Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Tare Mom Society

Coming from New York, it’s hard to describe just how noisy, crowded, smoggy, and chaotic it is here in Kathmandu. Traffic is constant, and somehow manages to be deadlocked and nail-biting at the same time. Plenty of business is conducted on the street too: on our way to the internet cafĂ© my wife and I passed an 11 year old whole roasting a chicken streetside, using a blowtorch.

I’ve come here for a year with my wife who’s teaching at a Nepali school. We moved from the comfortable pastures of Fort Greene, Brooklyn which looks ever more appropriately named by the day. So where does one find peace in a city like Kathmandu? The Golden Temple Buddhist monastery in Patan at 5 AM is a good place to start. There’s a group of Newari Buddhist men there called the Tare Mom Society who gather to play devotional music. In August they play every morning starting at 5 AM. For three hours. Now it's down to four times a month.

The temple dates to the 11th century, a time when Patan, one of three kingdoms in the Kathmandu valley, was a sprawling university city- a place of sanctity, learning, and arts. You know how people say Brooklyn has the most churches per square mile anywhere in the world? Well Patan has the most temples. The Golden Temple is one of the most ornate of them. It’s crowded with bronze sculptures, prayer wheels, oil lamps, and at least one live turtle to remind us that even the lowly can be courageous.

The singers at the Golden Temple are 20 men who gather each morning to play bhajans, devotional songs that at least in this group guide one about how to live a good and moral life. One’s about the five basic tenets of Buddhism, (don’t kill another man, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat on your wife, and don’t drink alcohol), another entirely about the evils of drinking. They can get political too: one song was written 70 years ago when Nepal was ruled by the Ranas, a family who was hostile to education for the masses because they feared it would provoke entitlement and instability. This song pleads for women to be allowed education. Not sure whether that one worked.

The other day I recorded the Tare Mom Society. They’re an amateur group. Many of the men singing have regular day jobs- as craftsmen, tailors, businessmen, government administrators, and carpenters. Their music isn’t polished, but it’s a pretty calming way to start the day. Here’s a song about Tree of Knowledge, who’s urging all the workers to come sit under his branches in order to gain knowledge as the Buddha has. It’s ten minutes long, which is about average for these guys:

Tree of Knowledge.mp3 - Tare Mom Society

I don’t want to give the impression that Kathmandu is some ancient kingdom where everyone rises with the sun and sings songs about knowledge sung from the perspective of a tree. For one thing, the King has been abolished and Nepal is now a democratic republic. For two, Classic Rock is big here. I guess it’s on account of the western bohemians who traveled here in the 1960’s and 70’s when Kathmandu was the terminal destination of The Hippie Trail. But it’s not necessarily the kind of bland, recycled-playlist stuff you get on American Classic Rock stations. These guys dig into the rarities. The other night on Hits FM 92.1, Kathmandu’s pop music FM station, a show called Choice of the Voice was serving up some choice tracks from the less appreciated corners of Deep Purple’s back catalog, Listen:


Kathmandu: highlighting Deep Purple’s incorporation of jazz into a rock context. Where else are the people so generous?