Harmika Yab Yum: Folk Sounds from Nepal
don’t know much about Nepal. The bit that I do know comes secondhand from a friend who studied there. And the occasional newspaper headline—a few Maoist rebels can really raise the profile of a small nation. So I feel uncomfortable reviewing Harmika Yab Yum. I’m no ethnomusicologist. I couldn’t trace the development of Nepalese music, name a single influential Nepalese artist, or even identify many of the instruments by sound. By even uttering the word “beautiful” in connection with this release, I run the risk of a sticky sociopolitical situation. I’m applying my Western standards of musical appreciation to a musical culture where they may not be appropriate.
But I’ll say it anyway—this collection is beautiful.
Certainly the music—a stunning collection of radio recordings, ranging from Bollywood-inflected ballads to slithering sarangi jams—impresses, but Harmika Yab Yum really shines because of the fascinating field recordings compiled and edited by Robert Millis of the Climax Golden Twins.
He assembles his materials with a narrative purpose. Field recordings roughly trace a day through Nepal—including a raucous wedding party flooding the streets, the menacing drone of a snake-charmer’s pungi, beggars braying, and chanting monks—culminating in an all-night festival that slowly fades into the night air to be mourned by barking dogs. By the end of the trip through Harmika Yab Yum, the listener feels like a particularly observant tourist taken on a whirlwind car trip around the country.
Within this audio documentary, Millis scatters the radio recordings. His editing creates some interesting juxtapositions. The fourth track segues from the aforementioned menacing snake charmer’s sound directly into a crackly recording of Prem Autan—a contemplative sarangi instrumental backed by pensive hand drumming. The contrast between the two sounds is jarring—the snake charmer’s bristle with the threat of venom and death, but Autan sounds pastoral—but since they are sandwiched in the same track, one can’t help but search for connections. Both recordings are entrancing, and perhaps that’s Millis’ point—music is a universal language that can charm both man and beast.
The next track also suggests an underlying message. The pounding of the wedding procession is followed by the honking horns traffic and an angry man’s preaching—a return to everyday life. This recording blends into a somewhat turbulent song that seems to drip regret and conflict. Perhaps Millis is making some prediction about the days ahead for the young couple, tethering the wedding procession to the rocky reality of life and marriage.
For the uninitiated listener looking for a definitive primer on Nepalese music: look elsewhere. Harmika Yab Yum does not attempt to be definitive. But that’s the collection’s strength. It presents a slice of social and musical life in Nepal with little documentation. Millis doesn’t sugar coat the country to make it more palatable for the West, nor does he furiously annotate each track as if the recording were merely an object of study rather than lived life. In short, Harmika Yab Yum does not provide nor demand interpretation. It simply is. So leave the theoretical concerns at home, amateur anthropologists and post-modern, post-colonial lit critics, and simply listen. You’ll be richly rewarded.