A Music Lesson in Nepal: The Sarangi
By Dave Fox
Update regarding the Nepal Earthquake: I published this story on April 15, 2015, one week before Nepal’s massive earthquake. I have been deeply saddened by the news from Nepal. Thanks to everyone who contributed to my Nepal earthquake fundraiser. Much more aid is still needed. Please consider donating to Oxfam or one of the many other organizations supporting relief efforts.
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So often when we travel, we push souvenir sellers away. And yes, in some parts of the world, some of them can get aggressive and annoying. But if you can pull them off of their sales pitches, and ask them about their lives, you sometimes find your way into incredible experiences that break through the usual tourism barriers and give you a more authentic look at the country….
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Guys kept approaching me on the streets of Nepal, hawking musical instruments that looked like miniature violins. At first, I thought the instruments were tacky tourist trinkets, but I began to notice some had a pretty good sound.
On my final day in Pokhara, one of the instrument sellers began playing beautiful Nepali folk music as he walked toward me. He had a bag full of little ones. But the one he was playing was larger, hand-carved from a single piece of wood. The instrument, he told me, was called a sarangi.
I asked if he would sell me the one he was playing. We began haggling over the price. I was on the fence about buying it until he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse:
“If you buy it, I will give you a free lesson.”
He would be by the lakeshore all day, he said. I could come anytime.
But an hour later, an epic rainstorm swept in. Dirt roads turned to raging rivers. Everyone was staying inside. I gave up on my lesson.
At noon, as I dashed out for lunch in the midst of the downpour, another guy came up to me with a large sack full of sarangis and little drums.
“I already bought one,” I said. “I’m looking for my teacher.”
“That was my brother,” he said. “I will call him for you. Wait.”
I was skeptical as he took out his phone and dialed. There was no answer.
“Come here at four o’clock,” he said. “My brother will meet you.”
I almost didn’t show up. I didn’t think my teacher would be there. But I went, with my sarangi wrapped in a plastic bag, and there he was.
His name was Ram Lal. He led me down a narrow alley, around corners most tourists ignore, to the cinder-block shanty where he lived.
His one-room home consisted of a bed, a small table, a few potatoes, and more than a dozen handmade sarangi — some finished, some still being carved. He and his son, it turned out, didn’t just play the sarangi. They made them too.
Ram gave me a 40-minute lesson, a five-minute concert, and the story of his life. In the tourist season, he sold sarangis on the streets of Pokhara and played in a bar at night. In the off-season, he returned to his village, up in the mountains, to be with his family and make more instruments.
As I tried to play, I felt horrified. In my hands, the instrument made a familiar screeching sound — the sound of someone trying to play a violin who has no idea what they are doing. The sarangi required a completely different technique from the fiddle. It was a technique I did not have. But I must have sounded better than some beginners.
“You play the violin, don’t you?” Ram said to me. He could tell by the fact that, in spite of the ungodly hissing, I was at least hitting semi-correct notes.
“I do,” I said. “Do you?”
He did not. He had never tried. Never even held a violin before.
I wished I had brought mine with me.
Ram let me video him while he played his sarangi for me, and he gave me permission to put it online. Here is the video I shot in his home – along with a bit more of the story, which I told in my living room in Singapore after the trip was finished. (The music begins in the third minute if you don’t want to listen to me ramble.)
If you are in Nepal, Ram and his brother play a concert every night on the second floor of the Maya Pub in the Lakeshore area of Pokhara. The show is free. You just need to order food or a drink.