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Stefan Fiol Apprenticing to make a dhol with Sukaru Das in Pujar village, Tehri Garhwal, June 2011. All photos courtesy of Stefan Fiol.

The Dialects of Drumming: Ethnomusicology Professor Embarks on 9-Month Himalayan Expedition

For nine months, CCM ethnomusicology professor Stefan Fiol will live in the Garhwal region in northern India to research how the evolution of ancient drumming music can be used to map the culture’s history through space and time.

A Himalayan region located in the state of Uttarakhand, the sparsely populated mountain villages of Garhwal are 8,000-12,000 feet above sea level. Fiol, with his partner and daughter, will be completely immersed in the culture September 2016 – May 2017 as he studies the dialects of Dhol and Damaun drumming.

“My thinking is by looking at the drumming, I’d have a new source to understand history,” Fiol said of his research. “I’m treating it how some linguists treat language to understand dialects and how they change. I’m doing that with drumming and thinking about the regional history through the sounds and rhythms.”

Fiol’s research is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a grant from UC’s Research Council and a fellowship from the Fulbright-Nehru Program. The research titled Dialects of Dhol-Damaun: Drumming as Historiography in the Uttarakhand Himalayas will be featured in a documentary Fiol is producing with former CCM e-media student Jarrod Welling-Cann.

Dhol Players relaxing during festival in Odda village, Pauri Garhwal, July 2011

Dhol Players relaxing during festival in Odda village, Pauri Garhwal, July 2011. All photos courtesy of Stefan Fiol.

The Dhol and Damaun drums, which interlock and are always played together, are the “heart and soul” of music in the region, Fiol said. The drums are played at sunrise and sunset in about every village.

They hang outside of temples and are played during mass processions across the Himalayas, festivals, religious rituals and spirit possession ceremonies.

According to tradition, the drums came directly from the Hindu god Shiva. The drummers, who form a disadvantaged community near the bottom of the local caste hierarchy, serve as mediators between the human and divine worlds.

“The drums are like the telephone line to the different gods of the region,” Fiol said. “So when they are played, it’s like they are calling that god to come to the ritual.”
Dhol lesson with Sohan Lal and Sukaru Das in Pujar village, Tehri Garhwal, June 2011.All photos courtesy of Stefan Fiol

Fiol during a Dhol lesson in Pujar village, Tehri Garhwal, June 2011. All photos courtesy of Stefan Fiol.

Although drummers don’t think of themselves as historians, their rhythmic patterns carry historical and cultural information that is passed down like oral histories.

Whenever people or their deities have moved from one place to another, their drums and drummers go with them. Fiol has developed an original research methodology that uses the language of drumming as a source for reconstructing patterns of human and divine movement and ritual life.

The drumming is an inherited tradition that is passed down through generations in a fixed repertoire, Fiol said.

There are a fixed number of strokes each drum can play along with corresponding syllables that drummers vocalize. In theory, the rhythms and sounds assigned to each ritual or ceremony are supposed to remain the same no matter who is playing or where.

However, Fiol has noticed slight variations in the repertoires played by drummers in different villages, and even within the same village or family.

He is interested in discovering what changes and why. The findings will then help him link the different drumming patterns with cultural events, ritual narratives, and archaeological and linguistic evidence about human migration.

Fiol plans to study the repertoire within a specific drumming family and compare it to drumming families in other villages. He will begin with the contacts he made when he previously spent two years in the region learning how to build and play the Dhol and Damaun himself.

While there, Fiol met Himalayan artist Pritam Bhartwan who returned to CCM with Fiol to teach students to drum, sing and dance. This gave students an experiential learning opportunity to deepen their understanding of Himalayan music’s cultural significance.

Pritam Bhartwan and Stefan Fiol performing at CCM with Himalayan ensemble (World Music Lab) in October 2011.

Pritam Bhartwan and Stefan Fiol performing at CCM with Himalayan ensemble (World Music Lab) in October 2011.

Bhartwan lived with Fiol for one month in Fall 2012 as they taught students enrolled in Fiol’s World Music Lab course. The class then went on tour, performing Himalayan music at Oberlin College, the University of Dayton, University of Kentucky and the University of Oklahoma.

“The student response was extremely positive, as was the response of audiences in all of these places,” Fiol said. “As far as I’m aware, this was the first performance of central Himalayan music in North America.”

Following his nine-month immersion in the Garhwal villages, Fiol will be able to incorporate a broader range of music and dance into his classes.

He plans to ask students to listen to a variety of drumming rhythms from different regions and study their cultural significance before mapping them across space and time using GIS mapping software.

He hopes to one day bring a group of students to the Indian Himalayas so they can learn from and perform with regional artists firsthand.

“For CCM students, learning these highly asymmetrical, complex, interlocking rhythms offers an opportunity to stretch their musicality,” Fiol said. “But ultimately I want my students to study Himalayan drumming as a means of understand the intimate connection between rhythm and the development of community, ritual and social identity.”