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Published: December 1st 2009
As my project has gotten more involved and action-based I’ve noticed that I have proportionally less time to write everything down and update this website. It’s a stressful feeling—I want to let people know what’s happening, and I want to be able to go back and read my reports so I can remember myself what happened, but that’s just impossible to do when things are in the middle of happening. However, I much rather this be the case than the alternative: having too much time to write and not enough to do.
In the past few weeks I’ve started teaching music at a grade school, I drafted a proposal for an MA in music and dance program for a well-established university, I’ve been working on a project proposal for a group of musicians to go to small Nepali villages and hold musical exchange concerts with the local traditional musicians, I’ve continued to work on the music education workshop to be held next month, I visited Bhaktapur and watched a combined concert with Nepali classical musicians and a Sufi poem-reader in a beautifully restored old traditional Newari house, I ate a huge Thanksgiving dinner with the Fulbright community, I drank tongba, I partied with Nepali movie stars, I visited a classical (Eastern) music school and took some voice classes, and all the while I’ve done my standard Nepali language lessons, sarangi lessons, tabla lessons, madal lessons, and the practicing that they require.
First, my music class. I have about 12 students, all between the ages of 11 and 15. Right now my students are really great—motivated, well-behaved, and learning quickly—but that isn’t the way it started. The first class was incredibly chaotic; I didn’t expect to teach that day, the students didn’t expect a different teacher that day, and the electricity was out in the building. The students weren’t prepared at all—they didn’t bring notebooks or pens or any such learning materials, and they ended up being really hyper because this foreigner was around talking to their regular teachers and chatting with the principal when he walked in. Thinking I was just going to observe this class, I took a seat and motioned for the real teacher to get started. He looked at me, shook his head, smiled, and said, “No, you are going to teach this class. Here are your students,” and then he picked out about five of the 25 or so students in the classroom to gather around closely and learn all the things I had to teach them. Meanwhile, the rest of the students in the classroom had drums and no directions, and you can imagine what kind of scene comes of that. Not wanting to argue in front of the students, I started as best I could to draw a staff on the whiteboard with a dried-out marker, and began showing them what the lines and spaces signified. Hyper as they were, they gave me really quick, wrong answers when I asked them questions, and they started to drift to some of the other instruments in the classroom—pianicas, drums, and a harmonium—to show me that they know about ‘do re me fa sol.’ While this was going on, the other teachers shepherded the rest of the class to the room next door, a big, slick, concrete-walled room with acoustics like that of a big shower. My room sharing a wall with this one, I could hardly hear myself over the constant thunderous boom coming through. I thought the class was supposed to last from 3:15 to 4:00, so at 4:00 I thankfully wrapped up what I was doing, told the students to bring notebooks next time, and went next door to bid the other teachers goodbye and share with them a little of my frustration about being asked to teach, unprepared, at the last minute, and about not having a set class organized for me yet, only to find that the class wouldn’t actually end until 4:20. I had previously made an appointment to observe at another music school at 4:15, so I still ended up handing the students back and leaving by 4:05. This certainly was not the teaching experience of dreams. Nightmares, maybe.
