Bridging the Andes and Himalaya with musicChilean musicians find familiar music in the trans-Himalayan district of Dolpo in Nepal
Two Chilean musicians arrived in Nepal by chance just before the pandemic, but now they stay here by choice exploring the country’s vast musical diversity.
Thomas Carrasco Gubernatis and Moa Edmunds Guevera have found uncanny similarities between the traditional music of their native Andes and the Himalaya. They are now collaborating on the music of Pungmo, a remote Nepali village five days away by plane, bus, and foot from Kathmandu.
Tomas and Moa grew up listening to South American folk music, and then studied Western Classical music in Chile. But Tomas wanted to explore other kinds of music which took him first to Bulgaria and Turkey where he learnt local wind instruments, and then to Spain where he mastered Japanese flute.
Next, he wanted to go to India to learn 'raga music'. The two who were already playing as a duo, performing in concerts and recording songs landed in India in 2019.
Tomas started learning the flute at Hariprasad Chaurasiya's gurukul in Mumbai, and Moa was soaking in different kinds of music in the region. They went to Banaras to attend the Dhrupad Mela, found that they had to leave the country for some time due to visa regulations, and crossed the nearest border into Nepal.
In a few weeks Nepal shut down due to Covid, and the duo has been stuck here ever since. In Kathmandu, they started teaching music at Kathmandu Jazz conservatory and working with folk musician Jhuma Limbu on music based on Limbu mundhum.
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They also happened to meet Nepali-French videographer Eric Chandra Shrestha who told them about music from one of the remotest corners of Nepal which was on the verge of disappearing.
Back in the 1980s, Eric's mother Marina had come to Nepal from France to visit Dolpo. Because foreigners were not allowed to visit the area back then, she disguised herself as a local and managed to reach Pungmo. There she had taken a photo of a lama.
“When the lama passed away, the villagers had no photograph of him. Many years later, Semduk Lama from the village happened to connect with my mother. The photograph came up in conversation. My mother shared the photograph, and a link with Dolpo was established anew,” explains Eric.
Eric has always been interested in music, with a background in sound engineering video projects. Semduk Lama spoke to Eric of the rare songs in his village and Eric shared the story with Tomas and Moa. This got them excited to go to Dolpo to learn the songs.
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“Going to Dolpo is very expensive for foreigners. We have to pay special permit fees, and the plane fare is almost triple,” says Moa. So Tomas, Moa and Eric took the bus to Nepalganj which was a 24-hour ride. From there they flew to Jufal airport, and then walked two days to reach Pungmo.
Eric, who has been trekking in Nepal since he was a child, was used to walking, but the Chileans were not. “It took us two days of walking five hours each. The locals complete the journey in a day. I had only heard about places which can only be reached on foot. It was very strange to experience it myself,” says Tomas. Moa on the other hand had lived all his life near the sea.
At the beginning, it was difficult for them to work. Everything needed double translation. The villagers spoke in local language, someone translated that to Eric in Nepali, and Eric translated it in English to the Chileans.
Moreover, they had reached the village just before winter set in, which meant that the villagers were out working in the fields for 10 hours a day, gathering supplies for the winter. Understandably, they were too tired to sing for the foreigners in the evening.
But slowly the villagers opened up. They would sing a song in the evening, and the next day Tomas would convert it to musical notation, and Tomas and Moa learnt the melody.
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“The next day we played the song back to them on our instruments. That pleased them and they taught us more songs,” recalls Tomas. “On the last day we had a party and sang and played with each other. We hastily constructed a make-shift studio and recorded some songs. Other villagers came, lamas from other villages came, and people danced all night.”
Away from home, the music of Pungmo reminded the Chileans of South American music – Tomas compared it to the music of the Andes and Moa to the music of his father's native Easter Island.
“Although you can find similarities in all kinds of music, the way some notes and melodies were used reminded me of South American music,” says Tomas.
According to Semduk Lama, a Pungmo resident and music conservationist, people from upper Dolpo used to spend the winter in the village because despite being at a high altitude, it is not as cold as upper Dolpo. “But nowadays people from the upper regions spend the winter further down in the hills or Tarai, so Pungmo has lost footfalls. We continue to stay at Pungmo in the winter,” he adds.
Welcome to the first, second and third months of the spring season
When livestock give birth
We get to have milk and yoghurt
And it is so pleasant and enjoyable
Good wishes to the spring season
Welcome to the first, second and third months of monsoon
When flowers bloom on the hills and forests
And we don't need to pick flowers to offer to gods
It is so pleasant and enjoyable
Good wishes to monsoon season
Welcome to the first, second, and third months of autumn season
When the crop in the fields is ready to harvest
Then we have plenty of grains and do not need to buy
It is so nice to eat
Good wishes to autumn season
Welcome to the first, second and third months of winter season
When the water in rivers freezes over
And we do not need bridges, it is so easy to walk
Good wishes to winter season
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The very fact that Pungmo was more isolated than other villages of Dolpo is probably why it has been able to hold on to more of its heritage. Says Semduk Lama: “When I was young, we did not have schools. When night fell we lit bonfires and sang and danced around them all night.”
