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Learning to Study Nepali Music

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He started it a decade ago with a flute at Thamel, and with, what else, but Resham Phiriri. Now, DR. MICHAEL BRAZ says he would like to introduce some of the Nepali music to children’s choirs in America.



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Eleven years ago, I first traveled to Nepal, for the first of three subsequent trekking holidays. As so often is the case with American tourists who first visit South Asia, I was drawn primarily by geographical considerations: the scenery, terrain, and relatively remote location. Additionally, as a student of comparative religions, I was fascinated with Hinduism and Buddhism and wished to gain a deeper understanding of these faiths.

Professionally, I am a college music professor, completing my twentieth year at Georgia Southern University, my current institution. I teach music composition, orchestration, analytical techniques and other music theory-related coursework. Additionally, I am a pianist and harpsichordist, equally comfortable with traditional Western chamber music, jazz and rock. I have published over twenty choral compositions and arrangements, many of which draw on various world music traditions. Through those three visits to Nepal in the past decade, I have gained a rudimental knowledge that leads me to delve further into studies of both the country’s culture and its music.

I have traveled to Pokhara and then taken preliminary treks through Gurung villages at the foot of the Annapurnas. In later travels, I trekked the Jomsom-Kagbeni-Muktinath route to Mustang and the Lukla-Namche Bazaar-Thyangboche trail through Sagarmatha National Park. During each of these experiences, I became additionally aware of the music surrounding me, whether it originated from a “cultural show” at a campsite, a radio playing through the window of a village house, a live marketplace performance or the singing of our tour guides and staff.

My first impressions of Nepali music were those of one being introduced to a rhythmic, vital succession of pentatonic and modal melodies. Once heard, the tunes were impossible to forget, especially as they became standard trekking songs on our day-to-day journey. Not understanding Nepali, I was still able to approximate the sounds of the text and found myself singing these songs in the privacy of my tent.

Equipped with two “recorders”--a portable tape recorder and a small flutelike musical instrument-- I started to collect and transcribe various melodies, beginning with, what else, but “Resham Phiriri” and “Simsime Panima.” Both of these are old folk songs that have become popular among visitors to Nepal. “Resham Phiriri” is a mountain song expressing romantic feelings of young people, while “Simsimi Panima” is a “Ratyauli” song associated with the festivities of a marriage celebration.

Later, as I continued studying folk tunes and dances, I became more aware of various melodies associated with Newar, Gurung, Tamang and Sherpa traditions, as well as the stimulating and festive wedding music of the Damais. As a tourist, I had purchased my first bamboo flute in Thamel, a tourist market in Kathmandu, and made two important discoveries:

1.To my ears, the flute was in tune. I could finger various scales and account for virtually any note needed in a melody.

2. By listening, I was able to replicate the tunes played by the street vendors who were selling the flutes.

This led to some enjoyable experiences in which a vendor, trying to persuade me to buy a flute, would walk up and play a melody. I would pull my own flute out of my pocket, play the same melody, and—after some astonished looks from the vendor and some onlookers —we would both walk down the dusty Thamel streets playing duets.

Through this growing awareness of the beauty and vitality of the traditional folk repertoire, I suppose I learned as a child does, by first listening to and then repeating various melodies. In some cases (where time permitted), I notated them on staff paper to keep a readable record of the particular tune. In other cases, during trekking, I would bring my instrument to dinner in a tent or a lodge, adding my instrumental voice in accompanying the after-dinner singing and dancing. In these cases, I was expected to instantly learn, listening to the tune once, then either playing along with the melody or improvising an obbligato (auxiliary) part that would complement the melody.

Certainly, two individuals helped foster my growing interest in Nepali music. Eight years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the German drummer and musicologist Dr. Gert-Matthias Wegner, director of the Kathmandu University Department of Music. Housed in a Shivalaya in Bhaktapur, the Department of Music seeks to preserve the musical traditions of both Newar and North Indian cultures. Dr. Wegner was kind enough to orient me as to his goals for the program and to allow me to observe a tabla (drumming) lesson in progress.

More recently, I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Santosh Sharma, Managing Director of Music Nepal, Ltd. and Member-secretary of Nepal Sangeet Vidhyalaya, the new music school of the Nepal Music Center. Noted for his commitment to copyright legislation and musicians’ rights, he is an important force in music education, with a vision of creating and implementing a comprehensive music curriculum that will serve an ever-increasing number of students. I look forward to returning to Nepal in the near future to work within this process and further my own education, delving further into the nature of music within the Nepali culture.

While Nepali folk music thrives, the state of commercial music is ever changing, catering to the needs of both the recording and film industries. While such recording artists as Aruna Lama, Kumar Basnet, Meera Rana, and the well-beloved Narayan Gopal have left their imprint on Nepali popular music, much current film music is simply imitative of Indian “Bollywood” song-and-dance productions. Another derivative style, “ghazal,” incorporates Indian, Arabic, Malay and Western music and, while unquestionably imported, does provide employment for many local musicians. At the same time, locally produced pop music and music videos have proven popular with young people, especially on Nepali television. Probably, the most effective international ambassadors of Nepali music would be the flute-sitar-tabla trio Sur Sudha, who skillfully utilize traditional instruments in non-traditional settings in a highly successful fusion of styles

I don’t claim to be a scholar in the field of Nepali music, but I am becoming quite an avid student. My instrument collection has grown from that first flute, I am listening to a variety of albums by Sur Sudha and other recording artists, and I am intrigued by new forms emerging through the cross-influence of Eastern and Western music.

My next project is threefold: to develop some proficiency on several instruments, enlarge my performance repertoire, and study Indian, Tibetan and Chinese influences in Nepali music.

Eventually, I hope to introduce some of this music to children’s choirs in America, especially since the music of Nepal is not currently represented among the rich brocade of multicultural music being performed by choirs. I happily anticipate a new generation of children—both inside and outside of Nepal—learning both artistic skills and cultural exchange through the medium of music.


Dr. Michael Braz is a professor of music at Georgia Southern University, the United States. He contributed this piece to Nepal Monitor. He can be reached at mbraz@georgiasouthern.edu

Comments

Verty thoughtful essay on Nepali music! Dr. Braz, you may not be expert (as you say) but the way you could describe so nicely the uniqueness of Nepali music-- it sure sound expert! Would love to read your view on sarangi, too (it is the most authentic Nepali instrument, more authentic than flute).

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