University of Wisconsin–Madison

Bridging Mountains: The Appalachians and the Himalayas are on opposite sides of the globe, but with surprising connections

In 2006, musician and music teacher Tara Linhardt ’94 was traveling around Nepal with her partner, Danny Knicely, hoping to renew old ties from a UW study-abroad program some 14 years earlier. While the pair were ambling along a street in Kathmandu, their instruments strapped on their backs, they encountered a young man playing a sarangi, a wooden, bowed string instrument similar to a fiddle.

They stopped to listen, enchanted. In sound and feeling, the tunes reminded them of the “high lonesome” music — songs of love and longing, joy and hardship, begging to be belted from a mountaintop — that they’d grown up with in the Appalachians, half a world away from the Himalayas.

Linhardt, still fluent in Nepali, fell into conversation with the musician and quickly agreed to a jam session with his friends. Like him, they were members of a caste called Gandharba (gan-DAR-bah), “singing messengers” of sorts, who over the centuries, long before mass media, brought stories and news from one village to another in exchange for food or money. Nowadays Gandharbas make their living mostly by playing and teaching music. In recent decades, declining appreciation of folk music among Nepalis — accompanied by an influx of contemporary music from the West — has endangered both preservation of the music and the Gandharbas’ livelihood.

Linhardt and Knicely recorded the food-and-laughter-infused gathering, where the musicians swapped songs and stories. Only later, back at their hotel, did Knicely identify a melody that gave them goosebumps.

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