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Old Songs in Changing Times

November 30th, 2006

In the Kathmandu valley, there are 800 year old religious shrines next to internet cafes. Barefoot sadhus walking side by side with modern businessmen. Loudspeakers on the sidewalk play Nepali Hip Hop as well as the old sarangi tunes. During our two months here in Nepal, we’ve worked to document the endangered songs of the villagers and have listened for the links to our own rural culture. But just as plenty of Americans don’t listen to Bluegrass or Old-Time Appalachian tunes regularly, many young Nepalis find their way to the city where pop music is the soundtrack of life.

Younger Gandharbas are unlikely to be wandering minstrels like their parents. Some become studio musicians or find regular gigs at local restaurants. But most work the streets of Thamel, noodling on miniature sarangis for disinterested tourists, in hopes of selling one (and sending the money back to their village). Other Nepalis seem uninterested as well. The Gandharbas still bear the prejudice of the racial slur Gaine, which means “to hassle.” They are stereotyped as demanding and dishonest, and the “untouchable-ness” still lingers in the minds of some Nepali castes.

When Nepal was first united, the king sent Gandharbas out to deliver the news to the remote Himalayan villages. But as more villages get electricity, televisions, and internet access, the Gandharbas are no longer singing the news, and Nepal loses a bit of its cultural heritage. Modern music influenced by India and the west begins to replace the creaky melodies of wandering Gandharba minstrels.

In searching for the old songs, it’s often frustrating to hear cheesy synthesizers playing Nepali melodies. But cultures are not static. The words “authentic” or “traditional” are subject to interpretation, just as the same fiddle song might be played differently in Kentucky than it is in Ireland, or might even be remixed over electronic beats by a producer who’s never held a fiddle. The same technology that allows you to download these songs and videos is the same technology that is replacing the village storytellers in Nepal. I wonder if our grandkids will think about mp3’s the same way we might think of a reel-to-reel tape recorder. In any case it makes those rare songs and stories all the more precious.

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