Monday, February 21, 2011

Adventures at the music department

“Oho, so you’re studying at Kathmandu University’s music department?” The immigration official asked me as he glanced over my paperwork.

I was one of many foreigners crowded around the desk in “room 106,” why, I’m not entirely sure. But apparently we needed this guy to dribble red ink all over our application forms as evidence of his approval so we could get our visas.

“Hajur,” I replied the affirmative.

“What will you be learning?”


“Oh, that’s easy! You just play ‘dang, dang’!” He dribbled red ink under the photo on my application and handed the stack of papers back to me. I managed a half smile and went back to the desk outside, crowded today mainly with foreign men who had apparently married Nepali women and were looking to get marriage visas.

I have discovered that playing madal involves more than ‘dang, dang.’ There’s lots of ‘na,’ ‘ti,’ ‘ga,’ and combinations thereof—‘ghe’ (ge and na combined), ‘tin’ (kha and ti combined). It involves sitting for long periods of time cross-legged on the floor with this double-headed drum across your lap. It can mean waiting for over an hour for your teacher to show up, because he lost his appointment book and forgot that your lesson at 9 was the first of his day, not the tabla class for undergrad students at 10. It can also include hearing stories concerning other foreign students. Such as “Miriam” from South Africa, who has been learning the same madal exercise for the past four months and still hasn’t mastered it. This is confusing for my teacher, for, she is from Africa; shouldn’t she have an innate sense of rhythm? “Its ok, she’s not sitting for exams,” my teacher said, “but, I get really bored after a while.”

So far, he’s given me a different exercise every time we’ve met. “So, what instruments do you play?” he asked on our first meeting. “Piano,” was my reply. “Oh, good, that means you know about music and can use both hands at the same time,” he said. “You’ll master the madal in four months or so. You can even play it in sangati,” he added, when he found out I was a Christian. He began singing the melody of “king of kings and lord of lords” to “la” and playing a rhythm to go with it—one that was a little more complicated than the one I was used to hearing accompany the song. “Just like that,” he smiled when done.

“Oh, if you go buy a madal, they’ll see your white face and charge you double,” he said when I inquired about where to buy a madal for practice purposes. “And, even if they gave you a fair price, you wouldn’t be able to tell if it’s a good or bad instrument. And you can’t just buy a ready-made madal—those are for tourists. You have to order one, a good one, and it will last you your lifetime. I’ll talk to a maker in Bhaktapur that I know, and order one for you. It will take about a week, and will probably cost around 2000 rupees.” A week later, I carted home a drum on my shoulder that cost me 1400 rupees, with instructions to bring it back in two weeks so he could tune it again. “The skins are new; they have to set, then be tuned again,” he told me. Not too different than having a new piano, I guess, which requires three or four tunings its first year as it accommodates to its new environment and parts. “So, bring it back in two weeks and we’ll do that.”