Monday, October 23, 2006


When Nepal first became united, the capital wasn't Kathmandu, but a hillside town called Gorkha, 5 hours drive northwest of today's capital. You may have heard of the Gurkhas, soldiers from this kingdom hired by the British and renowned for their loyalty in Britain's colonial days in South Asia. Rugged mountain living makes for good musicians as well as hired soldiers.

I love this town. I first came here in 2002 with my friend Raj Kumar, in search of musicians who knew the old songs. We found Akal Bahadur Gandarba, (the guy with the brilliant eyes in the video and photo from the first blog). He had this great scratchy style of singing and was incredibly humble compared to the other musicians I'd recorded. When I asked what he wanted in exchange for letting me record him, he simply asked for clothes for his grandchildren. So this time around we've got loads of secondhand childrens' clothes, as well as a fair chunk of change for the old guy.

After shaking off the twisty drive from Kathmandu, we walk to his small mudbrick house and try not to give him a heart attack with all our film gear and funny-looking faces. In spite of no forewarning, Akal and his wife break out the floormats and invite us in. It never ceases to amaze me how the people with the least material wealth are the ones who give the most to strangers. Akal remembers me and we sit down to chat, play music, and catch up. His son is happily no longer on the police force, all smiles now that his clothing doesn't make him a target.

Akal's wife has some form of cancer, which has taken one of her fingers and is working on a second. Since she'll never have the money to see a doctor in Kathmandu, I take some pictures of the rotten apendage to send to doctors back in the states. Maybe someone there can at least diagnose it. I give her some antibiotic ointment to keep the infection from getting any worse and also about 5000 rupees for their time and Akal's brilliant playing.

Akal sings us a few songs and plays with Danny on the fiddle. It's a good first day of shooting, giving everyone on the video crew a chance to sort out how things are going to work, with a musician who's accustomed to me pointing weird electronic devices at him while he plays his sarangi. The light is gorgeous in late afternoon, but since Akal lives next to the only flat ground on his part of the hillside, we have to constantly shush the kids playing football next door. "You want us to be quiet???" they scream as we retake interview questions. Next time we're gonna buy em off with candy.

The following morning we climb the stone steps to the ridge above Gorkha where the Durbar (castle temple) sits perched between the lowlands to the south and the Himalayas to the north. Over the ridge, we can see a few of the huge white Himal, peering through the morning haze over a deep valley of rice terraces, the deepest part filled with a sea of cloud. Although I live in Montana and have seen plenty of jagged snowy mountains, nothing compares to the Himal rising out of the morning mist. The photographs do it no justice.

Hundreds of Nepalis have brought goats to the Hindu temple to sacrifice, so the wild sound recordings are a mix of bleeting, temple bells, and echoing roosters from the valley below. As we walk back into town, an eerie mist envelopes the hillside and kills our plans for shooting in the morning light.

We close the doors to Akal's small home and set up the mics for a slightly cleaner studio session. Still people come around looking through the windows and offering their loud commentary. But we're able to maintain some reasonable crowd control, and the recordings come out well.

That afternoon we walk down to Ganesh's family's home. Ganesh is our translator for this recording expedition and his father, Gopi Lal Gandhari, plays us some great old songs, including one in 7/8 time, based off an old Indian raga and more complex than the typical folk songs. It's thought that the Gandharbas may have come from Rajastan in India a long time ago and brought vestiges of Indian classical music along with them. Gopi Lal's sister starts singing along and turns out to be the jewel of this gathering. She has great stories about her days traveling village to village as a wandering minstrel, in spite of her parents' warnings. Not too many women Gandharbas do this, but Durga Devi insists that her daughter will learn to play sarangi.

Leaving the cameras and recorders at home this evening, we return to Gopilal's house for dinner of Dahl Bhat (lentils and rice) and raksi (local rice moonshine). We bring our instruments and there's plenty of dancing and merriment, the Gopilal's wife insisting that Danny and I are her new sons.

We return to Akal's the next day and he joins us down at Gopi Lal's for an all-star jam of Gorkha's Gandharba community, including Lal Bahadur, an old-timer from nearby Ghampesal. Tara and Danny join in with a few Appalachian songs and play along to the Nepali tunes. Great fun in the high mountain sun.

No comments: