Tunes From Here and There
Hilary Dirlam first visited Nepal, in 1993, to further her understanding of Buddhist practice. One of the impressions that most stayed with her from the trip was the similarity between the street music of Sarangi and the Appalachian fiddle tunes that Dirlam had been playing for decades back home. Dirlam’s not the lone observer of this similarity, though she was ahead of the curve by several years; in this decade, high-profile Nepali-Appalachian collaborations, such as The Mountain Music Project, have appeared.
But Dirlam arrived at this music in a very old-fashioned way. On that first visit, she bought a tape from a local player and, on returning home, tried to learn several of the tunes. When that proved insufficient, she returned to Nepal and tracked down a group of musicians willing to teach her tunes from their own culture, and learn some of hers in exchange. While she started working with a mandolin, she eventually gravitated toward banjo for these experiments. After a decade of informal jamming on visits, Dirlam says the pieces all came together in 2014 and over three days in a vintage space in Kathmandu her trio recorded these 15 songs.
Dirlam is accompanied by masters Achyut Ram Bhandari (tabla) and Parashuram Bhandari (sarangi). Dirlam’s patient and precise banjo is at the center of each song, but it might be easy to miss at first listen; only about one in three songs on the album is American, including her original tune “Bright Angel,” and in the company of the sarangi and tabla, the banjo can take on a subcontinental hue of its own. But it also works in reverse, as on the tunes of Appalachian origin the sarangi can sound for all the world like an old-time fiddler while the tabla, not quite as flexible a sound, adopts a shuffle beat. And then there are the tunes where listening alone won’t make the origin clear, and the track listing comes in handy. It’s really a wonderful and consistently beguiling match-up, beautifully played throughout.
As enjoyable as the core trio is, some of the best moments come from switch-ups, when the musical cultures really fuse instead of accompanying each other. The too-brief American traditional “Walking in the Parlor” gets an amazing burst from sitar player Anju Upreti, and comes out sounding like a psychedelic contra. If only a caller had dropped in as well. On the very modal Nepali tune “Chyangba Ho Chyangba,” percussionist Achyut switches out his tabla for a different drum with a much stiffer feel, bringing a cadence somewhere between a marching band snare and a washboard. The musicians reinforce each other without sacrificing their own musical identities, and the result is sublime.
Hilary describes the serendipity that led to the recording as a time of relative calm. Sadly, as with much of Kathmandu and the surrounding area, Dirlam’s Nepali musical family was affected by the earthquake which followed on the heels of the album’s release. Achyut broke both his legs, and Hilary reports that the twins on the album cover, Pashuram’s granddaughters Suvi and Siya, were in tents along with most of the neighborhood for months while local building safety was evaluated. More recently, the neighborhood that played host to this collaboration has flooded from heavy monsoon rains. But there is still joy to be found; she’ll travel back early in 2016 for a wedding and, hopefully, some more musical collaborations.
In the meantime, Dirlam is keeping busy, continuing to bridge cultures by releasing CDs of Tibetan Buddhist chanting she’s recorded in Nepal, including a fundraiser for earthquake relief. She’s also teaching Nepali fiddle tunes to her U.S. jamming friends and introducing more to old—time audiences in performance with her terrific band, The Orpheus Supertones.
— Dan Greenwood