That High And Lonesome Himalayan Sound
“The bluegrass singer hollers in the high lonesome style beloved in the American backwoods.” — Alan Lomax, 1959
I had hoped that during my travels in the far west of Nepal I would meet or hear minstrels, but for weeks I did not. And so it was with surprise and delight that one day, while walking in the crowded, bazaar-like ancient center of Kathmandu called Thamel, I caught site of what looked like a minstrel. He was a short, swarthy man carrying a small, upright, fiddle-like instrument called a sarangi. The minstrel did his best to sell me one, but instead I asked him where I could hear his fellow musicians play the instrument.
He pointed toward a large restaurant called the Northfield. As we entered the establishment my wife Mira and I could hear Chicago blues playing on the loudspeakers. We were welcomed by a comely and buoyant American woman who had made Nepal her temporary home and who made sure that the group of musicians who play the sarangi and other instruments hold the stage at the restaurant every night, providing both Nepalis and tourists with the music of the traditional minstrels of Nepal, the Ghandarba.
I returned to the restaurant a number of times to hear these minstrels sing and play. They were an ensemble of drummers, sarangi players, and singers. Sometimes one of them would get up and do an impromptu solo dance of great dexterity and the patrons would burst into applause. It was easy to conclude that these men have been playing together for many years. In fact, most of them are related. Ghandarba is the contemporary name for low caste musicians who were once called Gaine by the Nepalis who belong to Nepal’s higher castes.
Ghandarba musicians alternate between slow laments and fast pieces with drums and hand-held cymbals that give the music a polyrhythmic texture that makes it quite accessible to Western ears. Although they often sing in high-pitched voices, there are also songs in which the vocal style is more open and relaxed. Most of the music is pentatonic, and it is oddly reminiscent of the largely pentatonic music of Appalachia that has provided the bedrock for bluegrass and much country and western, as well as urban American folk music.
One evening I managed to talk to the musicians about their music and their lives. Their repertoire is clearly mixed. I could make out songs in Nepali that mentioned the names of Hindu gods and goddesses such as Shiva or Parvati. I also noticed that they played “Yankee Doodle,” “Danny Boy,” and an instrumental piece that in its rhythms and melodies was uncannily similar to old medieval French troubadour music. The shops in the Thamel are filled with CDs of music from all over the world, music that can also be heard in restaurants, hotels, on the radio, and on the Internet. These now urban musicians have access to lots of “foreign” music to imitate and make part of their performances.
I asked them to go through their set list, in English, one song at a time, and give me some of the background to each. The first song’s lyrics were also used as a religious mantra. The lyrics talk about the 10 incarnations of the god Vishnu. It was an old song that one of the musicians first heard when he was nine years old. They told me that it was an auspicious piece often played at weddings and during religious holidays.
Immediately after that came a non-Ghandarba modern Nepali song. It had been composed and performed by a famous Nepali actor, comedian, and singer-songwriter. The lyrics included lines like, “100 different instruments make the same sound and 100 legs all walk in the same way.” They explained that this was a national and patriotic song, in so far as Nepal is really a nation of at least four castes and over 60 self-proclaimed ethnic groups. Tensions between these groups were part of what triggered the civil war of 1996 – 2006. Now there is no longer a king and the country has become a republic. The musicians explained to me that this was a song celebrating the multicultural nature of 21st-century Nepal.
While these gifted and good-natured musicians walked me through their repertoire they would often say things like, “Ghandarba musicians are omnipotent and omniscient.” They were translating from Nepali, and I asked them to clarify what that meant. After much back and forth I realized they were trying to tell me that although they were musicians and minstrels born into a low caste position in Nepali society, their music and poetry expressed the hopes and fears of a wide range of Nepalis. By implication they could, at least vicariously, express the hopes and longings of more than just their own ethnic group and caste.
As we explored their repertoire I was astounded that the subject matter of their songs was both secular and sacred—think of Bill Monroe’s hymns, another parallel with bluegrass. One minute they were singing about multiculturalism and political pluralism, and the next about the affairs and adventures of the gods and goddesses of the classic Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
When I got back to this side of the Atlantic I contacted a Norwegian ethnomusicologist named Hans Weisethaunet. He had spent a good deal of time with Ghandarba musicians in Nepal, had recorded much of their repertoire, transcribed the music and lyrics, translated much of the lyrics into English, and released the recordings with liner notes about each song and its performer. He too was struck by the similarity of their music with that of American roots music and called his CD The Real Folk Music of Nepal: “The Nepalese Blues.”
