Nepali Times
Songs of our past


OFF SAILING: Terence Bech traversed 15,000 km across Nepal on foot in the 1960s recording folk music and dance, like this one of the Raute community.
When Terence R Bech came to Nepal for the first time in 1964 as a Peace Corps volunteer, he may not have imagined how this country's music and culture would move him.

In the next few years, Bech travelled 15,000 km across Nepal recording folk music, collecting musical instruments and translating lyrics. He traveled to remote districts with a backpack weighing 40 kg, and a porter carrying his Uher tape recorder and batteries.

In one such expedition, he suffered a cut above his right eye in a fall. The nearest doctor was a three week walk away, so he stitched the wound himself using a mirror and his good eye. "The locals loved my demonstration," he recalls, "luckily they couldn't understand the four letter words used in the absence of painkillers."

By the time he left Nepal in 1966, Bech had collected 260 hours of recordings in 400 open-reel phonotapes, 200 musical transcripts, 120 musical instruments, 7,500 song texts, 41 life history studies of Nepali musicians, along with thousands of photographs. These were housed in the Archive of Traditional Music at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Last month, Terence Bech gave Indiana University the permission to provide copies of the Terence R Bech Collection of Nepali Music to Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya (MPP) in Patan. The collection will be available to researchers soon, In an email interview, Bech said his collection was done "more as a hobby than an academic". He is being modest. The collection is invaluable, a meticulous record with an index of language, name of performers, musical instruments, cultural context or relevance, how the performer came to learn the song, occasions during which the songs are performed etc. The quality of sound in the recordings is exceptional.

Bech went on to climb K2, became a sailor and an Arctic explorer. He is now living with his wife in the Netherlands.

Once, after weeks of walking across the midhills of Nepal to record the songs of the Raute community, he arrived at a settlement only to find the men had gone off hunting and there were only women and children. They pitched their tent and later that day the headman returned. Bech remembers that his Nepali was better than the Raute's, who agreed to sing and dance only if Bech donated a goat and become a blood brother.

The Bech Collection is a unique ethnomusical documentation and represents the historical continuum of Nepali folk music before modern influences altered it.

He later climbed K2, and sailed through Patagonia. Bech's music collection has now returned to Nepal.
Satya Mohan Joshi, who also documented Nepali music from as far back as the 1940s, is delighted that the Bech Collection is back in Nepal. "We have to thank Bech for his contribution to the preservation of Nepali musical heritage and sharing it with us," Joshi told us.

Joshi himself travelled across Nepal during World War II, and saw village after village devoid of men who were off fighting in Burma or Europe. It was the women who sang songs of sorrow, of sons in faraway wars.

Lochan Rijal, lecturer of ethnomusicology at Kathmandu University is also grateful to Terence Bech's effort. "Hats off to everyone who made this possible," he says, "having Bech's collection back in Nepal can contribute immensely to future research."

Rijal says important collections like Bech's need to be disseminated in the country of origin for its maximum benefit. It will help researchers look at the evolution of culture and music in Nepal, and also benefit students of traditional Nepali music and dance.

Folk music is more than just songs, it expresses and captures the culture of the times: a birth in the household, flirtatious duets, the pain of betrayal or of unrequited love, separation and longing, natural calamities. Bech's collection has music from all over Nepal and will be available to researchers as long as they are not copied or sold. Nepali ethnographers and musicologists owe Terence Bech a depth of gratitude.

Amar Gurung is chief archivist at the Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya

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1. manohar budhathoki
Well done Amar and MPP. Despite the doom and gloom on the political front and the lack of vision of Nepalese leaders for generations now, a lot of Nepalese professionals, students, laborers are doing their bit. Congratulations to all involved in this project, including of course Terence Bech. It should go a long way in helping us understand and appreciate our folk music and rural heritage.

2. Ambar Gurung
The archive should be made available on the internet.

3. Sundar

Hi Amar,

It is a lovely and inspiring article! I enjoyed reading this. Thanks very much for sharing the article. I am happy that you get a copy of the material for researchers in Nepal.




4. Mark Turin
A great article about a unique collection. Splendid news that MPP is involved in what I hope will be the rehabilitation of this collection and its connection with communities of origin in Nepal whose oral performances were documented.

5. Dhruba Simkhada
Oh, really it is good news. We can learn more after listening the sound.
So it must be put in internet.

6. simonne

I listened with interest to the link recordings but find it hard to believe the first of the Danda Raga is played on karnal and not a shanai?

Great news about the achieve and good luck with the research.
Thanks for the article.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)