Monday, October 23, 2006
Pokhara is a lakeside town with views of Macchapuchare, the Fish's Tail, the starkest of the Annapurnas, which has never been climbed. It sticks up like the Matterhorn above the touristy pizza restaurants and Tibetan handicraft shops. Tourist mecca, dreadlocks and all the trimmings.
We're here to find Mohan Gandharba, an 83 year old musician who is one of the few living players of the Arbaj. The Arbaj is kind of like a banjo, with a four strings, a goatskin over the body but with a hollow neck. Most young Nepalis won't learn it because it's much heavier than a sarangi and thus more difficult to travel with.
I wasn't really impressed with Mohan's playing when I was here before, but this time he's brilliant, with a great voice that Danny says reminds him of Roscoe Holcomb. In addition to being a wandering Gandharba musician, Mohan used to work as a traveling medicine man, and he takes out his paraphernalia to show us. We film and record a few short songs and hear some stories before heading off to find Tikki Maya, a woman who plays and sings with a great Nepali twang.
Tikki Maya takes an instant liking to Tara. She probably doesn't trust us guys too much, plus Tara speaks fluent Nepalese. She's so good I've got to share it with y'all. We haven't translated all the lyrics yet, but the name of this song translates as No Happiness in My Heart. Her voices gives me chills.
We agree to pick up Tikki Maya to do some recording at our hotel the next day, where there are less chickens and children to interfere with the recordings. Then we head to Batulechour, a large Gandharba village on the outskirts of Pokhara.
We walk down into a lush steep valley near the village and meet Khim Bahadur Gandharba, an old music teacher who's traveled quite a bit outside of Nepal. He gives us a basic lesson on sarangi and clearly has more Indian influence than the rest, using different ragas and writing his lyrics down on paper.
It's Tihar festival today, kind of like Nepali Christmas. The lights are strung and candles lit across town, and today brothers and sisters will eat together. We're taking a day off of filming, content to eat and drink with our Nepali friends, catch up on some email, and figure out where to go next. It's looking like Palpa, back up in the mountains, and from there to Manoj's home in the flatlands of the Terai, near Chitwan National Park. There's rhinos, tigers, and more Gandharba communities. I'll post some video clips when we get back to Kathmandu around early November. Until then, Happy Tihar!
Folks who've traveled to Nepal and trekked the Annapurna Circuit have passed through the town of Besisahar, where the eastern trail around the Annapurnas begins. The road to Besisahar is gorgeous, running parallel to the Marsyangdi River as it churns from the Himalayas down through the wide valleys of Lamjung.
We stop the minivan just before Besisahar and follow Buddhiman across the bridge to a wide apron below a series of ridges that lead to the Annapurnas and a snowy peak known simply as Boddha Himal. An hour hike through rice fields and we reach Pipal Tari, Buddhiman's village. Pipal refers to a tree which is often planted in pairs when a couple gets married. It's also the holy tree under which Buddha reached enlightenment. They make great shade for a traveler, and not a bad spot to play a little music.
Buddhiman's wife greets us and we spend the evening with the village kids, Tara teaching them how to Hambone and Buddhiman's neighbor showing us how to make a sarangi from the Kirra tree. We sleep in a simple mudbrick huts, just above the water buffalo stable.
Next afternoon we walk down to a village school where Tara and Danny play Appalachian tunes for the students. Sitaram, an old man I recorded last time I was here, shows up and leads the kids in a few Nepali songs, with Danny playing along on fiddle. We continue back down to the river to watch Tek, Buddhiman's neighbor, fishing and we take a dip in the chilly Marsyangdi. We spend the evening singing on Buddhiman's porch under a brilliant canopy of stars.
Next day we follow Buddhiman up the steep hillside to a village called Moria, where we film Buddhiman playing music for the locals and Danny playing atop the ridge. The clouds swallow the Himal to the north but we catch a few minutes of it on time-lapse video before heading back down into the heat of the valley.
Before leaving Lamjung, we record Sitaram, who knows many old Hindu religious songs, mostly retelling stories from the Ramayana. Sitaram's brother Hiralal has moved to Ireland, where he works as a cook, but makes more money than anyone in his village. They have a new style toilet; high class. I'm content to stay in the village a few more days, in spite of the dust and heat, but we've got to make tracks to Pokhara.
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.
