The road from Pokhara to Palpa curves through rice fields midharvest, deep river gorges with the churning water several hundred feet below the road, and snowy Himalayas peaking through the valleys as we round the endless bends on a five hour journey. Small towns with brightly painted brick buildings, kids who can say “Hello, give me your pen!” – the standard greeting for bideshis (foreigners).
Tansen is located in Palpa district, just north of where Buddha was born in Lumbini. As we approach the hilltop town, there are pine forests and black-faced langur monkeys running along the road beside our van.
Tansen is home to Nepal’s largest wooden door, which doesn’t look so fancy, but must have been a humongous tree once upon a time. Maoist rebels blew up the police station here a while back and the barracks’ remains stand like a miniature warzone in the midst of a cozy hilltop town with stone streets.
There’s a significant population of Gandharbas in the Palpa area, but most of them have quit the wandering minstrel lifestyle. We meet Bal Bahadur Gandharba, who quit going village to village a long time ago, still he remembers a song or two as we sit on a rooftop next to his cottage.
The next morning we go down the valley in search of a respected elder Gandharba singer. But he’s not home, so Buddhiman shows us how to make bowstrings from an agave plant, and how to get bow rosin from a type of pine tree. The musicians take some time off to rehearse and then late in the afternoon, we move everyone up to Srinagar, where there’s a hilltop park with teenagers rocking their ghetto blasters. We set up to shoot a session of Dohori singing as the sun sets. Dohori songs are improvised, with a man and woman poking fun of each other in alternating verses, with the crowd singing along for the chorus. The song goes 40 minutes, and apparently they often go longer! I’ll have some photos of that for y’all real soon.
Our last day in Tansen, we meet Hum Bahadur Gandharba, who used to travel Nepal in a dance troup which enacted social issues, such as class discrimination. He played us this song, an old one that leaves our translators amazed; although they are folklorists and well-versed in Gandharba music, it’s one they’ve never heard before. We’re still waiting for a full translation, but it’s basically about a queen who receives a warning not to break her bracelets. Inevitably she breaks the bangles and her husband is killed in the forest. Check out the tone on Hum Bahadur’s sarangi. He’s using cotton string for his fiddle strings.