About the film
“Two traditional musicians from the hills of Virginia take you to the villages of rugged Nepal, where you discover the amazing similarities between Appalachian and Himalayan folk music—and the eerily parallel heritage that gave birth to them both. This vivid portrayal of endangered music and culture celebrates remarkable instruments, foot-tapping sounds, and the people who create them.”
Jonathan B. TourtellotNational Geographic Fellow; Founding Director, Center for Sustainable Destinations; Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler
“What they did in that film would not be possible for a lot of people. You don’t get that kind of response from people when you just go interview them. They lived with and jammed with the musicians as a musician. There is no better way to do it!”
Grammy award winning musician and one of the founding members of the legendary and pioneering bluegrass band New Grass Revival.
Just a few of our achievements
- Premiered at National Geographic’s Grosvenor Auditorium
- Carolina Film and Video Festival – Best Independent Documentary
- International Filmmaker Festival (England)–Nominated Best Soundtrack, Best Producer
- The Mountain Film Festival – Sierra Nevada Award
- Screening and concert at The Rubin Museum of Art
- International Folk Music Film Festival Nepal – Best Film Award
The Mountain Music Project: A Musical Odyssey from Appalachia to Himalaya follows the journey of two traditional musicians from their roots in the hills of Virginia to the mountains of rural Nepal, where they explore the extraordinary connections between Appalachian and Himalayan folk music and culture, particularly with the traditional musicians of the Gandharba caste.
The Gandharbas were once the wandering minstrels of the southern Himalayas, bringing news, storytelling, and traditional singing to the villages of rural Nepal. Their songs once helped to unite disparate kingdoms into a unified Nepal, and even in recent years Gandharba singers played a great role in Nepal’s democracy movement. Although in Hindu mythology, Gandharbas were thought to be divine angel musicians, their caste is low among the Hindu hierarchy and they have long been considered to be ‘untouchable,’ unfit to share water with people of higher castes. Adding to their troubles, their rich musical traditions are at risk of extinction as radio, television, and recorded music encroach upon rural Nepali life.
Musicians/Hosts Tara Linhardt and Danny Knicely join Nepali musician Buddhiman Gandharba on a musical expedition through rural Nepal, where they discover surprising similarities between these seemingly distant cultures. In the melodies of the traditional Nepali Sarangi (fiddle) or the taste of homemade Raksi (moonshine), there’s a thread that hearkens back to Old-Time Appalachian culture and to rural communities around the world, where people are poor but proud, their music the very fabric of village life. With lyrics telling of lost loves, murders, wayfaring travelers, and even farm animals, sung by farmers, minstrels, and shepherds, this is music meant for the porch rather than the stage.
Tara, Danny, and Buddhiman are off in search of this ‘higher lonesome sound,’ traveling to the villages of Lamjung, Palpa, Gorkha, Chitwan, and Pokhara in search of musicians who are keeping the Gandharba traditions alive. As they make their way through the strikingly beautiful mountains of Nepal, they meet rural luthiers carving their instruments from a single piece of wood, families making moonshine in homemade stills, and a handful of old men who remember the days when musicians were used to bring rain to drought-stricken areas.
The language may be different, and the mountains may be higher, but it soon becomes clear that their cultures share more than just melodies. Along their journey, they build bridges between these two rural cultures (and in some cases actually building actual roads when the van can’t go any further). And of course, they play music as they travel, the Appalachian ballads blending seamlessly with the Nepali Chanchari songs, the rhythms, melodies, and lyrics nearly interchangeable. They meet Tikki Maya – one of the few Gandharba women who overcame great cultural taboos to perform her heartfelt songs, Mohan – a traditional healer and one of the last living players of the banjo-like Arbaj, and Hum Bahadur – who at 75 years of age, still travels the countryside singing of the injustices of the caste system, like an unsung Woody Guthrie.
When the journey brings our hosts back to big-city Kathmandu, they become aware of the Gandharbas’ more recent plight, of trying to make ends meet in a newfound culture that has now forgotten them or their role in traditional society. They begin looking for an answer for how these traditions can find a place in modern Nepal, while reflecting on how Appalachian traditional music was able to survive the influx of radio and recorded music more than half a century ago.
Throughout this journey, the words, wisdom, and anecdotes of musicians and folklorists from both Virginia and Nepal, such as Buddy Pendleton and the late Mike Seeger, guide us through this unique musical marriage. The Mountain Music Project is a celebration of rural culture and uplifting musical traditions.
Bios of the Virginia Musicians
Buddy Pendleton was born into a musical family just down the road from where he now lives in Patrick County, VA. He started playing the fiddle after Santa Claus brought him one when he was 11 years old. His father played Charlie Poole style banjo and his mother played guitar and harmonica. He learned a lot of fiddle prowess from his fiddling uncle Delmer Pendleton, who lived just down the road. He entered and won his first contest when he was 15 in Stuart, VA. As he grew up, he entered and won many other fiddle contests such as the Galax Fiddler’s Convention twice and had the unprecedented distinction of winning the prestigious Union Grove Fiddler’s Contest 5 years straight. These contests are but a few of the many in which he has taken part and taken awards. He has also played with numerous bands over the years such as Ralph Rinzler’s Greenbriar Boys. One of the more well known bands in Buddy’s past was Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. As a Bluegrass Boy back in the early 1960’s, he was in the band along with Bill Keith, Del McCoury, and Bessie Mauldin. Recently he was chosen by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to be a “Virginia Master Artist” and also became involved with their Folklife Apprenticeship Program to pass along his expertise and experiences to the younger generations.