As any filmmaker knows, there's a lot of waiting, which can try the patience of the people involved. We wait for light, we wait for quiet, we wait for instruments to be tuned and retuned. We wait for the kids to stop shouting, "You want us to be quiet!?" We pay grandma to take the kids as far away from the microphones as possible. We wait while we chase off the crowds of neighbors who walk by and spit loudly during the quiet part of the song.
We wait to keep our group together. 4 Americans, 3 Nepalis, 2 Indians, 1 driver plus whichever musicians we're working with that day. It's like herding kittens, but so far so good, and more fun than I'd expected. Here's how it's gone so far...
On Friday the 13th, at 7AM we drop a few bags in storage and meet the van driver out in front of our hole-in-the-wall guesthouse. The filmmakers have arrived from New Dehli. Praveen Singh and his friend Sanjeev Monga. At first I was a little reluctant to take a second film guy, after all it's another mouth to feed. But Monga has proved to be essential; enthusiastic and nearly invisible behind the camera; very important when dropping a crew of foreigners on the old people's doorsteps. Tara, Danny, Dan, Praveen, Monga, Buddhiman, Manoj, Ganesh, myself and the driver pile in the Kia minibus and weave through the crowded streets and out of the Kathmandu smog.
The drive is gorgeous, snaking along towering Himalayan "foothills," pregnant rivers after the monsoons, clean air and small brightly painted Nepali towns. We climb the road to Gorkha, and it's a relief to see the town without the curfews and police presence I've seen there in 2002 and earlier this year. Some Maoist rebels killed about a hundred soldiers and policemen in Nepal's ancient capital a few years back, but with the Maoist ceasefire still holding and negotiations underway, it's a refreshing to see Nepal at peace.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
The negotiations got a bit ugly, the higher-ups within the GCAO feeling left out of the fun (and money), but we smooth things out with a donation to a children's emergency scholarship fund. Huge thanks to all the folks in Bozeman who came out to the Filling Station last month. You saved us and sent some kids to school this year!
I spend the morning with Ganesh and Manoj, buying notebooks, pencils, fountain pens, ink, erasers, sharpeners, and most boringly important, a book of blank receipts in Nepali and English script, so the IRS doesn't put me away when I get back home.
Nice to know we're helping some poor folks out, but I'm counting the days until we can get out of Kathmandu. We still have another day before Praveen the cinematographer arrives from New Dehli, so with the school supplies purchased, the van squared away, and the bureaucrats satisfied, it's time to get back to the music. In addition to helping out the kids and documenting the old folks, we're also gonna try to record an album mixing Nepali and Appalachian folk songs. This takes more work than you'd think and so the rehearsals have started. Here's Tara, Danny, Buddhiman and Manoj as they test the waters on this Old-Time Himalayan Bluegrass thing...
(my apologies for the low-rez footage-this was shot on a point-and-shoot digital camera). The real filming/recording begins in two days. We've got two months with these guys, as well as the old-timers playing the real backwoods Himalayan music. We're just getting started.
Monday, October 09, 2006
On previous trips, I've always just taken the bus around Nepal, but we want to be out in some rural areas for about 3 weeks with lots of fragile gear, and anyway nobody else really wants to take the bus, which is dangerous, uncomfortable, and unlikely to have 9 seats available during festival season. (9 people? Where did that guy come from?) Despite my best bargaining efforts, our expedition budget has just devoured my plane-ticket-home-budget. But that's next month's problem...
The last few days have been spent writing last-minute grants in internet cafes and negotiating logistics in the Gandharbas' office. The Gandharbas might make around 40 US dollars a month, so they're all there waiting to be invited along on the foreigners' expedition. In the office it's a barrage of ideas from everybody who can make it in the door. We're here to help, but also have to keep the scams to a minimum.
How many pencils? How many notebooks? No way, notebooks do not cost that much. How much should we pay the elderly musicians we record? Absolutely not, the driver does not get to bring a friend. How many pieces of clothing does each family get?
Which villages should we visit? Archale? Never heard of it. Are there any musicians there? Your grandfather? Can he still play? How much diesel to get there and back? Ok, we can go. If I don't shave do you think they'll charge me as a foreigner in the National Park?
Which Gandharbas will get to be our paid guides and translators? They look a little disappointed as we whittle the number down from 5 to 3. Guess we're not as rich as the Americans on TV.
