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Written By:  KSAA    |   Published Date:  04-Apr-2013

Revitalizing Sherpa Folk Songs and Dances

 - Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, KSAA President

Sherpa communities have a rich tradition of folk songs and dances. They are the heart and soul of all community festivals and celebrations. Singing folks songs bonds people together, uplifts their spirits and provides recreation and rejuvenation. Songs and dances are also an important part of cultural identity.

There is growing concern among the Sherpa community that our folk songs and dances are at risk. In the old days, these used to be passed down from generation to generation through participatory learning. Young people also often organized informal practice programs known as chhangdung to improve their singing and dancing skills. The decline of this traditional method is one of the main causes for the loss of these arts.

Recently, members of the Khumjung School Alumni Association (KSAA) organized a chhangdung in Kathmandu to discuss the problem of vanishing folk songs and ways to revive them. Thirty KSAA members and their friends from Mountain Spirit participated.  Each participant contributed Rs. 500 and an individual sponsor privately matched this contribution to cover the event costs.

This was a chhangdung of different kind. There was less chhang and more discussion. The program began with a series of presentations. Mr. Tshering Sherpa spoke about teaching children Sherpa dances at Khumjung School, Mr. Phinjo Sherpa discussed the potential of modern technology to help transmit songs, and Mr. Pemba Gyelu Sherpa spoke about the Himalayan Sherpa Cultural Centre’s efforts to teach Sherpas to sing and dance. I also gave a presentation on the importance of documenting and archiving our traditional performing arts. The chhangdung program ended with several hours of competitive singing and dancing between two groups. Both groups sang and danced exceptionally well.

My observations in Khumbu Region over the years suggest that that Sherpa folks songs and dances are not in immediate danger of disappearing. However, there have been rapid changes under influences of dominant cultures, tourism, politics, migration, and modernization. There have been three distinct phases in our recent history of folk singing and dancing:   

Growth Phase:  When communities lived intact in remote mountain villages, songs and dances were performed at every community celebration. Singing and dancing symbolized happiness, and were the main source of entertainment. Knowing how to dance and sing was considered an important social skill. Various community festivals and social occasions provided the opportunity for younger generations to learn from their elders. Songs and dances were also commonly borrowed and exchanged across the Himalaya between communities with similar cultural backgrounds.  This created good conditions to preserve, develop and transmit songs and dances.

Decline Phase: The time between 1960 and 1990 proved to be a difficult period. Formal schools were established and their non-Sherpa speaking teachers only taught Nepali and English language and songs. Government workers and administrators who belonged to dominant cultural group imposed their cultural values, including songs and dances. State run radio and television reached the remote mountain regions but barred songs and dances from minority groups such as Sherpas.

Tourism also arrived with its own set of influences. Young people began to travel and migrate away from their mountain homes search of jobs and education. Young children were sent to far away boarding schools for better education. With connections to their cultural roots severed, these children began to lose their mother tongue along with the opportunity to learn songs and dances. Worse, parents developed an inferiority complex, making them undervalue their own language and culture and encourage children to seek the values, languages and cultural practices of the dominant groups. A rapid decline in mother tongue and folk traditions occurred during this period and still continues today.

Revival Phase: The 1990 democratic movement and subsequent struggles for national change initiated a sense of cultural revival among many ethnic groups, including Sherpas. Many minority groups became aware of the discrimination and marginalization they suffered and began to seek greater recognition of their identity, which led to nominal changes in state policies towards minority cultures. Radios and televisions began to provide some airtime for indigenous language and songs. Indigenous groups, including Sherpas, slowly began to regain their cultural pride. Interest in learning mother tongues and folk songs is growing. Formal and informal training and learning opportunities are now being created to re-learn songs and dances. A process of revitalization is taking place, albeit slowly, and for Sherpas folk songs and dances are at the center of these efforts.

Interestingly, it is the communities and generations who lost the most cultural knowledge that are at the helm of these revitalization efforts. In the process of relearning and retraining, they have introduced elements of innovation and creativity. To make songs and dances more attractive and vibrant, modifications are being introduced. Different musical instruments are being integrated; new styles of dress and jewelry are being added, and dance steps are being modified increase audience appeal. Singing and dancing used to be spontaneous community performances, but they are now becoming professionalized and commercialized. This is leading to greater interest from the younger generation and greater visibility in the national stage of Sherpa songs and dances – a remarkable achievement and contribution.

However, this transformation to an organized, professionalized model of transmission also comes with the risk of losing authenticity and originality. The traditional style of dancing and singing may go out of fashion and being forgotten. Since change often cannot be avoided, one way of minimize this risk may be to document and archive the old styles. The next challenge is encouraging the composition and popularization of new songs to reflect the changing situation. This requires high level of linguistic fluency in Sherpa, which is being lost among younger generation. There is a traditional Sherpa saying – Lu min taam yin – which means songs are not just songs but are a medium of communication. With the loss of linguistic skills, the communicative functions of songs are most at risk. Therefore, we need to pay attention to song lyrics and the meanings that they hold, and teach the younger generation to speak Sherpa fluently so they can understand these cultural messages.