On the CD you can hear songs from some of the more famous Ghandarba musicians, such as Ram Saran Nepali and Jhalakman Gandharva. The lyrics range from praise for the hunting skills of the 19th-century rulers of Nepal (the Ranas) to a lament for the families of Nepal’s famous mercenary soldiers (the Ghurkas), who, contrary to the stereotype that they maintain spartan restraint, fear for their sons and lament their wounds and deaths. The collection includes blues-like laments of the wandering Gaine musician, and of course, songs about gods and goddesses. Here are just a few of the lyrics that caught my poetic fancy:
Everyone who is born must die
But I have to pay the loan of the moneylender
You were one goddess but you gave so many appearances
Being the 330 million gods and goddesses
You made a fight with the demons
And got rid of them
Your love, your affection has become a memory for me
It will not go away unless it is burned by fire
[…] My memory of you will not be erased
The Gaine or Ghandarba come from villages around Lake Pokhara. I was unable to visit them in their home setting; I saw them only in an urbanized, touristic venue, albeit one that still allowed, and indeed encouraged, them to express their fabulous musicality. However, you can get a good ethnographic snapshot of their daily life if you download a short study of the Gaine conducted in their home villages by Bikram Sherchan of the Department of Anthropology at Tribhuvan University in Kirtipur.
Sherchan lived in a Gaine village for three months. He reports that the villagers do not really own their land and in most cases they make their money as traveling musicians, sending home remittances and visiting their villages when they can afford to. Still, Sherchan relates that music and music making are pervasive in daily village life. It is as if a Gaine village were a kind of living musical conservatory. There are regular sessions where children are encouraged to watch, and eventually the children take up instruments and sing themselves. Those who are good thrive and become professionals; those who do not are left behind. It is similar to the role of music in the Roma villages of the Balkans, where music is overrepresented in daily life because it is consumed and to a degree constructed to fit the desires and needs of the wider society. Sherchan describes a typical “session” in his ethnography:
Musical events that are held most frequently within the village are for visitors, mostly foreigners […] This usually happens when the musician is in the middle of the Thamel, and a foreigner, after a long conversation, decides to go to the village with him […] During the evening the host decides the setting for the event […] The musicians are at once called […] The songs that the participants sing are lok-dohori songs […] that are popular amongst the villagers. A dohori consists of two rival singers (or group of singers) […] The content and meaning of this improvisational singing can be anything from love to politics […] One important part of this musical session is that once a singer has completed his/her improvisation, the course of the music will return to the original chorus of the song. This time, the audiences who have been attentively listening to a singer, will join the chorus—giggling if the singer has made satirical remarks to the opponent.
Serchan’s thesis is dripping with social science jargon, but if you read him carefully he shows that the Gaine are trying to cut out a new role for themselves as the elite folk musicians of the country. For that reason they have changed their named from Gaine to Ghandarba and have given up the old arbajo (a guitar-like lute) for the sarangi. Yet based on Serchan’s work and on my own superficial interactions with Gaine musicians in Kathmandu, it seems to me that these musicians and their audiences are also experiencing one of the great paradoxes of modernity.
When societies modernize, industrialize, and urbanize, and there is a migration of rural dwellers to the cities, the music of the most marginalized rural classes quickly rises to the top of national consciousness. This has happened with Gypsy flamenco in Spain, with rembetika in Greece, with blues, jazz, and hillbilly music in the United States, and with the rural ballads of England and Ireland—and now it would appear to be happening to the Gaine of Nepal.
Most Nepalis are bilingual, speaking both their native Nepali and the Hindi of their Indian neighbors, who number over a billion and who listen with increasing frequency to pop songs coming out of India’s film industry, Bollywood. Perhaps one day a gifted Nepali musician, either one of the Ghandarba or a Nepali who has absorbed their performance style, will produce a modern version of the repertoire. Fifty years ago, four young men from Liverpool mixed American pop music with their own music hall traditions and changed the face of American popular music forever. One day, Ghandarba-inspired Nepali musicians may take their own songs, mix them with Indian music, and do in South Asia what the Beatles did in the West.