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Department of Music

Sounds for Divine Ancestors: The Music of Nepal's Tamu Shamans

To prepare this album, Yarjung K. Tamu, a head shaman (pachyu chiba) of the Tamu people of Central Nepal, selected nine excerpts of rituals and assembled a group of shaman performers from villages around their mountainous home region. The group have all trained as shamans in the traditional way, but this was the first time they had ever performed together. They met in Pokhara, where they rehearsed under the auspices of the Tamu Pye Lhu Sangh, an organisation dedicated to the preservation of Tamu ritual life. The Tamu Pye Lhu Sangh wanted to record authoritative versions of their ancient ritual music tradition, to be used to educate future generations of Tamu and to introduce the repertory to a broader public. So far as we know, this ritual music has never before been recorded and published on an album.

The Tamu People, and Tamu Shamanism

The Tamu, often known by outsiders as the Gurung, are a small ethnic group who live primarily in the villages and towns of central Nepal. Most live in small mountain villages, where they survive on agriculture and animal husbandry. The people speak the languages Tamu-kyui and Nepalese, the former belonging to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages, and the latter - Nepal's official language - to the Indo-Aryan group. For a number of generations, selected male Tamu have been recruited as Ghurkhas to serve in the Nepalese, British, or Indian armies.

Nepal has a unique amalgamation of peoples and belief systems, where shamanism, Hinduism, and Buddhism coexist amongst the thirty or so distinct ethnic groups. Close proximity means that groups exchange ideas and customs. The Tamu, being no exception to this, have adopted customs from their neighbbours and incorporated elements of Hinduism and Buddhism into lovcal beliefs. Remarkably, though, they have preserved their traditional ritual forms and music, as practiced by their hereditary shamans.

The Tamu believe that they migrated to central Nepal from a place called Ui Cho Hyula in Mongolia, and the affinity between their customs and belief sytem to those of Mongolia away to the north of the Himalayas may support this suggestion.

For the Tamu, shaman practices are part of daily life that relate human life to divine ancestors, nature spirits, and gods. Three basic forms of existence are distinguished in Tamu shamanism: the Nether world, the Upper world, and the earth, where men and animals live. Because humans live on the earth between the nether and upper worlds, there is always a process of balancing good (upper world) and evil (nether world), and this is where the shamans come in; they protect village communities from evil spirits, and help men, animals, and dead souls to shun off evil forces; they associate themselves with deities and divine ancestors.

On this recording, we hear two types of Tamu shaman: 

  1. Pachu - generally thought to be an older and more important tradition. Pachu Shamans know how to cure with herbs, and are responsible for separating the soul of the deceased from evil.
  2. Klhyepri - wear colourful paper crowns, long cloaks and generally have more ornaments attached to their ritual dress. Their main task is to purify the soul of the deceased and send it to the upper worlds.

The Instruments

Ngha

The frame drum ngha is the most important ritualistic instrument of all Tamu shamans. The drum consists of a wooden frame covered with goat skin, ideally made from a goat killed by a jaguar or leopard; the skin should be a single piece unpierced by the big cat's claw or tooth. The wood for the frame is is cut from a tree on a specific auspicious day, and a wooden cross fastened within the frame is used to hold the instrument with the left hand. The player strikes the drum with an S-shaped stick called a klhyepri, or a slightly bent wooden stick (nghasi).

Siljyo chhya

The pair of bronze cymbals are also central instruments. The have large raised bosses in the their centres and are held from above and below and played horizontally while moving the pair to the right or left to match dance steps.

Herga

This double-headed, slightly concave, barrel drum is tied in a horizontal plane at the waist and played with the bare left hand and a stick held in the right hand. The herga is only used by Pachyu shamans, and has a wooden body, goat hides, and throngs.

Podu

This is a tiny, tightly-tensed vessel drum played with two straight wooden sticks. The body is made from copper or wood, and the skins are cow. This, too, is only used by the Pachyu shamans. The herga and podu are played together during the first day of the death memorial ritual.

Thunga

This is a horn, traditionally made from a hollowed, spiraling deer horn. Increasingly today, its place in rituals is being taken by a conch shell, the shankha, an instrument imported from India.