International Folk Music Festival 2008

Features Issue 85 Jul, 2010
Text by Ashesh Maharjan & Mimansha Joshi / Photo: ECS Media

Music is not just expressing or communicating with notes. It is storytelling. At the recent International Folk Music Festival in Kathmandu, the audience heard stories of happiness and sadness, of past and present from faraway places, and from their own homes.

The four day long festival, November 5 to 8, 2008, celebrated the 100 years of Nepali music recording and 25 years of commercialization of Nepali music through the establishment of Music Nepal, the first recording studio and music company in Nepal. The festival, an ode to life and culture, was also dedicated to singer Ustad Seturam, who a century ago recorded Nepali music, songs of reality and of society, for the first time, in Calcutta. And, accompanied by the then Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher, he also sang against sati pratha, the custom of a widow burning on a husband’s funeral pyre.

The establishment of Music Nepal a quarter of a century ago marked the beginning of commercial music in Nepal. With a theme ‘Protect Creators to make Nation Prosperous’, Music Nepal has helped establish the first ever copyright protection society of Nepal. It has also taken up an initiative to create a digital platform that accommodates Nepali music for online sales. And most importantly, it established the first music school of the country, Nepal Music Center, which is working to promote formal music education. The Nepal Music Center hosted this year’s international festival, and was also the venue for one of the concerts.

The festival was a meeting of eastern and western Culture. Musicians and dancers from countries as far as South Africa, Malawi, Norway and Palestine, as well as India and Nepal, performed the folk music of their homelands and had an exchange of ideas and culture amongst themselves. The Nepalese contribution included a group representing each of the development regions of the country.

Each of the four days of the festival had a theme. The opening theme for the festival was ‘Music for Peace and Harmony’. The holy courtyard of Hanuman Dhoka filled with invited guests and the press as the cultural show began, with its rich sounds and vibrant colors. Even the flock of pigeons that lives there seemed to be entertained. As culture expert Satya Mohan Joshi put it, “This is a courtyard with historical significance, and I hope this day of the International Music Festival makes its own history.”

The second concert of the day was at Gokarna Forest Resort which was equally amazing. The theme was ‘Music for Poverty Alleviation’. Two concerts were performed at the same time, one in Patan and the other in the Nepal Music Center itself. Patan Durbar square and the people who came to attend the concert seemed more than inviting. The Palestinian group seemed to catch everyone’s attention with the fluid like melody lines. The Dhime Group from Patan, too, had a positive impact on the audiences.

The third day was the high point of the festival. As the concert in Arohan Gurukul Theater ended with applause, the stage in the historical garden of dreams was set. Some of the audience seemed to be amazed by the beauty of the venue, even after the concert began. The dance group form Malawi, Matandani, and Ismael Pops Mohamed took the audience on a journey to the jungles of Africa. After the African group’s performance the audience was in love with Africa. The Norwegian trio Seven Winds then surrounded the audience with a sweet ambience of Norwegian country side. They sang of friendship between an old man and an old oak tree, of a river and of ice which brought chills in the skins of the listeners.

On the fourth day of the festival, the artists performed in Lainchaur ground. It was all about fusing Nepali folk music with Norwegian and Palestinian folk music. A popular Nepali sarangi (a traditional Nepali stringed instrument) virtuoso Suman Nepali played with Norwegian munneharp (mouth harp) player with the beats of tabla (an Indian drum). The dusty air didn’t seem to affect the audience, who were amazed by the new and fresh sounds. The Malawian group after their performance here headed to airport and seemed sad to leave already.

A Glimpse of a Few Artists of Festival
Malawi Matandani
The tribes of Africa’s Malawi are rich in culture with many traditional forms of music and dance. Their musical expressions are basically about people and their communities, representing ancient beliefs. Their Malawian group’s performance at the festival depicted the moods of both happiness and sorrow. The 13 member group with 11 boys ranging in age from 12 to 17 years performed their acts without any technical help. Frank Watson Fanisko, a Mbira instrument player, was pleased at their first performance outside of Africa, after having been selected from among other African folk groups to represent their native land. Based on African rituals where a young boy is sacrificed if a chief of village dies, the objective of the group is to spread a message through music and dance to stop sending young boys to the grave.

