Danny Knicely and Tara Linhardt, Loudoun County-based performers of bluegrass and old-time Appalachian music, were jamming with some musicians they had just met, when Knicely noticed they were playing tunes that were strikingly similar to songs he already knew. What made this even more intriguing is the other musicians lived half a world away and their tunes were traditional songs from the mountains of Nepal.
That experience inspired Knicely and Linhardt to produce a documentary movie and music CD that explore parallel traditions in the hills of Appalachia and mountains of Nepal, a project that has taken six years to complete. Now, they face the challenge of getting the “Mountain Music Project: A Musical Odyssey” from Appalachia to Himalaya out so people who appreciate traditional mountain music can enjoy it.
“I spent a solid year just calling record labels and distribution companies to see if I could get it out on a label, so that it wouldn’t just get sold to our kith and kin and then die,” Linhardt said.
What she discovered was that bluegrass and old-time music labels and media outlets are not interested in Nepalese music, and world music labels do not want to publish American music.
“We couldn’t get it onto a label because it was just too unusual; so we self-published it,” Linhardt said.
She said she thinks there is a natural audience for the documentary and CD in Virginia, where interest in bluegrass and old-time music is “really big,” as evidenced by the Loudoun Bluegrass Festival and the long-running series of bluegrass concerts at the Lucketts Community Center.
To help boost awareness of the documentary, the pair recently hired a publicist. An official launch of the project will be June 5, and plans are in the works to show the documentary at a film festival in the fall.
Musical partners for more than 15 years, Linhardt, 41, and Knicely, 37, are based in Taylorstown, a rural community in northern Loudoun, where Linhardt grew up.
The Mountain Music Project had its origins in Linhardt’s college days, when she spent a year studying in Nepal. Ten years ago, she and Knicely traveled to Nepal, where she reconnected with some old friends.
In Kathmandu, Knicely met Buddhiman Gandharba, who was a member of the Gandharba musician caste. During an impromptu jam session, Knicely noticed the striking similarities between some of their songs.
“One [of the Gandharba songs] sounded just like ‘Sally Anne,’ which is one of our real common fiddle tunes,” Linhardt said. “So when we went back the next night, we just started playing ‘Sally Anne,’ and they were like, ‘Hey, you already figured out one of our songs.’ ”
“That’s just the most surprising thing, that we could live so far apart but still have these haunting similarities in our music,” Knicely said.
Linhardt said the Gandharbas were familiar with American performers such as Michael Jackson and Britney Spears but had never heard traditional Appalachian mountain music.
“They were so excited that we actually had music that was so much like their traditional music,” she said.
Like old-time Appalachian music, which is centered on the fiddle and banjo, Gandharba musicians play stringed instruments such as the sarangi, which is played with a bow, and the arbaj, which Knicely compared to a banjo. Both traditions also feature a high, lonesome style of singing.
In 2006, Knicely and Linhardt teamed with producer Jacob Penchansky and returned to Nepal to begin filming the documentary and recording music for the CD. They also traveled throughout Virginia to meet traditional Appalachian musicians and record their songs and stories.
The documentary highlights the parallel traditions of the two cultures by juxtaposing clips of the Gandharba and Appalachian people in their homes, making music and talking about their lives and traditions.
The film has won several awards, including best independent documentary at the Carolina Film and Video Festival, best film at the International Folk Music Film Festival in Nepal and the Sierra Nevada Award at the Mountain Film Festival.
The project includes contributions by such American musicians as Mike Seeger, Tim O’Brien, Curtis Burch and Tony Trischka. Some of the tracks on the CD include songs performed together by American and Nepalese musicians.
“It’s just very nice to be so far away from home and still to have that feeling . . . a sense of community between musicians, wherever you’re from,” Knicely said.
“We’re all mountain people,” Linhardt said.
For information about the Mountain Music Project or to order a CD or DVD, visit www.mountainmusicproject.com.