Mike Seeger grew up in a musical family and ended up being an extremely influential musician, historian, and collector of traditional musics. With parents who were both musicians and one who was an ethnomusicologist, a half brother who was the famous folk singer Pete Seeger, and a childhood housekeeper named Elizabeth Cotton who was his first recording project and who eventually received a Grammy for The Song Freight Train, he was surrounded by and influenced by some remarkable traditional music minds. He was a multi-instrumentalist with expertise in Appalachian style music and recorded many albums with such bands as the highly influential The New Lost City Ramblers as well as producing 36 documentary recordings. He was nominated for 6 Grammy awards and received the Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009 for his remarkable lifetime of creating, documenting, teaching about traditional music.
Olen Gardner grew up in a musical family in the Appalachian mountains. He started playing music when he was 5 years old and has been playing music for 70 years now and is still performing locally. He has performed with a number of different people over the years. The most well known of his band experiences were when he spent three years on the road with Charlie Monroe and when he performed with Doc Watson in 1969 and 1970. He has also been making and repairing string instruments professionally since 1961. He has been named as a Master by the Virginia Folklife Program in 2005 and is now working with the Virginia Folklife teaching his art as a luthier (instrument builder and repairer) to new generations as well as still working as a musician and luthier.
Sammy Shelor started playing the banjo at age four when his grandfather help make him one out of an old pressure cooker lid. His other grandfather told him that if learned to play two songs on there he would help him get a real banjo. Sammy did and soon was playing and competing at fiddler’s conventions in Southwest Virginia. Sammy started performing with local bands by the age of ten and then became a full time professional musician after high school. He has performed with a number of different bands over the years, but is best known as the leader and driving force in the contemporary bluegrass band, The Lonesome River Band. He has become a highly influential figure in the world of Bluegrass and Appalachian music and has won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Banjo Player of the Year Award 4 times.
Odell Roy “Speedy” Tolliver was born in the rural mountains of Green Cove, VA in 1918 and grew up playing music and competing in music festivals in the musical communities of Southwestern, VA. He first started playing music by playing his older brother Blame’s banjo when he was not around. Soon Speedy surpassed his brother banjo abilities, so his brother gave Speedy the banjo and Blame became a guitar player. Speedy won numerous contests. He was presented with one of his first place trophies on the banjo by Eleanor Roosevelt at White Top Festival in 1939, which was the first year her husband Franklin was in the White House. In the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s he took up the fiddle as well and traveled around playing, performing, and being a session musician and ended up moving up to the Washington, DC area as did many other rural mountain musicians who came to the city looking for work. His band was the first country (what would now be called Bluegrass Band) to play on the radio station WAMU. They played from 6-8 AM every Saturday morning. He was commended as a “fiddle legend” by the Virginia Legislature Resolution # 508 in 2006 for his lifetime achievements and influence on traditional music of the region. He was awarded the VA State Heritage Award in 2009 for his importance and influence as a traditional musician by the Virginia State Legislature. He is still performing with local bands, and has started his own contest in Arlington, VA that is called the Speedy Tolivar Fiddle Contest. It is open to contestants of all ages and functions to encourage new and young people to embrace the old fiddle tune traditions, encouraging the continuation of the traditional music that he has lived and loved in his lifetime.
Wilbur “Two-Gun” Terry grew up with musicians in all sides of his family. His grandparents and other relatives on both sides of the family all played Appalachian traditional music. He started playing when he was 8 years old. Over the years he has been a very influential figure in carrying on the traditions of mountain music in Virginia. He is a multi-instrumentalist who has performed in many different types of bands, accrued countless awards, and has over 30 years of teaching traditional music styles in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He has been nominated for the NEA National Heritage Fellowship for his importance in the traditional Appalachian music scene over the years.
Bios of the Nepali Musicians
Buddhiman Gandharba – Hailing from a small village in Nepal’s remote Lamjung region, Buddhiman’s soulful sarangi playing has made the soundtracks of several Nepali and Hindi language films. He works as a music teacher in Kathmandu, including at the Ghar Sita Mutu orphanage, where he is passing on traditional Nepali music to a new generation. Buddhiman is both guide and subject in this film, as his generation still has a foot in both worlds as a traditional village musician in a rapidly modernizing Nepal.
Hum Bahadur Gandharba – Known to many Nepalis as “Honi Maya” for a Radio Nepal hit many years ago, 75 year old Hum Bahadur is an unsung hero of Nepali folklore. Like a Himalayan Woody Guthrie, he’s spent much of his life traveling the Nepali countryside, singing of the injustices of the caste system, and spreading his music and ideas of cultural change.
Mohan Gandharba – One of the few living players of the banjo-like arbaj, Mohan is also a folk healer; traveling village to village bringing with him both music and medicine. At 82 years of age, his infectious personality could make a film in and of itself! We only hope more people come to visit him with microphones and cameras while he’s still around.
Additional Nepali musicians featured in this film include: Khim Bahadur Gandharba, Tikki Maya Gandharba, Sitaram Gandharba, Krishna Bahadur Gandharba, Durga Devi Gandhari, Akal Bahadur Gandharba, and Manoj Gayak,