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Musical Instruments of Nepal

by Ram Prasad Kadel
Nepali Folk Musical Instrument Museum, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2007
310 pp., illus. b/w., including CD. Paper, $28.57
ISBN: 99946-883-0-8.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Nepalese organology is as diverse as its geography or ethnography. More than a 100 languages and dialects are spoken by some 60 ethnic groups, each of which has its own musical instruments. Some of them are only used at specific festivals or in the context of religious and social rituals like weddings and funerals. Others are simply part of daily life and are played by shepherds, farmers, city folk or semi-professional musicians. But, as the author says, "Nepalese musical instruments are simply objects unless they are played. When they are played they come to life. A wealth of rhythm, melody, song, dance, religious rituals, ethnic culture and ethnic history, are represented in folk music. […] Each folk instrument has a relationship with a particular caste and/or ethnic group" (pp. xvii-xviii).

Fifteen years ago, and without state help or any type of funding, Ram Prasad Kadel began to collect and document the most endangered types of musical instruments from his home country. Believing that there were maybe 25 different types, he soon realised that there are at least 500 and an unknown number that has already been irrevocably lost. Private funding has enabled him to show and preserve a collection of more than 350 instruments at the Nepali Folk Musical Instrument Museum, and donations from both Nepali and Western supporters allowed for the publication of this generously illustrated catalogue.

361 instruments are grouped in nine classes. A generally accepted musicological logic (Sachs) is followed: wind instruments; drums, bells and other percussion; plucked and bowed string instruments and lamellophones (mouth harps). Some of these larger groups are conveniently split into smaller subgroups, e.g. "Drums with Tuning Paste applied to the drumhead" versus "Drums without Tuning Past…" In each group, the instrument, its ethnic or regional origin, some of its most salient characteristics, the way it is played and the occasions of its use are briefly described and it is illustrated by a carefully executed line drawing. Two appendices link the Nepali or local name to the scientific name of the plants and animals that are used in the production of the instruments and a very extensive glossary helps the reader find his way through typical concepts and terms.

The accompanying CD offers 10 short movies illustrating the use and sound of the instruments described. Unfortunately, there is no additional comment apart from some subtitles in Devanagari or Hindi script, so one is at a loss as to the instruments played, the occasions and the ethnic settings. But this is only a minor criticism. For anyone who is interested in ethnomusicology, organology, or even just generally in Nepali art and culture, the book and the CD are absolutely must-haves.



Updated 1st November 2007

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