July 14, 2010

Finding Methods for Active Preservation Work

Located in the Kali Gandaki riverbed of north central Nepal, a valley trough of strong winds and sandy geology that cut across the Himalayas, Lo Manthang has been a cultural, religious and economic capital since the late 14th Century. Traditions of the Loba residents of Lo Monthang encode a cultural history of exchange, as seen through folk music practices in Lo Manthang. Lo Manthang’s group of Emeda musicians comprise a low class of performers who arrived in Lo Manthang as a result of the intermarriage between a Ladakhi prince and a Loba princess. Although eight singers and instrumentalists – four drummers who played the daman copper kettle drums and four accompanying horn players who performed on double-reed oboes – originally arrived in Lo Manthang to fulfill roles as musicians to the royal court, today only one such musician remains with no willing heirs to his occupation. His name is Tashi Tsering, and as he ages knowledge of his complete repertoire of folk music offerings are threatened. The central question of this year’s fieldwork was to investigate the socio-cultural context of the music as a method to find productive methods of documenting the collected material.

Since their early 19th Century arrival to Lo Manthang from Ladakh, the Emeda lineage has played gar glu music to initiate ceremonies, lead processions, and as offerings to the Loba King, Queen, Rinpoches and other leaders. Because the Emeda comprise a low caste, and the performance of gar glu music is emblematic of a stigmatized, subordinate social position, Tashi Tsering’s son has refused to inherit his father’s occupation and has also advised Tashi Tsering against filling his traditional performance role. After the recent confiscation of Tashi Tsering’s daman drums due to local controversies over his performance practice, it seems as though the era of Emeda musicians offering gar glu music has indeed ended, and the performance practice of gar glu has arrived at a nexus of inevitable change.

In the face of such change to the gar glu repertoire, regional development and adapting lifestyles, collecting contextual information about the gar glu song set, was at the core of this investigation. Concerns included the commodification of Loba culture voiced by Lobas and written about by scholars of the region. Cultural preservation should not always create static museum pieces; it is clear that the model for this project should be active and inclusive cultural preservation – to document the gar glu repertoire in a way that would maintain community interest in being engaged in the archival process, and support their enthusiasm to learn the gar glu repertoire in a new context.

Finding such solutions was not always simple: perceptions of music and music performance are caught between the upper class and well-educated Lobas’ desire to document the gar glu repertoire for its cultural and historic value and the contradicting opinion of low class Lobas for whom the stigma of gar glu performance deters any interest in Tashi Tsering or other Lobas’ performance and learning of the gar glu repertoire.

Another challenge presented itself in finding appropriate methods of making the gar glu documentation accessible to Lobas in and outside of Lo Manthang, Nepalis and Westerners. In such a context, the separation of songs should be decreased from their traditional source while still being available to the interested public. Intellectual property and ownership over the recorded and transcribed material adds to such complexities, especially with a project that, at the onset, aspired to archive the songs on an internet archive, to publish a songbook of the songs, and to distribute these manuscripts to Loba communities in Lo Manthang, other city centers in Nepal and beyond.

Methods for a resolution to such concerns unveiled themselves after speaking with leaders and educators of the Loba community. The project took a turn from its initial and assumed methods before this investigation; the songbook will be published under a Loba nonprofit, the Jigme Foundation. The Jigme Foundation, run by the royal family of Lo Manthang and chaired by the Loba prince, Jigme Bista, will have rights to the published material especially to the proceeds that a songbook of the gar glu songs might generate. Removing researcher’s rights to Loba cultural material absolved concerns of intrusive claims on Loba culture, establishing a relationship of trust between Lobas and investigators. Furthermore, it frees this project from complications of international and multi-national copyrights. This solution also prizes Loba community traditional standards of ownership rather than imposing a Western individualistic ownership principle into cultural preservation methods. (To this effect, as a reflection on my own culture, I wonder why I had initially assumed partial ownership of the recorded material when my ownership only created discomfort on my end and skepticism on that of many Lobas.)

Another part of this methodology enforces Loba engagement with the project at each step in the process – from Loba educators and scholars’ contributions to recording and transcribing efforts to educated Lobas’ involvement in the editing phases. This includes consulting Lobas living in New York City about song translations – which will reinforce Loba cultural heritage in diasporic as well as localized contexts. Furthermore, the songbook will be available in Loba public libraries and schools for individuals to read on their own as well as for teachers to use as classroom materials for cultural education. This project comes hand-in-hand with an initiative led by research colleague and composer, Andrea Clearfield, to create a Loba Cultural Heritage section of the Lo Manthang Public Library, part of an effort to provide access to text and recordings that serve as cultural archives.

Cultural products, such as song cycles, enforce community ties and performance tradition upholds community cohesion and social structure in various ways. This project is one potential example of community cohesion being achieved with outsider involvement in or initiation of cultural preservation projects. The positive response to the collective-ownership model of this project from the Loba community and continuing active Loba involvement in the project bodes well for the continuing project’s success.