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Village echoes (and reverb, and delay): the drums of Nepal’s rural festivals and the booming speakers of urban dohori restaurants

Nepal’s dohori restaurants aim to reproduce festive rural environments in urban areas, with folk music and dance performances onstage, and opportunities for restaurant guests to sing and dance themselves. One of the first things that newcomers notice is how loud these restaurants are. The madal, sarangi and flute are supplemented by the harmonium, sometimes tabla and dholak drums, sometimes khaijadis, sometimes the various drums, shahnais and horns of the Panchai Baja, and electronic drum pads with a palette of synthesized sounds to amp up the beat and fill up the dance floor. Sound systems add distortion as well, as sound technicians crank them up to top volume, adding maximum levels of echo, reverb, and delay.

When I brought guests who were not already dohori fans to these restaurants, they continually asked me to account for this loud, echoing sound. Yet performers’ answers just didn’t seem sufficient. “It’s to call people into the restaurant” some said, not very convincing when the restaurant was in a basement. “Echo, reverb and delay are what make the music sound Nepali,” a recording engineer told me. But I still wondered, why such prominent reverb and delay? “It has to sound like it’s echoing through the hills!” he said.

This was in line with scholarly work on the related genre of Nepali lok pop (folk pop), and it was obvious that studio recordings emphasized echo and reverb. But I was still skeptical about volume, wondering if dohori restaurant performers just compensated for the (common) lack of monitors by turning everything up so they could hear themselves. This was certainly part of the reason everything was so loud. But when I attended the yearly festival of kauda chudka dance in the village of Tallo Gyaja in Gorkha district, I finally began to hear what the performers and sound engineer had meant.

This festival was my first rural experience of the hill-area aesthetic of overlapping sounds emplacing and broadcasting location. A group of restaurant performers and I, including Ganesh Gurung from Dovan Dohori Sanjh, left Kathmandu late in the day, arriving in Gorkha at dusk to begin the two-hour walk uphill to Gyaja, Ganesh’s village. As we walked in the dark, we became aware of the beat of khaijadi drums, some approaching from the right, some from the ridge above, some seemingly a few hills over. The khaijadi beats echoed through the hills, announcing to all in earshot that a group was approaching.  When we got to the village we were greeted by a delightful, deafening cacophony of khaijadi beats, groups of teenage Gurung and Magar boys and girls singing, and the ghamaura bells tied around dancers’ feet and shaken by other group members in counterpoint to the khaijadi.

Twenty years ago these groups might have called themselves rodhi; now, they were “youth clubs” from Gyaja and nearby villages. At least five groups from villages around southern Gorkha, Chitwan, and Tanahun districts were there, all playing at the same time, all overlapping, no one group standing out above others unless you stood right in the center of their performance. Even more would arrive through the course of the night and the next day. It was left to the ear to concentrate on one group, so as not to lose step in the dance.

Photo: The Lower Gyaja chudka dance group with khaijadi players and singers. (Photo by Anna Stirr)

At the beginning of each new dance sequence, someone would sing an unaccompanied couplet, which everyone then repeated along with the refrain as the beat came in and the dance sequence progressed. A group from Upper Gyaja was singing a new song of local creation and political import: “Riban kapalaima, ganatantra aune bhayo hamro Nepalaima.” “Ribbon in your hair, people’s democracy is coming to our Nepal.” While the refrain referenced recent political changes, the couplets were still about love and village life. The reference to democracy was a collective sigh of relief and cry of celebration that now, after a decade of civil war, competitions like this chudka gathering could again be held all day and all night long without fear.

Audio: Upper Gyaja, Gorkha, Kauda Group singing “Ribbon in your hair”  

Mothers of the village kept alcohol flowing, and offered snacks of sel roti and potato curry in locally made leaf bowls. The celebration would continue for three days and nights.

We climbed up above the village, in the pitch darkness, and finally I understood the sonic environment that dohori restaurants were trying to reproduce. In the daytime, the chautari with its shady trees provided a cool resting place on the hilltop, with a view over the hills and valley; in the nighttime, the sense of the terrain was aural. The village of Gyaja stood out as the main source of sound, and seemed to be drawing in the fainter strains of khaijadi beats still approaching from the west, echoing off the hill on which we stood.

Photo: Village children, Sriram Ale, Anna Stirr, and Prithvi Gurung, at the chautari above Lower Gyaja. (Photo by Ram Kumar Singh)

I was reminded of the “translocal” entertainment and tourism districts in Kathmandu and Pokhara, where dohori, disco, Hindi film songs, and other musical styles spill out of open windows, overlapping, indeed calling the people in to experience their sonic environments, and echoing off neighboring buildings rather than hills, while the inside of each club intensifies the experience of being enveloped in sound, juxtaposed with the moments of relative silence that allow concentration on the words of an improvised couplet.

The volume and heavy use of echo, reverb and delay in dohori restaurants was not meant to mimic discos, as some Kathmandu residents had surmised. Instead, it electronically reproduced the sound of dozens of drums together in an unelectrified village surrounded by hills. But the parallel with discos’ sound further linked the worlds of village and city, as dohori restaurants’ attempt to portray rurality coincided with loudness and electronic effects as sonic markers of cosmopolitan urbanity.

Featured image credit: “Hilltop tree” by Tim Rogers. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

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