October 11, 2009: An Encounter with the Ghandharba Musicians

I awoke this morning thinking I’d reached the end of my rope. This would be my last day in Thamel, I can’t take it any longer. It’s too intense, I hate cities, and this just isn’t the life for me. But then along my morning journey around these streets I come upon the curious Ghandharba musicians.

Up a dark stairwell in the back of an unmarked building, I walked tentatively in search of the “Ghandharba Music Association” that Lonely Planet spoke of. On the 2nd floor, I come upon a small unfurnished room occupied by a young man. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting to find, but there’s a sign on the door and a young man welcomes me in enthusiastically. 

I sit down on a straw stool and the young man begins explaining the Ghandharba Association. He mentions that they are a caste of musicians– the lowest caste in Hindu society, part of the “untouchables” caste. They aspire to make a living playing music, but remain largely poor and uneducated, earning pocket change selling an occasional handmade instrument to tourists.

Their instruments are sarangis, drums, and flutes. The sarangi  is similar to a fiddle in that has four strings, a bow, and you play melodies all day long while making use of a drone (in the key of G). The music they make is a jovial pleasant kind of music, it just makes you happy. You hear this music blasting out from dozens of music stores all around touristy Thamel, it is the quintessential Nepali music.

I’m probably filled with misinformation, but I’m learning lots as I sit in this room listening to my new musician friend, Suresh, explain all these things. As we are seated talking many other young men begin to file in through the doors and gather around. They are all part of this music association and have been playing a variety of instruments since a very young age when they learned from their parents, who also play music all day long everyday. I’m intrigued. These sound like my kind of people! And when Suresh mentions that these musicians were part of the Mountain Music Project, an amazing fusion of bluegrass and Nepali folk music, I feel that this is a fateful encounter and that I’m supposed to stick around Thamel, at least for another night.

I return to my room, grab my cello, and come back to “the office” ready to rock. There are many new faces and as I pull out my cello they all stare with curiosity. They want to hear and I want to play, but as I begin sawing away on this unamplified electric cello, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s just not loud enough. In fact, you really couldn’t hear it all. It’s ok by itself, in a quiet environment. But accompanied by drums, a sarangi, and a jews harp, it just kind of looks cool, and that’s about it. Everyone is curious though and I pass it around the circle for everyone to try. 

It’s clear that I need an amplifier if I wish to play with others. But jeez, I really can’t stand the thought of adding an amplifier to my already-excessive baggage.  This possible purchase spurs bigger thoughts and I find myself wondering what I want with music. Suresh keeps talking about his “Sarangi for Peace” project, which he says would benefit from my cello and invites me to practice with his band. I’m intrigued, but it also makes me question my priorities and my commitment to learning the Nepali music. These kinds of things take time, and am I ready to dive in head first? Can I really stay in Kathmandu for an extended period? Is it realistic to think of recording music with these people? Do I have the time? I mean, if I do a 3-week long trek, some rafting, a few weeks in meditation retreats…where does that leave me? I wanna be free, but I also really wanna make music. The classic conundrum of my life.

It’s nighttime, I’m reflecting on all these things. I’m a bit stressed out tonight and a bit sad. Maybe it’s just that Kathmandu has me kind of strung out. I feel I can’t take it any longer. As much as I’m in awe of this explosion of culture happening everywhere all the time, I also find it totally overwhelming. My heart is tied in knots and I feel like I need to get out of here to a more peaceful place.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *