Himalayan Heritage

Himalayan Heritage Band

Nepal Boston, Massachusetts
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Himalayan Heritage

The Greater Boston area is home to a large and growing Nepalese community, and the Himalayan Heritage Band provides a vital link bridging their new lives in New England with their homeland high in the Himalayas. This group of virtuoso musicians and teachers, led by Shyam Nepali, is dedicated to ensuring the continuation of their beloved traditional music through performance, teaching, and their own innovations on their instruments. 

The Himalayan Heritage Band features Shyam Nepali on sarangi (bowed string instrument), Sushil Gautam on murchunga (jaw harp) and madal (hand drum), Ranjan Budathoki on bansuri (bamboo flute), dancer and madal player Raj Kapoor, and dancer Vijendra Pradhan. All teach at the Himalayan Cultural Academy, founded to give Nepali traditional arts and music a formal presence in the community.

Shyam Nepali was born into one of the most prominent musical families of the centuries-old Gandharva musical caste in Nepal. Historically, the Gandharva earned their living as traveling musicians, composing songs that brought news to villagers throughout Nepal’s mountainous region and earning them the moniker of “walking newspapers.” Other songs in their repertoire were inspired by the sounds of nature and the beauty of the rural landscape.

Shyam’s grandfather, Magar Gaine, and father, Ram Sharan Nepali, are among the most accomplished and innovative musicians in the Gandharva tradition. They all play the sarangi, a bowed string instrument carved out of a single log of wood and often adorned with carvings of the god Ganesha or the Buddha. Played propped on the knee, like its cousin the erhu, the sarangi is unique among most string instruments; notes are sounded by touching the strings with the fingernails instead of the fingertips. This allows for greater flexibility and agility in slides and other types of complex ornamentation, lending to the sarangi’s ethereal, expressive tones. Nylon and metal strings have replaced gut strings, an innovation led by Shyam’s father.

Through recordings made in the 1960s and ’70s, the music of the Gandharva spread beyond Nepal—but by the 1990s, interest in the music started to die down, and it is now endangered. Through the tireless work of committed musicians like Shyam and the other teachers at the Academy, students are reviving the tradition in both Nepal and Massachusetts, as well as in New Hampshire, with Shyam’s recent move to Manchester in the southern part of the Granite State. 

Festival audiences will also see Kapoor and Pradhan perform the Lakhe Mask Dance, associated with Indra Jatra, a religious street festival that takes place each September in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley. Visually striking, the dance is characterized by a red papier-mâché mask with large eyes and teeth and unkempt hair made from yak tails, as well as the dancer’s flowing, multicolored robe and frenetic movements. Multiple explanations for the dance’s significance and meaning exist, with a common theme suggesting it represents the incarnation of a protective spirit responsible for warding off evil.

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