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Published: August 21st 2009
I’ve been in Kathmandu only three days, but already I’m starting to feel the groove of the city. The background things that screamed in my face on arrival are fading into the background, and I’m beginning to be able to discern the ordinary from the extraordinary. No longer am I mildly surprised to see people driving on the left side of the road, cars with the drivers on the right side, dogs and cows in the streets, narrow streets and no traffic laws and survival of the fittest and fastest intersections, 5 scooters, a taxi, and a minibus trying to squeeze side-by-side through a street roughly the size of an urban one-way street in the US, the constant sound of car horns, walking around on sidewalks of quality ranging from excellent to trashy and everything in between, waving away rickshaws and street vendors, running into ancient pagodas, shrines, and temples scattered throughout the back alleyways and main thoroughfares alike, people rocking their heads from side to side in agreement, the palm down come-here gesture, the cadence and flow of spoken Nepali, boiling my drinking water, my gas-flame powered shower water-heater, and my squat toilet.
At first glance the city reminds me very much of Zona 1 Guatemala City; it has the same small-shop filled streets, market vendors, and smell of smoke, trash, and fresh fruit. The attitudes and rhythms of living are much different, however, and reflect a place without a reputation for violent crime, and where people are at ease going out at night and generally trustful of their neighbors. Moreover, the police and army are not demonized forces with histories of mass genocide. Despite seeming more at ease with their safety and neighbors, strangers passing on the street do not greet each other, as happens with the constant ‘buenos dias’ in Guatemala. The city is divided into neighborhoods, but they are not indicative of economic class (at least not in my 3 day observations).
Today was a watershed day for me in terms of my project, fieldwork, and my growing self-definition as an anthropologist. The day began with a read through of Bruno Nettl’s chapters on fieldwork from his book The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts
. He gives a great description of the seemingly impossible task that faces anthropologists when they enter ‘the field’ for the first time. There’s the dread realization that ‘the field’ has been here without ‘the anthropologist’ for a very long time, and will continue just fine without him, thank you very much. The anthropologist, then, has to make meaningful relationships with people who are willing and able to share their sensitive and self-defining cultural information—a thing that is much easier said than done. I completely identified with Nettl’s description of anxiety and insecurity, but was comforted by his urge to just go and do it! It usually works out.
Indeed it did work out. After going to a café to check email, do some business, and talk at length with some other foreign travelers, I walked to a music store in north Thamel (tourist district) to follow up on a lead for a madal (Nepali drum) teacher that I had established the day before. That day I passed a few music stores in my wanderings, and decided out of the blue (I’m convinced now that it was divine inspiration from the Hindu god of Anthropology, whose pagoda I must have passed somewhere down the street) to walk into this one music store and ask if the guy knew any madal teachers. The owner did know some madal teachers, but he didn’t have any numbers, so he asked that I come by the next day and maybe he would have some numbers for me. He went on to say that he knew many madal players, but a madal player wouldn’t be enough for me—he said that I would need somebody who knew how to teach. When he said that I knew he was legit. After some more idle talk I left to come back the next day. When I arrived the next day I was asked to sit down, listened to some rapid-fire Nepali spoken between the store owner and the man working the counter, a couple phone calls, and finally was told that a teacher was on his way to the store. To show the guy that I was legit I dropped the names of a few well-known and respected Nepali musicians, and he said that the man on the way is the student of the great madal guru I mentioned, and that it would be better to start with him and then perhaps move on to the guru after I had learned a few things. This store owner knew what he was talking about. While we waited we shot the breeze a little bit, talked about friends and relatives in the US, talked about politics, drank tea, talked about music, and business, and tourism, and the qualities of musicians, and how madal is learnable in a couple months, and so on.
The teacher arrived, greeted all around, and proceeded to pull out a big resume-type binder with a two-inch thick stack of newspaper clippings, awards, certificates, and other various documents to show that this guy is a serious madal musician. He’s gone on tour to 9 different countries, he holds degrees in percussion from universities in India, he’s performed shows on sets of 33 madals at once, and he’s done regular gigs at various prestigious venues around town. I was sold. We worked out some details, the negotiations taking about 45 minutes, that I would start by taking 3 or 4 lessons a week, then reduce to 2 when I could practice better on my own, and we would do them at his house, starting this Saturday at 9AM. I didn’t know where his house was, so when we finished up at the store he drove me on his scooter to his house to show me. He’s incredibly friendly and gracious, and he invited me in for drinks and to finish negotiations. We worked out a good price, and we expressed mutual excitement about our forthcoming friendship and fortuitous meeting. We talked about music and music teaching; he’s also a music teacher, and he works at about 8 different schools in town. He’s totally interested in my project to study music education and Nepali music, and he told me that he would arrange for me to learn other Nepali instruments in a couple months when my madal gets good. I offered to teach him anything he wants to know about Western music. He lives out by a big temple on the outskirts of town, and when we finished he offered to drive me back to the main part of the city.
When we parted I realized that I had, in one day, three days after arrival, gone from the anxiety of being new to the field and lacking a culture/music teacher as described by Nettl, to having an excellent teacher/consultant/informant as expected in any anthropological field study. Today I have gone from newcomer to the field—both the field of Kathmandu and the field of Anthropology—to productive resident of Kathmandu and working anthropologist. I’m still adjusting to the realization that I’m getting into the major leagues of social science, and that I’m really on a grant-supported extended fieldwork assignment. The events of this day helped solidify that in my mind.
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