I turned 12 years old in 1986, and started seventh grade with a picture of Billy Joel slipped proudly behind the clear plastic cover of my binder. On that front, I was out of touch — the older kid who sat next to me in typing class looked at it and asked, with genuine astonishment, “are you gay?” — but in terms of subsisting on a whitebread musical diet, I was pretty much in line with most of my peers. Whether we were listening to Prince, Madonna, Genesis, or Bon Jovi, we had no concept of anything happening outside the United States or the UK.
That all started to change in ’86, thanks to a series of events that included Peter Gabriel’s So, the Amnesty International tour, and Paul Simon’s Graceland, the record that took American-influenced South African township music and refracted it back at us as a smooth blend of classic singer/songwriter pop shot through with exotic rhythms and harmonies. Much the same way hip-hop broke through to the suburbs the same year, 1986 gave us world music on a truly global scale — at least as far as the kids who thought “Dancing on the Ceiling” sounded “exotic” were concerned, anyway.
Graceland is getting the anniversary treatment this year, with a deluxe box set, a new documentary, and a tour featuring Simon and some of the musicians he originally worked with on the project. The film, titled Under African Skies, takes an honest look at the controversy that erupted around Simon’s decision to ignore the cultural boycott surrounding South Africa’s apartheid government, but it also stresses the enduring bonds created by the music — between Simon and the musicians, Simon and the songs, the songs and the audience.
I turned 25 in 1999, and one of my strongest memories from that year is of driving over a bridge with a couple of friends, listening to one of Shanachie’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo compilations. Even a pale suburban kid weaned on An Innocent Man could appreciate the unmistakable Ladysmith sound when Simon brought it to us with Graceland, and hearing those voices in songs like “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” sparked a lifelong love affair with their music. Even the most avid music fan needs gateways into new areas, and I’ve found them in some delightfully unexpected places. (My first experience with jump blues: Bruce Willis’ If It Don’t Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger.)
Gateway music — music that builds bridges — is a continual fascination of mine, so I was thrilled to find out about The Mountain Music Project: A Musical Odyssey from Appalachia to Himalaya, a new CD/DVD package that details the efforts of some truly tenacious American musicians to demonstrate the links between traditional bluegrass and Himalayan music. How did they do it? By going to the Himalayas, naturally — and by convincing old-time Appalachian musicians (including Tony Trischka and Tim O’Brien) to collaborate on recordings with their Nepali counterparts in the Gandharba caste.
It’s a marvelous idea and a beautiful project, one that not only demonstrates the global roots of music we tend to believe sprung up in our own backyard, but illustrates how truly vital and alive these songs are. I spoke with producer Tara Linhardt about her long journey with The Mountain Music Project, and she stressed, “Our old time music is so similar to what the Gandharbas do. It was hard at first to get some of the performers over here to listen to it, but we just kept really pressing on about the similarities — and then we decided that if we set up a collaboration between the two sides, it would help draw each one in. It seems to be working pretty well, especially now that we can point to the involvement of, you know, Tony Trischka or Tim O’Brien.”
Looking back on their trips, Linhardt reflected, “When we were in Nepal, we’d pull out a fiddle and a mandolin to start playing our tunes, and the Gandharba musicians would just be freaking out about how much it sounded like their music. All they hear of American music is stuff like Britney Spears — the really commercial songs that make it over. They were so surprised that America has mountain music — string music. They were so excited to find out that they had this sister community with musicians on the other side of the world.”
Contrary to stereotypes, Linhardt insists that “the younger musicians over there, they often just want to emulate the pop stars they see. We started thinking that if they were exposed to our musical traditions, it might help strengthen their own. That was our hope — that it would help bridge the gap between two distant but similar musical communities, and help each one sort of find itself, in a way.”
The crew started working on The Mountain Music Project in 2006, and they’ve chipped away at completing it while watching similar efforts — like Béla Fleck’s Throw Down Your Heart – make it to market first. “We started ours before he started his,” she cheerfully points out. “We didn’t have the funding and ability, because we all had other jobs, so he started his and we all thought, aw, man — and then he finished his and we all thought, aw, man!
“Ours was a labor of love, and I’m so happy we finally got it out — there were times when I definitely wondered,” she admits. “But finally, after years, we got it all mastered and manufactured. It’s a real relief to know it’s finished and it’s out there.”
It’s pretty much a given that The Mountain Music Project won’t enjoy Graceland-sized success, but even in a post-Spotify marketplace where touring the global charts is as simple as clicking a mouse, Linhardt understands the value of drawing connections between cultures. “A lot of people are just as curious about Appalachian music as they are about Nepali music,” she muses. “I forget, because I know a lot of fiddle and banjo players — but it’s a great thing to develop interest in traditional music anywhere. When people are just playing music for the sake of playing it — once people develop an appreciation for that, they tend to appreciate all sorts of music.”