The look of Akron’s North Hill has changed significantly since Bhutanese refugees began arriving here a decade ago. But the sound has changed even more. In a week-long collaboration with the Huffington Post, WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports that it’s in the music that the blending of two cultures could be most noticeable.
The Himalayan Music Academy is in a plain block building – across the parking lot from Irish Jack’s Pub and upstairs from a Karate studio and T-shirt shop.
It’s not much to look at, but a lot to listen to.
All day, Saturdays and Sundays, children and adults are learning or perfecting the elaborate movements of classical, folk and modern Nepali dance – with hip-hop occasionally blended in.
The academy’s founder, Puspa Gajmer says music is life.
“To have a life, music must be there for me.”
Gajmer is 32, a small man with a soft voice - except when he sings. He’s also a classical guitarist trained in India and Nepal before moving to Chicago in 2011.
Two years later, he and his wife, Shanti were drawn to Akron by its reputation among the international Nepali community. He says he shopped around first and family and friends recommended the move.
“It is the very center area for everyone. You do not have to go anywhere else; there are lots of people we can meet and have a good life. Lots of opportunities.”
For Gajmer, who’s also an interpreter and auditor in a metallurgical lab, music is the opportunity and key to making life in the U.S. work for his community – and vice versa.
“Music is so important to our culture. At the same time, it’s also important to another culture.”
That other culture is Akron’s culture. And he thinks the city that spawned the unique punk rock Akron Sound of the ’70s (think Devo, Tin Huey, The Bizarros and Rubber City Rebels) might be ready for a new sound.
“So many things that are not in Western and so many things are not in Eastern music. …So if they learn the two different things, there will be a very good creation in music.”
Meanwhile, he’s teaching a very old creation of music -- traditional Nepali dances -- along with modern songs to kids like Sawan Subba. She’s tall for a fourth-grader. She’s also a good enough dancer to join the older girls’ rehearsal of a modern piece. But classical Nepali dance – a whirl of feet, hips and hands that tell stories – is her passion.
“The easy part is when you move your feet and the hard part is when you learn how to do it with your hands.”
She plans to be a star. Or a doctor. Dance makes her relax and focus; math comes easy and makes her think.
A couple rows back, during a break, Sameer Mainali shows off a plie he picked up at Ballet XL Ohio. He says boys at school give him far more grief over ballet than Nepali dance.
"They think it’s only for girls, and that we have to wear tutus and stuff like that," Mainali said. "It is the very center area for everyone. You do not have to go anywhere else; there are lots of people we can meet and have a good life. Lots of opportunities.”
But for him, both work. “Ballet helps me here get more energetic and more flexible and from here I get more confident.”
The language of Nepal
But before the dance comes the alphabet.
Gopal Ghatani spends an hour drilling Sawan, Sameer and half a dozen others on the 36 letters and silent vowels of the Nepali alphabet. He explains that many of the refugee families couldn’t read and write in their native language, and the focus of Akron’s schools is English immersion. That’s fine, he says. But that can’t be everything in the U.S.
“It is not only the country of one language, one religion and one kind of people. It is like a huge garden where different kinds of flowers they can grow and they can bloom. … We respect others and along with that, we want to preserve our language, culture, tradition.”
Alma DeBlasio buys that. An Akron native and teacher at North High School, she’s one of a handful of native Akronites studying Nepali at the academy.
"I can say, tapai-lai kas-to chuh, ‘How are you?’” She apologizes. “My accent is awful.”
She notes half of North High School’s students are from refugee families – Bhutanese and others – and most of the school rules are posted now in 10 languages. Besides, “this is what America’s about – other people coming in and sharing their culture, sharing their lives.”
Tiffany Ann Stacy says it’s not at all surprising that the music would be the part of the culture shared first and most passionately. She’s married to Amber Subba, a composer who was one of the first refugees to arrive in Akron.
“When people came over on the plane, people had very few things. But they bring their instruments. And dancing is something you can do without any equipment. So it’s something that was easy to keep alive with limited resources.”
And the fusion of music is part of their household. She says their nearly 2-year-old daughter, Paulina, is fascinated by Nepali dance and music. Meanwhile, their nearly 4-year old son, Silas, just got his first drum kit.
This story is part of a collaboration between WKSU and the Huffington Post on the integration of Bhutanese-Nepali refugees, who began their migration to Akron a decade ago.