A few days ago myself and others from Sibelius Academy had the great privilege and pleasure to immerse ourselves in the music and people of Manamaiju, a village located on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal. We came to get a taste of the musical traditions and culture for three days, and we experienced that and so much more.
When we arrived the first day in the village, traditional drums and cymbals greeted us. Hearing the rhythms flow around us, I knew it would be a great few days ahead of us. We had tikka (mixture of rice and red paste) placed on our foreheads, and ceremonial scarfs around our necks, and we were taken to our host’s homes. We were staying with four different families between our whole group. When we got to the homes, we experienced another welcoming ceremony. A new application of tikka and another scarf, but joined by a sprinkling of special water, flowers in the hair, and yoghurt on the right temple. When we asked about the meaning of the yoghurt, our host explained, “it is to make your brain cool.” We were then presented with a fried egg, a fried fish, a glass of traditional rice wine, and a potato flat bread. These were the foods served for the welcoming ceremonies, and our host told us that this ceremony takes place whenever someone comes from far, or is traveling away.
Activities of that day also included assigning ourselves to different workshop groups, listening to different ensembles of Newar music, tasting a wide variety of Nepalese food on the rooftop of a nearby home, eating more food at our homes, and watching the local women’s choir rehearse their songs. We all crowded into one room, and sat on the floor. The women sang songs of prayer to the different gods and goddesses, accompanied by percussions and a harmonium played by different people each song. After a while, we were in a daze from both the music and from sitting on the floor for so long, and we headed back home to find more food waiting for us. This would be a theme over the next few days: eating, food, and eating. Our hosts took it upon themselves to serve us all the traditional foods, and there were a lot of options! We had food at least 4 times a day, and seconds were a must. The eating was made more interesting by a healthy dose of food poisoning that went around for a few days, but that only served to make the experience more vivid. Personally, I discovered that I could still eat a whole plate after feeling full. This was a technique needed every day…
The next day we got up early to do a workshop with the local kids. We gathered on a grassy area and soon had twenty-plus children jumping, clapping, and singing with us. They loved it, we loved it, and it was good times and laughter all around. We did this workshop for two mornings, and taught songs and dances from Finland, Bulgaria and Tanzania. After the morning workshops it was back to home for breakfast, then off to our workshops with the musicians. Each workshop had a different flavor depending on the instruments, and ours had a Nepalese drum called pachhima, a small pair of cymbals called jhyaali, and two traditional wooden flutes known as baasuri. They played for us, then began to teach us a Newar song. After only a few confused looks and figuring out where one phrase began and ended, we learned the tune and spent the next few hours playing it over and over, changing the tuning of our violin, viola, and jouhikko ever so slightly each time. We learned another tune the next day, and enjoyed the shared experience of making music together.
In the afternoons we had “food workshop.” You guessed it, more eating. We would arrive in time to see some of the preparation and even try to cook something ourselves (much to the amusement of the children of the household), then spend the rest of the time eating. I made friends with the girls living in that house, they had come to the morning time with the children and we spent the afternoons talking and asking many questions to each other. We had a jam session one night with a local band and our hosts. It was great, but the moment I remember the most was when, during a jam song, a Nepalese flautist began playing the flute part from the Titanic theme song. Everyone joined in with Newar rhythms, Finish flutes and fiddles and in my opinion it was the best version I’ve ever heard.
One afternoon we took a walk around the village and saw so many things that touched our hearts. The whole village was a mix of construction, new houses, and devastated buildings. The massive earthquake was only two years ago, and yet the people have managed to do an amazing job with rebuilding with little or no help from the government. Piles of crumbled brick contrasted with freshly panted walls, houses with scars cracked into the cement were left as survivors, as witness to what had happened. We walked and saw the local school, a cloth weaver busy at her loom, and different temples, including one for the music god. The highlight of the walk was visiting the construction site of the ‘house of the deity.’ It had been hundreds of years old when it was destroyed in the earthquake and the whole village was pitching in to rebuild it. They were building using only the materials and tools that were originally used: no modern metals or bricks. It was a community effort and symbol that resonated deeply with us all.
Time passed and before we knew it the three days were over and it was time for the festival where we would perform with our groups. We set up just by the gate of the village and listened to each other’s groups as well as the same band from the jam session. One of the workshop groups had three of the women from the choir performing with them, this was a huge moment for them as traditionally women were not allowed to perform, or even do music in general. It was a great memorable experience and we ended with all of us dancing and running around to take pictures with our new friends. We had a rooftop party afterwards with traditional rice wine, beer, and tea. We laughed, in my case harder than I had in a long time.
The next morning we woke up, packed and had another ceremony from our hosts. The same as we had for welcoming, but this time we were leaving and we all felt sad. Although it had only been three days, I felt like I had lived there for at least half a year. Thank you to the people of Manamaiju, to our hosts, and to this country for welcoming us and touching our hearts and our music.
Check out this link to see a short video of some of the Manamaiju memories.
Text: Megan Stubbs (Sibelius Academy GLOMAS student)