The Mountain Music Project: A Musical Odyssey From Appalachia To Himalaya
With their workday behind them, a group of friends and neighbors gather on a front porch in the late afternoon. They sing songs, play tunes on homemade instruments, and dance. They share food and drinks, maybe even a bit of moonshine. For at least a little while, good music and good company offer a release from their hard work, and life’s worries. The location could be any rural town in the Appalachian Mountains. It could be, but it isn’t. The mountains are the Himalayas, and the village is in the country of Nepal.
When old-time musicians Tara Linhardt and Danny Knicely leave their homes in the Virginia hills to explore similarities between Appalachian and Himalayan traditional music, they discover not only a strong musical relationship, but an overall cultural connection they could not have anticipated. In the mountain villages of Nepal, they meet people whose lives and backgrounds are in many ways identical to their own. The documentary film The Mountain Music Project is the result of this journey.
The van trip to the mountain villages of Nepal is filled with challenges. On the way to meet Himalayan musicians, there are rivers to cross, embankments to negotiate, roads blocked by huge stones, roads with treacherous holes, and sometimes no roads at all. Accompanying the Virginia natives and acting as their guide is Buddhiman Gandharba from the remote region of Lamjung. His surname indicates that he is a member of the musicians’ caste whose days revolve around playing the sarangi, a Himalayan counterpart of the fiddle. “This has been our profession since our grandfathers’ time,” says Buddhiman. “The four strings of the sarangi nurture our lives.”
When the American musicians arrive at each of their destinations, they are met by local musicians and families eager to share their stories and their music. As they begin trading songs and tunes, the similarities between Himalayan and Appalachian traditional music quickly become evident. Some of the tunes Tara and Danny play on the mandolin and fiddle sound very familiar to the Nepali musicians. In fact, a few Appalachian melodies are nearly identical to tunes the Himalayan natives play. “The sarangi and the fiddle sound good together. Very nice!” says Buddhiman.
The four-stringed sarangi has approximately a two-octave range, and is played with a bow. Sarangi players, however, do not press down on the strings with their fingertips. Notes are produced by putting pressure against the strings with the roots of the fingernails of the left hand. The sarangi is carved from a single piece of wood, and initially takes three to four hours to make. The hollow body has two chambers. The upper chamber is open, while the lower chamber, which contains the bridge, is covered with dried goatskin. Strings were originally made of sheep intestine, but modern-day sarangis are strung with nylon, steel, or badminton strings.
Ancient Hindu scriptures describe the sarangi-playing gandharbas as “angel musicians” whose songs once had the power to make amends with the gods. According to legend, their magic music could put an end to a hailstorm, or bring rain during times of drought. Later on, the gandharbas became wandering minstrels who traveled from one village to another. Wherever they roamed, they were welcomed, and crowds gathered around them. Before the advent of radios and record players, the wandering gandharbas were the Nepali people’s only source of musical entertainment. They went from door to door singing the news of the day, religious stories, and folk songs for donations of food or money. The gandharbas survived on their music. It was their only means of supporting themselves and their families. They had no formal musical training; young gandharbas learned by watching and listening to their elders.
Modern technology is not the only thing making the present-day gandharbas’ lives difficult. Even at best, “it’s not an easy job,” maintains Buddhiman Gandharba. “We will never be rich,” says Krishna Bahadur Gandharba. A far cry from the “angel musicians” of ancient myth, the gandharbas have long been victims of caste discrimination. Though some of them say they have slowly begun to earn respect again over the past few decades, these “untouchables” have suffered centuries of hatred and harassment. Gandharbas who go to the city to sell sarangis to tourists, or to try to earn money by playing music are accused of being uneducated and dirty. Presumed to be illiterate and backward by city dwellers who do not understand their values, the gandharbas are sometimes chased by the police. “They call us idiot, donkey, beggar,” says Sitaram Gandharba.
For Hum Bahadur Gandharba, music is also a way to speak out against the injustice of the caste system. He sings,
“Nowhere is it written that people should hurt people
Nowhere does it say the strong should strangle the weak
In the hills there runs a stream, in the plains a river
But in the end they both empty into the sea
And meet the same fate”
For Tikki Maya Gandharba, the challenges of being a modern-day gandharba are compounded by the fact that she is a woman. From the time she was a little girl, she was told that women do not play the sarangi. Her male relatives would not let her watch while they played. They stopped their playing whenever she was nearby. They hid from her, and even hid their instruments. But she was determined to learn at any cost, and she persevered because, “This is my fate. I can’t leave this.” She sings,
“If I am old, they call me a witch
If I’m poor, they call me a thief
That’s how it goes in this world
We can’t expect any more
If I want to cry, who can I turn to?