My schedule at this school is to teach on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday from 3:15 to 4:20 (I know now). The first class was on a Friday, but due to a Nepali holiday on Sunday and Thanksgiving on Thursday, I didn’t go back to teach until the next Friday. This one week break saw quite a turnaround in my students and teaching conditions, and the class ended up being a huge success. First, I knew I was teaching this time. I had a lesson plan figured out, I knew what resources (whiteboard, chalkboard, drum) I needed, and the students knew what resources (pen, paper) they needed. My students were chosen, absolutely, this time, and the class wasn’t plagued by students who weren’t participating. Electricity was still out, so I arranged for the class to move to a classroom with a lot of windows. We wouldn’t be playing that day, only taking notes about the staff, treble clef, quarter notes, half notes, etc. The students sat down at desks with their notebooks and pens out, and they gave me all of their attention for the whole time. It was an interactive class; I asked them questions, had them each come to the chalkboard to write and demonstrate different rhythms, and had them all sing rhythms in unison. They learned 4/4 meter and the rhythmic durations that each note signifies, they learned the notes on the treble clef, and by the end of the class they could sing the simple rhythms I notated on the board without any help. Some caught on very quickly, others struggled a little bit, but everybody was trying. The class was conducted in a mix of English and Nepali languages. I spoke Nepali whenever I could, English when I had to (the students understand both very well), and a Nepali teacher who participated in the class along with the students made some clarifying translations when necessary. No student was so shy as to make a fuss when called upon. When a student was at the board and didn’t quite know how to do what I asked him, the other students coached him along in Nepali, perhaps thinking that I didn’t understand what they were up to. As soon as they get a good grasp of reading music, I’ll start teaching them how to play the trumpet. Next class we’ll do rests and phrases, and then I think I’ll get the instruments in their hands and do some buzzing and fingering. The students aren’t allowed to take the instruments home, so all of the practicing will have to be done at school with a chaperone. It may be possible to buy some cheap practice horns that come from India—one of the other teachers is working on that. If that’s the case, they’ll at least be able to take something home, quality notwithstanding. There are very few instrument shops here that sell quality western instruments. There just isn’t a market for it (at the moment). As a result, there are little (if any) resources for instrument parts and repairs. Simple things like mouthpiece pullers and rawhide mallets aren’t around, so if a mouthpiece or valve gets stuck it’s a huge problem. Yearly maintenance requirements can’t be met (acid baths, pad changes, etc.), so the instruments just get dirtier and dirtier until they can’t be played. I don’t like that the school has to be so careful with the instruments, and I especially don’t like that my students can’t take them home to practice, but that’s just the way it’s going to be this time.
When class ended, and everybody was satisfied that we had spent a good hour doing productive things, the other music teachers invited me to join them for tongba. Tongba is a warm alcoholic beverage made of fermented millet and hot water. It is served individually in big wooden barrel-cups filled with the millet seeds, and with a hot water thermos on the side. You pour the hot water into the cup and let it sit for a little bit, then drink it through a wide wooden straw. Seeing it for the first time is a really wild experience—you see the huge wooden cups filled with these tiny purple seeds, sometimes stuck to each other in crazy natural sculptures extending out of the cup, with a huge straw sticking out of the middle. When you pour the hot water in, the seeds settle down and fill the cup uniformly, and there’s just enough room at the top of the cup to see when it’s full of water. You’re supposed to let it sit for a while, but if you stir it around the water turns a milky gray color. You drink the water through the millet, taking the alcohol, and when you’ve drunk all the water you pour more water in and repeat. You can get maybe five full drinks out of one cup of millet. We had the tongba with buff chilly—a plate of crunchy, chewy, way-over-cooked buffalo meat chunks with chillies—and buff momos—buffalo meat dumplings. It was a great time; we talked about eastern music, western music, improvisation, folk songs, the US, travel, family, and what it would take to make a music book filled with Nepali folk songs and rhythms in western notation. The two teachers I was with have been friends for over 15 years, teaching at the same schools and helping each other out. It was great to join them for relaxing and having fun. They are also a testament to the changing caste attitudes in Nepal; one is of the highest caste and one is from a middle caste, but that had absolutely no effect on their interactions at all. They ate from the same plate, and they laughed and carried on as the equals they are.
Finally I had to leave; it was getting on toward 8 pm and I had a gig that started at 7:30 (read on about time and schedules below). This gig is usually with a very skilled, well-known Nepali guitar player who mixes elements of Nepali, eastern classical, Bollywood, jazz, and Spanish flamenco sounds in his playing, but this week he had a command gig for a group of ambassadors, so he couldn’t join us for the regular restaurant show. In his place we had a young, shy, chord player who did little more than comp and keep time. That said, he’s learning, and this was a good opportunity for him to play in front of an audience. The show sounded OK, and we had a small audience (it’s getting cold and people don’t want to sit outside at night much anymore), and all of us in the band were a little bit relieved when 10:00 rolled around and we had to stop playing. This is where the night took an unexpected turn.