We choose Buddhiman from Lamjung, the best sarangi player, Ganesh from Gorkha, the best translator, and Manoj from the Terai lowlands, the best singer and multi-instrumentalist. The president of the GCAO, a great guy in his own right, is gonna feel stiffed, but he doesn't really have much to offer outside the office. And besides, we need people with contacts in the different regions we're going. The ones who go will get some cash for their efforts, so it's got to feel lousy to not get picked. It will take some tight-rope wheel-greasing diplomacy over the next few days not to offend our hosts. We have to tell the president of the organization that he is unfortunately no longer invited. He loses face but takes it like a champ.
After four years in planning, you'd think we'd have had everything taken care of. Generous donors, fundraising concerts, a nice grant from a charitable foundation, hours of budgets and logistics and graphic designing. In the end one's expectations and those nice rounded figures get thrown to the wind.
The good news is that we're gonna pull off a good 3 weeks of filming and recording in some remote villages with some cool people. Tara and Danny are teaching a few musicians the Appalachian tunes, and we're definitely helping the Gandharbas out, teaching them how to make their own audio recordings, providing an emergency scholarship fund for those who almost have enough to go to school this year (many Gandharbas I've met average a 3rd grade education level), and giving out about 50 pounds worth of Salvation Army clothing. But no matter how many smiles and itemized receipts I get, the bottom line is that I'm gonna eat it on this one. Hope the footage is good.
Across the street as I type this there is a rather fat monkey using the telephone lines as a traffic lane, swinging across the street and has nicely managing to sever the internet connection. A couple of red-robed Tibetan monks chuckle as he untangles himself from the cables. I love Nepal...
Friday, October 06, 2006
A late addition to the team is Dan Snyder, a Montana guitarist who's volunteered to help out in turn for getting to meet lots of musicians and maybe make his way to Dharmasala when we're done with our work in Nepal. It's his first time out of North America and he's adapting splendidly to the local insects.
Over the last two weeks Dan and I have been doing the whirlwind tour of Northern Thailand; meeting old Burmese friends in the border town of Mae Sot, playing Gypsy Swing with French aid workers, spending a night at our friend's orphanage near Tat Song Yang, giving a seminar about world music at a school for Burmese migrants, taking lessons on the Pin Pia up in Chiang Mai, and recording guys like my good friend Win. Here's one of his songs.
But that's another story. We meet Tara and Danny at the airport in Bangkok, and fly into Kathmandu the next afternoon, Everest and other Himalayas glowing to the north as the plane drops into Kathmandu valley. The low concrete buildings are a massive contrast to the glittery architecture of Bangkok.
Our minivan driver is happy that peace has returned to Nepal after several years of violent Maoist insurrection and general mismanagement by the king. The tourists are flowing back to the narrow streets of Thamel, a funky hippie/tourist district where Nepalis dress like Westerners and Westerners dress like Himalayan holy men; a perfect backdrop for our little musical marriage.
We drop our bags off at a guesthouse and head off to meet our friends around the corner at the Gandharba Culture and Arts Organization. I'm trying to remember everyone's name as we greet each other and sit down to dig on some of that old-time himalayan bluegrass. The sarangi fiddles and madal drums lay a musical bed for cheerful singing and dancing in the florescent light of their makeshift stage. They hold a free concert every night, but lacking much in the way of advertising, it's only the odd musically-curious tourist who can navigate the narrow alley and up the darkened stairs to find it. Hopefully we can help the Gandharbas with that while we're here.
We eat some dahl baht and make plans to meet several times over the next week to decide how the scholarship money we've raised will be distributed, where we're going to film, what the new t-shirt design should look like, and generally how to make everybody happy over the next 2 months. We've got about a week to kill before Praveen, our cinematographer, arrives from New Dehli, plenty of time to burn CD's for the GCAO to sell, practice each others' songs, and teach a few of the Gandharbas how to use the minidisc recorder we brought for them.
Then we'll be off to Pokhara, Lamjung, Ghampesal, and Gorkha, where Akal Bahadur Gandharba lives. He's the guy from the video on the last blog update, and has a great scratchy style of sarangi-playing. With time (and internet connections) on our hands this week, I'll update this as often as I can, so let me know what y'all want to hear about (gear, language, traditional culture, how to eat rice with your bare hands...) and I'll see what I can do.