various artists,
The Rough Guide to
the Music of the Himalayas

(World Music Network, 2002)

The Rough Guide to the Music of the Himalayas brings together a wide variety of musicians. This compilation album contains music by natives from the region and artists who let themselves be inspired by magnificence of the Himalaya mountain range where India, Nepal, Tibet, China and smaller entities like Ladakh and Bhutan meet.

Wisconsin-born guitarist Steve Tibbetts has been instrumental in introducing a dimunitive Buddhist nun, Choying Drolma, to the outside world. It is with one of her spiritual chants that Music of the Himalayas opens. "Ngani Trma" was recorded in 1994 in a monastery founded by exiled Tibetans in 1959. Back in the U.S., Tibbetts edited his recording by adding instrumentals and the result can be heard on their joint project Ch. The fifth track of Himalayas is also taken from that album. Both numbers offer a subtle fusion between traditional Tibetan vocals and Western instrumentation.

Drawing on the same Buddhist heritage, but rendered in a more traditional manner, is the communal chant "Gaden Lhagya" by the nuns of the Jangchub Choeling Nunnery. It is a so-called lineage prayer, which is recited as part of the liturgy of Lamaism, a Tibetan branch of the Buddhist tradition. The monotony of the chant makes it an excellent accessory for meditation practice. Of a similar vein is the vocal performance of the monks of the giant Drepung monastery in Lhasa. The technique they use for producing the deep drone of Lama chanting is known as throat-singing, a vocal practice known throughout Central Asia; apart from Tibetan monks, the pastoral people of Mongolia and Siberia use it as well. The sonorous sound produced by this choir of Lamas under the direction of meditation master Thupten Kunchen seems to come from another world.

Two instrumental numbers by the Tibetan Petso and Do-Pe from the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, respectively, introduce us to Himalayan flute-play. The first composition is an air performed on a transverse flute called lingbu and is titled "Dar Tson Nanga," Tibetan for "Five-Colored Prayer Flags." It is a simple tune played by nomadic shepherds. "Ne La Songso (The Good Shrine)" by the Bhutanese flutist Do-Pe is also part of that pastoral legacy, the flute being the herdman's instrument par excellence. The variety used by Do-Pe is a six-hole duct flute called donglim, one of the two main types of bamboo flutes in Bhutan (the other one being a traverse flute); it has a slightly lower pitch than Petso's lingbu. It is interesting to notice that the titles of both these samples of Himalayan folk music bear references to the Buddhist heritage.

Three further tracks complete the folk music component of this CD. In reverse order they are examples of traditional Nepali music, a performance by Jigme Drukpa from Bhutan and archery music from Ladakh.

The Nepali music track is a selection taken from the Newar cultural heritage. Although a minority in absolute numbers, the Newar are considered the core Nepalis, composing 75 percent of the population of the capital Kathmandu. The piece we can hear on this album is an invocation of the deities of Nepal's mixed Hindu-Buddhist pantheon. This percussion number is performed by drummers from a specific middle-caste of drummer-farmers, called the Jyapurs. The uncrowned king of Bhutanese folk music, Jigme Drukma, regales us with a song dedicated to the black-necked crane. Then there is another track of flute music, this time from Ladakh -- now a district in Indian Kashmir, but once an independent Buddhist kingdom in the valleys between the Himalayas and Karakoram mountains. To my taste may be one flute number too many because, after the earlier mentioned examples from Bhutan and Tibet, it does not opens any new perspectives on Himalayan folk music.

The remaining four tracks are either syncretic ventures or musical pieces by "outsiders" inspired by the majesty of the Himalayas. There is a 10-minute composite called "Hooked Light Rays," the result of a joint project by Eraldo Bernocchi, Bill Laswell and a number of Tibetan monks. It is a synthesis of field recordings of original voice recordings from the field, enhanced with studio-made adaptations. The result is an interesting experiment combining the haunting sounds of throat-singing Lamas with the glass-like ring of temple bells and cymbals; combined, they create at times an almost menacing effect.

Then there is the track called "Gurans Ko Phool Siuri," a suprisingly harmonious mixture of traditional instrumentation from Nepal with "Indianized" brass-band music and modern-day influences taken from popular radio and film music. The resulting composition is a refreshing amalgamation of multiple cultural strands. At times the sound is -- as the accompanying flyer of the CD rightly observes -- reminiscent of klezmer.

My favorite on this album is "Pahadi," a Himalaya-inspired number that brings together three gigants of North-Indian music: Santoor player Shivkumar Sharma, guitarist Brijbhusan Kabra and flute virtuoso Hariprasad Chaurasia. The selected composition is from their 1967 album "Call of the Valley." Although not Himalayan music per s, the trio has succeeded in capturing the associated mood. Less impressed was I by the final track of this collection by two other outsiders. It features Chinese flutist Guo Yue and Japanese percussionist Joji Hirota. Their performance on "Himalayas" from their album Red Ribbon sounds too much like a Kitaro-clone.

Musicologists can argue over whether the compilers of this album have provided us with a representative sample of Himalayan music, but I think it is fair to say that they have succeeded in offering an attractive impression of music from "The Roof of the World."

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 22 February 2003

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