Record Review: Various Artists – The Mountain Music Project: A Musical Odyssey from Appalachia to Himalaya (2012)

Merging two dramatically distant yet parallel mountain cultures. Appalachia and the Himalayas never sounded so close

Genre: Roots / Bluegrass / Nepalese folk

Region: Virginia, USA / Nepal

Artists’ Website: http://mountainmusicproject.com/

Label: City Hall Records

Everybody feels that our world is becoming increasingly interconnected. What was before almost unimaginable, today it becomes a reality. I do not want to imply that an initiative like ‘The Mountain Music Project’ is somehow usual or trite (the project could not even find a label at first because it was too unusual), it is more that this type of surprises land more often than before.

Indeed, this album stretches our imagination further to carve common lines between the Appalachian and Himalayan music cultures. Obviously, Sarangi Musician Nepalthe geophysical factor is the common ground here, as both types of music are related to mountainous terrains. Nevertheless, in spite of the dramatic distance between these two distinctive upland regions, the music here really fits. I mean, there is absolutely no discordance throughout the whole listen.

There is a deeply ‘roots’ feeling that comes from both regions, a feeling of belonging to a place and a culture. The music is rather elemental, bare and sparingly instrumented with spiralic, perpetuating melodies drifting repeatedly in the songs. Simplicity is wisdom and here it becomes also harmony – simplicity has been a trademark of traditional peoples and it is aligned with authenticity.

Appalachia refers to a discrete cultural region in the middle part of the Appalachian mountain range which stretches along the Eastern part of US. Let the pop culture stereotypes about Appalachian peoples aside (supposedly being savage or backward-minded), their music is beautiful. Although it originates in the ballads and fiddle music, heritage of Irish and Scottish immigrants, it incorporated the banjo (which became the main instrument next to the fiddle) and played an important role in establishing bluegrass, old-time and country music in general.

Here you can watch the trailer of the ‘Mountain Music Project’ documentary:

Similarly, the music of the Gandharba caste, which could roughly be conceived as national Nepalese Tara Linhardt Mandolin Playermusic, is based on string instruments: the sarangi and the arbaj. Ithese instruments are accompanied by the national percussion madal and the bansuri flute. Especially the madal and the sarangi can be found everywhere in Nepal, while the arbaj is rare with only few musicians left to play it. However, we need to keep in mind that Nepal is an extraordinary place harbouring a rich diversity of plants, animals, ethnic groups, languages and customs including music.

Apart from the similarities in instrumentation, both music traditions feature lonesome singing on repetitive melodic motives. Actually, Danny Knicely and Tara Linhardt, the initiators of the project, were surprised and excited by these similarities while they were jamming during their travels in Nepal and this is how this project was initially conceived.

To carry out their aims they spent quite some time in Nepal collecting tunes and recording and then they added some guitar, extra instruments back in the US like banjo, mandolin, mandola, and Irish flute. They also made a considerable effort to gather top musicians from Virginia and many joined in like the Grammy-awarded Tim O’Brien and Curtis Burch as well as world-renowned banjo player Tony Trischka. Some songs are left in their original condition while others have been enhanced with more instruments – Nepalese musicians playing bluegrass and Americans playing Nepalese.

There are classic songs included here like ‘Little Liza Jane’ and ‘Resham Firiri;, which you can hear allover Nepal. Other standout tracks include album’s opener ‘Cluck Old Hen’ and the enchanting ‘Honira Salala’.

This projects is a daring endeavour that merges the sounds of two legendary mountain cultures. It also serves as a quality recording of

Arbaj Sarangi

Left: Arbaj – right: Sarangi

some Nepalese music, which is largely absent in today’s world music arena. There are cultures nowadays on the verge of extinction due to globalization and modernization – more than half of world’s languages are expected to be lost by 2100. The recording and dynamic conservation of these cultures is then an honourable task. Traditional musicians, like the ones from Gandharba caste, are also strorytellers; they are an inextricable part of traditional life.

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