(c)3

...and mail it to...

Mountain Music Project
c/o Tundra Club
686 Canyon View Road

Bozeman, MT 59715

Please include a memo for MMP on the check.

Questions? Comments? You can email us at

I'll do my best to keep this here blog updated as we begin our recording expedition/homegrown aid organization/traveling shindig this October. Internet-willing, you'll be seeing and hearing alot more from us.


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