Even then, residents say that the songs sung here have now become scarce across Dolpa. The genre called Khunglu, which is sung sitting down, is considered the oldest.
The community has other genres called Sunlu and Dhellu which are also sung sitting down, while the dancing music called Sharbo is considered newer. Another Khunglu song that the group sang at Echoes in the Valley also reflects their lifestyle.
From the door to the roof
The house is filled with grain
We must make chhyang (an alcoholic drink) from this grain
Add a little bit of water too
"But you shouldn't make it too watery!" Pemba Tashi laughs as he recounts another stanza.
Do not add too much water to the chyang
It must be strong
The song contains the indigenous community's practice of brewing its own alcohol, and also discusses its importance in the community. “Chyyang is not so popular these days. But in the past, there was nothing as delicious as chhyang,” says Pasang Nima.
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Chhyang is so delicious
If only everything tasted like chhyang
In Dolpa, chhyang is consumed not just after harvest and during celebrations, but also given to nursing mothers and to old people.
Sometimes, old people find it hard to fall asleep
If you sip a little chhyang, sleep will come easy
Pungmo has preserved not just its music, but also an archaic lifestyle which wasn't lost on the trio. Coupled with the fact that the village is so isolated, is relatively outside the capitalistic system, and mostly runs on barter system, Pungmo presented a world that is inaccessible to most people today.
“There are only about 40 houses, and you can walk from the rooftop of one house to the other. All the villagers are related too. Living like a big family is very beautiful. Where we are from, in a big city, it is not possible,” says Tomas.
In the past, music was a part of the community and it had many functions – it was a way for them to pass on the knowledge to youngsters. Songs of the Chho-Pungmo community teach life skills, whether it is about just greeting people, living according to different seasons or making chhyang.
“There we found a very original way of making music,” says Tomas Carrasco. “Back in the day, in many communities, there was no professional singer. Normal people created and performed music alongside their daily work. In such communities, music is not necessarily called art. Music comes under other crafts like making clothes or jewelry."
Adds Moa Edmunds: “Learning folk music does not mean just learning the melody or the lyrics. It also means learning about the community and the function that music has in the community.”
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Another example is their song about Tamyen. The long instrument with five strings is the only instrument used in Pungmo. The song not just praises the instrument but also gives detailed instructions to make it.
You need to gather many things to make this instrument
Bring wood of the male Bhojpatra tree to make the head
Bring a grass called Langma to make the screws
Bring goat intestines (of a particular goat) to make the strings
Tomas and Moa, in their effort to help promote the music, accompanied the singers from Dolpo at the 2023 edition of Echoes in the Valley in Kathmandu. Despite that, they do not call themselves 'folk musicians,' instead choosing to identify their music as a fusion of various genres to create their own style.
“The theories behind classical music all come from folk music. Some people have a special affinity with music, they create music without any theories. It happens almost intuitively,” says Tomas as he explains his passion for everything folk.
All three of them hope to work more with musicians from Pungmo. “I don't particularly think that culture needs to be preserved as it is. Culture is constantly evolving, and if it is static it might lead to conservatism. And yet, I think the past should not be forgotten, and it is important to document it for future generations," says Eric, for whom this has been a personal journey as well because of the connection to his mother.
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"Many people remembered my mother passing through the village so many years ago. The singers were very young, but they remembered her. I felt like I found a special connection with the village,” he adds.
But today, songs have been reduced to just entertainment. Youngsters studying in Kathmandu and other cities are not interested in traditional music. Exposed to the outside world, they want to sing Nepali, Hindi, and English songs which are livelier and instrument heavy, says Pasang Lama. He adds: “People in other villages of Dolpo do not know these songs, and do not wish to learn either.”
The small group is trying to conserve what they have left. Semduk has made a documentary of some old songs which are now forgotten. Since then, some of the elderly women who sang the songs have passed away.
Meanwhile, the Chileans plan to stay in Nepal for at least the next two years, teaching and working on folk music. “We landed up in Nepal accidentally, but now we are staying here by choice,” says Tomas.”
And do they miss home? “If I have my guitar and I can play, then it doesn’t matter which corner of the world I am in,” says Moa.
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Sewa Bhattarai is a freelance journalist. Her series, On The Margins, will focus on folk music, folklore, and mythology of Nepal's marginalised communities.