Nepali Times
In search of lost music


Globalisation. Sure, it sometimes seems to be all McDonald's and Levi's or their rip-offs. But the other side is the diversity of cultural artefacts that enter the mainstream. Look at the increasingly popular genre of music called World Music. Africa has exploited it well, pushing the frontiers of pop music with infusions of ethnic flavour on the one hand, and the promotion of traditional music forms on the other, and Southern and Western African popstars and griots are singing their way to the bank.

Nepal, too, has its share of innovative popular musicians who, say, give a rock flavour to a traditional Tamang tune, as the band 1974AD does with a surprising degree of success in Nepal and abroad, as their recent eight-city concert tour of the US shows. The jazz outfit Cadenza takes a more cerebral music form and interpellates it with Hindustani classical music. (See "Himalayan standard time")

In the midst of these admittedly exciting developments, it's easy to forget traditional music at its purest. But organisations and individuals working for the preservation of indigenous cultures are keeping their ears open, and have started to do something. Ramprasad Khandel, a thangka artist, collects traditional folk music instruments. To him they represent an opportunity to understand indigenous Nepali cultures, and he believes that keeping documenting folk instruments and keeping alive knowledge of them is a vital step towards preserving what makes these cultures unique.

It all began with the purchase in 1996 of a conch, an instrument found in many a Hindu home. A year later Khandel had 168 Nepali instruments, and housed them in a building adjoining the Bhadrakali shrine in the Bhadrakali Mandir Square, courtesy of the Nepal Heritage Society. The Folk Musical Instruments Museum exists today, but its two modest rooms are protected only by a tin sheet overhead, and plagued by rats that enjoy gnawing on the instruments. Khandel says that he keeps the museum going by using the earnings from his art work, and dedicating every spare moment to it.

Every instrument reflects a regional and cultural sensibility that shows in the design and materials used. The variations on the basic flute are a perfect example of Nepal's diverse cultures. Newars use wood for their flutes, while Kiranti herdsmen fuse two bamboo flutes to make their jodhmurali. The characteristic high pitch of the Sherpa flute comes from ningala, the long thin bamboo shoots. The hill Limbus use the Fhamuk made from three different lengths of perforated bamboos that can accurately imitate birdcalls.

At the museum the instruments are classed as string, wind, drum or 'miscellaneous'. Temple bells, cymbals, beads and even jhumkhas and payals worn by dancers on their feet, eclectically form the last grouping. Khandel knows the history of each instrument and has met 25 different ethnic groups during the course of his research. He regularly travels to different areas to interview local musicians and older people who are more likely to remember instruments that are no longer played.

His documentation will no doubt be central to the work of future ethnomusicologists. Khandel's personal favourite is the rediscovery of an instrument called piwancha, a copy of which is on display at the museum. The piwancha is a close cousin to the Chinese erhu and ban hu, the Tibetan piwang, and the Mongolian morin khur. He found an illustration of this instrument, thought to be lost forever, on a pillar in Pashupatinath. The piwancha, which used to be played by Kathmandu Jyapus is a two-string fiddle almost 70 cm long with a little drum at the end. The drum is made of sandalwood covered either by sheephide, or snakeskin, which is considered to be lighter and allow for better resonance. Two tuning handles sit at either end of the neck. Sliding one's fingers down the length of the string produces different pitches. The 60 cm long bow is either wood or bamboo with horsehair running between the two strings, unlike the violin and the Nepali sarangi. The tone of the piwancha is firm, warm, and thick.

Khandel is interested in more than just collecting museum pieces. The museum started music lessons last year, and recently concluded a 10-day instruction course on the piwancha and sharangi. The fees are modest, between Rs 150 and Rs 250 per lesson, on a sliding scale to match the finances of a prospective student. Classes are free for the physically impaired, and all teachers are volunteers. The museum needs all the help it can get, but Khandel strongly believes that it is important for the public to realise the worth of folk music before he can legitimately go out ask for assistance.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)