When mandolin player Tara Lynette traveled to Nepal during college, she found people playing eerily familiar songs on banjo- and fiddle-like instruments. “Some of their melodies are almost exactly like old time Appalachian tunes,” she says. In 2006, she returned to Nepal with a fiddle-playing friend, eager to jam with the locals. A film crew caught the fusion on tape, and the resulting documentary, The Mountain Music Project: A Musical Odyssey from Appalachia to Himalaya, will have its first local screening tonight at Sidwell Friends. The film will be followed by a live performance of traditional Nepalese and Appalachian tunes by musicians from both cultures.
Jamming with Nepalese musicians had its challenges, says Lynette. For instance, while modern fiddles and mandolins hold their tunings fairly well, the sarangi—-a bowed, four-string instrument—-might drift up several notes by the end of a jam session. Additionally, Nepalese musicians are used to a more complicated song structure than the AABB of traditional Appalachian music, and they had trouble remembering the old time pattern, she says. But most of the time, playing together was startlingly easy.
“They use a scale that’s really similar to ours, and the serangi players use drone strings just like Appalachian fiddle players,” she says.
There’s no historical reason for the similarities between Himalayan and Appalachian mountain music—-Clarence Ashley wasn’t making secret treks to land-locked Nepal, as far as anyone knows. Instead, it seems to be a case of convergent evolution, says Lynette.
“The themes in the lyrics—-harvest time, love, murders, farm animals—-are all about life in the mountains,” she says. And, since record players are rare and electricity is spotty in Nepal, traditional musicians provide the accompaniment for dances and other gatherings. However, that may not be the case for long, Lynette says.
“In Nepal they are facing the problem that our traditional musicians faced 50-60 years ago,” she says. “How to you capture the attention of a modern audience, and how do you preserve your musical heritage? If we can let the two groups know about each other, maybe the Appalachian musicians can show the Nepali musicians that there is appreciation and marketability for traditional music forms.”