Megha Nath Adhikari admits that his fingers aren't quite as deft on the duki tabala, a pair of hand drums, these days because he has dedicated himself to the harmonium, a portable pump organ.
"When we came [to Vermont], there was no one to play this one," says the Essex Junction resident, gesturing to the harmonium. "So, my focus goes to the harmonium."
Adhikari, 36, has been playing the duki tabala and harmonium since childhood. He didn't take any formal lessons and picked up the skills simply by watching others. In the Khudunabari refugee camp in Nepal where he grew up, Adhikari was part of a 15-member musical group, the Sangeet Prayas Club. His main instrument was the duki tabala.
The ensemble performed both inside and outside the camp, recalls Adhikari's cousin, Rohit. When the resettlement of Bhutanese refugees started in 2008, the club disintegrated when its members left the camp to start fresh in the U.S. "I miss the club, my friends," says Adhikari.
Unlike some of his fellow former club members who've given up music as work becomes a priority, Adhikari is still passionate about his craft. He works as a custodian in Burlington during the week and dedicates his weekends to music. He's taking voice and harmonium lessons online from his former club coordinator, who now lives in North Dakota.
The harmonium is an essential instrument in classical Nepali and Hindi music, explains Adhikari. He hopes to hone his skills so that he can teach Bhutanese youth in Vermont about their traditional music. The younger generation, he notes, is more inclined toward dancing.
Like many of his peers, Adhikari appreciates that he can practice and preserve his traditional culture in the U.S. His family was among the tens of thousands of Bhutanese citizens of Nepali descent who fled to refugee camps in Nepal in the early 1990s after the government imposed the culture of the Drukpa population upon them and then stripped them of their nationality.
Ethnomusicologist Kathleen Haughey notes that there is a wide cultural range of performing artists in Vermont. She's the executive director of Vermont Folklife Center and is writing her PhD dissertation on Bhutanese musicians.
There are those who "are working hard to make a living from their art [and] tend to perform in front of an audience in a setting that divides performer from audience," she writes in an email. Then there are some, like Adhikari, who perform "primarily for religious or cultural experiences in a more participatory atmosphere and may not describe themselves as "performers," she continues.
Adhikari is a member of a group that sings religious devotional songs, the Universal Manav Dharam Bhajan of Vermont. They gather at a different member's residence every Sunday. It isn't sufficient for the community to congregate only during religious festivals, Adhikari explains. He says they need to make sure to actively practice their culture at home — something they couldn't do back in Bhutan, he adds.
"I feel so much [pride] here," says Adhikari. "This country give us [the] encouragement to practice our religion."
Cultural Mosaic is a series about performing artists in Vermont from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Got an artist we should know about? Let us know!