If I don’t cry, I worry all the more”
Danny Knicely points out that an important cultural similarity shared by rural mountain people of the Appalachians and the Himalayas is that their music is “personal” and “internal.” Lyrics written by Himalayan mountain musicians echo the sentiments of traditional songs sung by rural Appalachian mountain people. Songs about love, loss, hardship, drought, floods, poverty, death, farms, crops, and animals are common to both.
During his interview for The Mountain Music Project, old-time musician and folklorist Mike Seeger refers to these traditional songs as “social” music. Like the gandharbas, Mike says he was “taught by ear and by eye.” He simply copied what he saw and heard. Virginia musician Buddy Pendleton calls traditional music the cultural “glue” that is responsible for keeping self-reliant mountain communities close-knit. But whether we live in a rural mountain town or a big city, the appeal of songs that celebrate good times, and mourn bad times is universal. We all experience love, loss, despair, and happiness.
“God blessed me to be poor,” says Appalachian musician and instrument builder Olen Gardner who started playing music when he was five. As he reminisces about making his own wooden toys, and musical instruments out of cigar boxes strung with wire from screen doors, he recalls a childhood when practically everyone played at least a few tunes, including the children. Playing an instrument was not just for “serious musicians.” And like the gandharbas, he also remembers the days when homemade music was the only entertainment before every house had a radio or record player.
Wilbur Terry, a musician from the Shenandoah Valley says the area he grew up in didn’t even have electricity until at least the 1950s. Seclusion, he believes, helped preserve the older music. Roy Odell Tolliver of southwestern Virginia tells of his days as a wandering musician during the Great Depression when jobs were hard to come by. Like the gandharbas, he and his friends went from house to house playing for “something to eat.” Some nights they slept outdoors because they had no place to stay. And just like the gandharbas of the rural Himalayas, the mountain musicians of Virginia were welcome wherever they went. However, radios and records would eventually make traveling musicians and homemade music obsolete.
Appalachian and Himalayan musicians who leave their rural mountain towns for the cities in hopes of making money offer the same complaints. Life in the big city doesn’t agree with the gandharbas who say they prefer the slower pace of village life among people who share their values. Rather than stay in the city to try to make their living as musicians, some modern-day gandharbas have turned to farming. The “rat race” isn’t for Buddy Pendleton either. He can’t help but quote the old adage, “You can take the boy out of the country, but…”
Economics and technology are not the only threats to the survival of mountain music. Both Nepali and American traditional musicians bemoan the tendency of the younger generations to try to distance themselves from the older elements of their cultures. Just as the lower caste gandharbas have been stigmatized as uneducated beggars, rural people of the Appalachian Mountains have long been the victims of prejudice from mainstream Americans. Those who perpetuate the “hillbilly,” “hick,” and “redneck” stereotypes regard mountain culture as backward. They have no interest in traditional music. Outside of the village of Pokhara, Tara and Danny are introduced to 82-year-old Mohan Gandharba who plays an old instrument called the arbaj. This Nepali version of a banjo is larger and heavier than the sarangi, which is why the traveling gandharbas eventually abandoned it for the sarangi. The locals say there are very few arbaj players left. Mohan tells them his arbaj was made by his father’s grandfather. As he plays the instrument, he sings,
“My life is going very fast! I’m growing older every day!”
Mohan Gandharba tells the American musicians, “My sons don’t sing or play. I’m the only one left.”
As Danny Knicely observes, the lure of the modern world is hard to resist. Some of the younger gandharbas say they are no longer encouraged to continue to play. A few admit they have at times felt ashamed when people in the cities laugh at them. Still, many are determined that their culture will not disappear. Mike Seeger also acknowledges that for American traditional music to survive, the younger generations must learn to treasure their identity. He adds that over the past forty years, old-time music has enjoyed a gradual resurgence in popularity.
Unless it continues to be preserved and passed down, the music will be lost. Recording traditional music and presenting it in concert are two ways of helping to ensure that it will endure, and be understood. Along with filming The Mountain Music Project documentary, Tara, Danny, and director Jacob Penchansky recorded a CD. In Nepal, they made recordings of some of the gandharbas playing both Himalayan and American traditional tunes. Upon returning to the United States, they added tracks from popular American old-time and Bluegrass musicians, creating what they called “a jam session spanning continents and cultures.” Since 2009, The Mountain Music Project film and CD have not only helped preserve and foster an awareness of traditional mountain music, but they have also helped fund music education for underprivileged children in Nepal. Ironically, the same types of media that once threatened the livelihood of mountain musicians and the very existence of homemade music on both continents are now helping to keep this music alive.
Learn about The Mountain Music Project and watch the film trailer here