I ran into a couple of people I know at the restaurant after the gig, and I found out that they were heading soon to another bar/restaurant where I play a regular gig. This bar is not very old, hard to find, and popular with young adult Nepalis. I first found out about it because I met one of the owners, a popular Nepali film actor, at a Dashain party for artists. Strangely enough, I started playing there regularly through a completely different set of connections, this time through a young Nepali music enthusiast whom I met at Jazzmandu. This friend manages a jazz band, and he invited me to play at their gig, which just happened to be at this very bar. Going there so often, I’m good friends with the guys who work there, and this specific trip turned into a nice re-union with those guys. These guys, incidentally, are teaching me the ‘colorful’ words in the Nepali language. Being a Friday night, the bar was fun and lively, and many well-dressed and good-looking people were having spirited conversations and spreading good cheer. I had an especially good conversation with one of the girls, and by the end of the conversation I found out, completely unexpectedly, that she was the lead actress in the two most recent hit Nepali movies. It made sense—she worked with the actor who part owns the place—but she looked so different during the movies that I couldn’t tell at all by looking that it was the same girl. The rest of the night went very well, and I rotated around the groups talking about nothing important, and people eventually went home, and at 3:30 am I found myself in the place with just the guys who work there, crowding around the chimney, practicing bad Nepali, and getting the offer to sleep there for the night on one of the couches. This clued me in that it was time to leave, so I stood up, insulted the guys one last time, got on my bike, and negotiated the completely dark, abandoned, 4 am streets of Kathmandu back to my apartment.
The day before this crazy day of teaching, tongba, playing, and partying with movie stars was Thanksgiving, and I celebrated with a big American Fulbright party. We all gathered at one of the larger apartments, everybody brought a side dish, and we all contributed money toward sharing a roast turkey. The dinner was spectacular—if the electricity was on and there was football on TV I would’ve thought I was back in the US. We had plenty of turkey, stuffing, yams, green beans, cranberry sauce, cornbread, rolls, mashed potatoes, and more. We invited a lot of our Nepali friends to share the holiday with us, and we experienced the awkwardness of explaining that Thanksgiving is celebrated to commemorate the friendship between the Native Americans and the European settlers when they first arrived on the continent (friendship with Native Americans? they ask skeptically). Some of the Fulbrighters who live outside of Kathmandu proper came in for the party, and it was great to catch up with them about their various projects and good deeds. The electricity went out between dinner and dessert. After gorging on good savory Thanksgiving dinner food, dessert was nothing but a sweet invitation to over-stuffed uncomfortableness—not any different from dessert in the US. Amid too many cookies and brownies and cakes and Indian sweets was the star of the show: a chocolate cake that tasted just like solid, gooey, hot chocolate. Electricity came on just in time for everybody to leave, and the walk back to my apartment was painful with every step.
On Saturday of the previous week I was invited to attend a special concert by the classical Nepali music group Sukarma playing with a visiting actor from India who would read poems by the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi. This concert couldn’t have been a better, more inspiring performance of some of the very best of South Asian culture. The venue was an ancient, beautifully restored Newari house in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Bhaktapur—a town that is famous for maintaining its old beauty and traditional ways of life. The concert was by invitation only—a gift from the musicians to their fans and supporters—and the end result was that there were maybe 50 music lovers in a small room of this old house, crowding closely with the musicians, enjoying the purely acoustic sounds of classical tabla, sitar, sarangi, and poetry. During the performance I slipped away into visions of caravans and palaces and bazaars and tigers, completely drunk with the abundance of culture surrounding me. The performance would have been completely impossible anywhere else; it came out of the culture of the place—the mountains, monsoons, trade-routes, kingdoms, and histories of South Asia. I had a moment of supreme, wondrous, contentment watching the show, realizing that I was watching a special contemporary incarnation of a performance culture that is unique in the world, rich with a history of thousands of years, and rarely experienced to this degree by foreigners. These are the kinds of things that I want to support with my music education work—future possibilities for experiences like this one. When the performance concluded we all went outside to enjoy a reception of drinks and finger foods and two fire-pits. The group was fairly small, so I was able to spend some time with the performers. The Indian actor, especially, was interested in hearing about Texas and cowboys and expressed an interest in buying some leather riding chaps. The reception turned into a festival of ‘thank-you’s—the audience thanking the performers and sponsors profusely for such a great show, and the performers thanking the audience and sponsors equally profusely for coming out and supporting them, and so on. The ride back to Kathmandu was a crazy adventure with 5 other people and a sitar packed into a tiny ‘Maruti Suzuki’ car over terrible, torn up, dirt roads. I rode the final stretch in my bike, marveling at the wonders—new, old, contradictory, traditional, modern, haphazard, dirty, beautiful—of the place where I now live.
