John Silliman Dodge

The Deli Llama Orchestra plays Nepal

The Deli Llama Orchestra in Kathmandu, Nepal 

Notes on a Musical Trek in October 2014

Nothing can prepare you for the sights, the sounds, the smells, the crowded, colorful chaos that is Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. For a Westerner, almost everything about this place is other. Yet people from all over planet Earth have been drawn here for generations to tour and trek in what is called “The Rooftop of the World.” Eight of the world’s ten tallest peaks are here, including the big kahuna, Mount Everest. The Himalayan Range runs roughly 700 miles from east to west forming the northern border between Nepal and China/Tibet. To the southeast lies India, whose tectonic plate continues to drive into and under the Eurasian plate, sending this massive wall of rock and ice ever skyward. 

Why are we here? I’m a guitar player and typically perform a combination of original material plus classical, jazz, blues and folk in Portland-area wine bars, coffee shops and art galleries. I also play with The Deli Llama Orchestra. That’s Deli like delicatessen, Llama like the animal, and Orchestra like… orchestra. The Tibetan Singing Bowl is the core sound of this unique ensemble, an instrument that works on the same principal as wetting your finger and rimming a crystal wine glass until it “sings.” These bronze bowls, some of which are a thousand years old, vary in size from tiny to massive and can produce a complex array of tones and overtones. Depending on how much pressure you apply to the wooden dowel, the “finger” with which you encircle the rim of the bowl, and how rapidly you spin that dowel around the rim, the vibrations can rise or fall in pitch, intensity and the number of notes produced. You can’t exactly play a melody on a singing bowl but you can create a beautiful and exotic soundscape, especially when two bowls play together in harmony. In fact, the Deli Llama Orchestra’s website is www.PlayingHarmony.com

DLO, the group’s shorthand name, consists of two bowlers plus guitar, harp, and occasionally flute. The band is a loose confederation distributed geographically with members in Portland, Anchorage, and Columbia, Missouri. We get together several times a year to rehearse and perform, most often at Zen centers, churches, mosques and temples, places where this unusual instrumental East/West fusion music is most appreciated.

We spent the last two weeks of October 2014 giving concerts in various locations in Nepal, primarily in the capital city. Kathmandu (the h is silent) is an extraordinary place of extremes: extreme beauty and color, extreme antiquity, extreme friendliness. Also, extreme traffic, extreme pollution and extreme noise. Truly though, only the vehicles are noisy. Nepalis sound their horns constantly and with abandon. But unlike New Yorkers, say, who honk with a certain aggressive attitude, Nepalis honk as a polite signal: “Hello, excuse me but I am about to pass you” or “I’m just about to come around this blind corner so please don’t hit my motorcycle, thank you.” It’s a oddly courteous kind of cacophony. 

It seems you can’t walk three blocks before running into another thousand-year-old Hindu or Buddhist shrine. In fact, the Kathmandu Valley has the greatest concentration of UNESCO World Heritage sites anywhere in the world. And the band proceeded to play at many of them. Everywhere we were greeted with genuine warmth and curiosity. These people know the Tibetan bowls, but it’s unlikely that many have ever heard them in concert with Western instruments. We began to jokingly refer to our sound as “Country and Eastern” music.

Several anecdotes from our trip now. I was gifted a colorful “Dhaka topi,” the national men’s hat. The first day I wore it in the street, someone called out to me, “Nepali dai!” I asked our guide what “dai” meant and he told me “Older brother.” This pleased me greatly because my intent in wearing the hat was to show respect and admiration for their style, their culture and their customs. Later that same day another man in the street pointed to my hat and yelled out, “Nepali caca!” I thought, Oh no, caca! He just called me a s***! He must think I’m a dumb Westerner disrespecting his culture by trying to fit in with my stupid hat. Later I asked our guide what “caca” meant. He said, “Uncle.” 

One day we drove 125 miles west of Kathmandu to the lakeside town of Pokhara, a trip that coincided with the Festival of Lights, or Tihar, the big Nepali religious/cultural celebration and holiday. Everyone lights up their houses and businesses as we do here at Christmastime and each day is devoted to one spirit—the Crow, the Dog, the Cow, the Bull. Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of wealth and beauty and the day we arrived in Pokhara, people were busy making mandalas in her honor on the sidewalks in front of their homes. These colorful circular designs created with paint pigment were then encircled with lit candles. The final touch was a pathway of footprints leading away from the mandala to the front door, the lights and footprints helping Lakshmi to find your place so she can enter and bless your family with good fortune. 

The next morning after this late night of singing, dancing and merriment, the band members got a 3:30 am wake up call. We stumbled aboard the bus and were driven up the bumpy, twisty road to a mountaintop resort to play a sunrise gig across the valley from Annapurna, the world’s tenth tallest peak at 26,545 feet. Words cannot express the site of the rising sun lighting up the top of this mountain while the rest of the valley lay shrouded in darkness. And our job was to provide the sunrise soundtrack for busloads of Chinese tourists. No pressure or anything…

Yes, the 30+ hour plane trip was exhausting. Yes, you need to be careful what you eat and drink. And yes, you should probably wrap a bandana around your face, Lone Ranger-style, to keep the street dust of Kathmandu out of your nose. But those are small inconveniences compared to the extraordinary beauty of Nepal and the exceeding warmth of its people. Go, experience this country for yourself. You’ll never forget it.

 

To hear the Deli Llama Orchestra’s music, go to www.PlayingHarmony.com. To hear John Dodge’s music, go to www.JohnDodgeMusic.com and to read the travelogue blog that John kept of DLO’s experience in Nepal and to see many more photographs, go to http://sillimandodge.wordpress.com/category/uncategorized. The most recent post sits at the top so to begin the journey, scroll to the bottom of the page.

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