Their strange attire was one of the most striking things in the event. With clothing made out of Malawi’s national flag, palm leaves, with leopard skin caps and leg ornament called mangeringesa, their pure African looks were enticing. The entertainment left the audience keen to know more about their culture and lifestyle. The Malawians used instruments like horns, gourds, mkangala (bow), mangolongondo (xylophones) and old whistles. They did a marvelous job of promoting a cultural message about preserving the rights of children.

Representing Nepal were Newars from the Central Development Region, Tharus from Dang (Mid-Western Region) and from Dhangadi (Far Western), Satars from Jhapa (Eastern) and Magars and Gurungs from the Western Region. The Dang Tharu group performed a traditional ethnic dance, Sakhya Paiya. To celebrate the Dangaura Tharu’s biggest festival, ‘Maghi’, during the cold weather of January and February, they perform this interesting dance over a full six months starting from September. The dance includes beats of the maadal (a Nepali folk drum) accompanying traditional songs and dances. Sakhya  sung by women who, dressed in typical Tharu costume, looked beautiful, both in their attire and even lovelier with their dance moves.

The Tharus have a distinct cultural background and customs, with many groups yet unknown. The Dhangadi Tharu group performed a Hudkeli dance that is performed mainly during October-November to celebrate the major festivals of Nepal: Dashain and Tihar. Hudkeli is derived from a Nepali folk instrument, the hudke, and the songs depict heroism and victory in the Hindu religious epics, the Mahabharat and the Ramayan.

Gorkhali natives represented by Magars and Gurungs from the hills performed a dance called Kaura Naach. It is also known as Chudka Laune and is performed to celebrate festivals, in the form of traditional love songs. With ghungrus(anklets) on women’s ankles and damfus (a popular Nepali instrument played mostly in the Himalayan region) and kartal (a pair of castanets) in men’s hands, the main objective of the dance is to express joy, sorrow, tragedy, love and friendship.

Santhals, or Satars, from Jhapa and Morang celebrate their festival of ‘Sohoray’ by playing folk instruments like the maadal, kartal and flute. The traditional folk dance, presented during January and February involves only males.

The indigenous people of Kathmandu valley, Newars are a linguistic community bound together by a common language, Nepal Bhasa. Newars are said to have 366 festivals in a year of 365 days! And they rejoice these days with their traditional music consisting basically of percussion instruments and others, like flutes and a limited use of strings. As with other ethnic dances, Newar dances pertain to a particular season or festival and the songs extol specific deities and divinities.

Svein Westad of Norway
The audience was fascinated by some of the new and unique musical instrument in the festival. A small object called munnharpe (like a mouth harp) was especially pleasant to hear and the audience probably heard it over again all day in their ears. The talented Norwegian artist Svein Westad played the munnharpe in a typical Norwegian style. His music was enticing. He released his album ‘Meeting in the Mountain’, referring to the meeting of Nepalese and Norwegian traditional music, at the concert. It was a collaboration with Nepali musicians more or less merging two different parts of the world.

Benedicte Maurseth
Another young folk musician from Norway named Benedicte Maurseth gave a pleasant musical performance with hardanger fiddler as her instrument. The melody of her pleasing vocals with a solid timber of the instrument gave a powerful expression and thus she descrives this two century old traditional instrument as a ‘devil’s instrument’.

Palestinian Folk Music

The Palestinian Folk Music group spoke about a pretty girl and prisoners in jail. Their performances valued the beauty of a girl through the song Yamaila Alsoon, as well as prisoners in Palestine captured by Israelis through the song An Insaan. Featuring Jaser Sweitat on yargoul, a traditional Palestinian wind instrument, Suhail Nassar on kanoon, a plucked musical instrument of the dulcimer type and John Robert on darbuka, a kind of percussion instrument, they gave glimpses of Palestinian music and culture to the listeners. For this group, performing in a culturally rich country like Nepal is a means of spreading messages of peace.

Ismael Pops Mohamed
To the South African music minister, Ismael Pops Mohamed, music is something to fall in love for. He considers music as a medium that provides solace and he believes that music can change the world into a heaven. When he mentioned that folk music enlivens us and fills our hearts, he was true. Ismael left the audiences in awe when he played traditional Zimbabwean instruments like the kalimba, a kind of piano and kora, an ancient African harp. His performance offered a sense of patriotism and nationality through the song Africa.