I love riding the bike around Kathmandu. I have a simple, one-gear, Indian-made, pedal bicycle, and I can ride it to anywhere in the city. I get great panoramic views from the bike (as compared with tiny micro-bus windows), I get respect from motorists (cyclists are way higher on the street hierarchy than pedestrians), and the flow of traffic is generally slow enough so that I can keep up on a bike. If there is a huge traffic jam—common nowadays—I can double as a pedestrian and walk my bike around the gridlocked cars and motorbikes. The roads going north-south are great—they’re generally paved, straight, and the hills aren’t too steep. Going east-west is much more difficult—the hills are very steep, roads aren’t really paved, and it’s hard to find straight-ahead travel routes. On Monday of this past week I probably rode my bike over 10 miles. I went from my apartment in the north of the city to a jazz rehearsal at the very southern tip of the city and back, then found out that a great concert would be happening in the far east of the city. I didn’t know exactly where this concert would be held, so I rode way past it, had to double back, then wander around the web of neighborhood streets until I found it. Then I had to ride back to my apartment.
Twice last week I visited a reputed classical music school and sat in on voice classes. The school teaches Eastern classical music only—vocal, tabla, sitar, sarod, harmonium, bansuri, guitar, and violin. I brought my clarinet and did the vocal exercises on my horn. The students are all adults in other professions who have a desire to learn music, and they seem pretty dedicated to coming to class and practicing. Classes meet every other day for about 2 hours; they are small classes (maybe 5-8 students), and each student gets individual attention. I did a long write-up about my observations in the classes, but I haven’t gotten a chance to do many interviews there—that will come next.
Schedules here are never fixed. Many times people don’t even try to fix schedules, and when they do try they’re often broken—expected to be broken, even. I’ve been taking tabla and madal lessons for 2 ½ months now, and never have I had a regular daily or weekly schedule for them. I have a lesson, and at the end of the lesson we just say ‘I’ll call tomorrow,’ or, ‘I’ll call in a couple of days.’ Some weeks I have 3 or 4 lessons in a row, and some weeks I have no lessons at all. If the ‘I’ll call’ agreements are broken, it can be difficult to get back on track. Often I’ll get a call from a teacher/musician/friend saying, ‘Where are you! The concert/meeting/lesson/class started a half hour ago,’ about concerts/meetings/lessons/classes that I had no idea about in the first place. If a time is fixed it is never fixed more than 24 hours ahead of time, and it includes a window of half and hour to an hour after the fixed time as acceptable. Also, things never have specified ending times, and I have come to expect that things will end 2 hours later than what I would consider reasonable. As a result, it’s risky for me to expect to meet with too many different people in one day. It’s also risky for me to establish any sort of schedule, or for me to try and predict what will happen more than 2 days in advance. When I first arrived and started experiencing this attitude toward time, it made me really frustrated. Now it still makes me frustrated, but I’m used to it, and I can take advantage of it sometimes. This specific time culture has been preventing me over the last week from writing all of this up, and it is the root cause of why this post was delayed for so long. It’s not a good feeling to be behind on writing, but as we commonly say in Nepal: ‘kay garnay?’—‘what to do?’
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