He revived his love of Nepali music after settling in Akron

Landhoj Pandak, a lean Bhutanese in his 50s, sits cross-legged on a sofa in the evening, playing madal. Madal is a long drum with a short diameter that is a staple of traditional Nepali music.

Pandak is one of more than 5,000 refugees who were born in Bhutan and settled in Akron after spending decades in refugee camps in Nepal.

“I played (music) in my country, Bhutan,” said Pandak. “But I stayed in Nepal for 18 to 20 years. I didn’t play there.”

No music in a refugee camp in Nepal

Pandak also sang traditional Nepali folk songs and played bansuri, a pillar of Nepali music, along with harmonium and madal. However, he never made music in a refugee camp in Nepal.

Randhoj Pandhak sing traditional Nepalese folk songs that describe their farming life.

“I completely forgot about that time. We came to Nepal and it was a very difficult situation.

“We speak Nepali,” Pandak said. “The national language of Bhutan is Dzongkha.”

Bhutan, like Nepal, is a landlocked country between China and India. Bhutan does not share a direct border with Nepal, but both are located in similar geographical locations in the Eastern Himalayas, and Bhutan has her two distinct ethnic groups. Most people are of ethnic Tibetan descent and speak a Tibetan language called Dzongkha. However, the majority of ethnically Nepalese settled in Bhutan in the 20th century and spoke Nepali.

These people, known as Lohshampa, were mainly subsistence farmers in their native Bhutan. In the late 1980s, the government enacted the ‘one nation, one people’ policy and over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese were expelled. Pandak and his family were among many who fled to refugee camps in Nepal.

“In Bhutan, we were farmers. In Nepal, we stayed in[refugee]camps. It helped me,” Pandak said. “That’s why we stayed.”

Rediscovering community and culture

Among the many detrimental effects of being forced out of your home is the loss of your ability to pursue your passions and hobbies. After experiencing expulsion from Bhutan and living in refugee camps for years, Pandak and the other Roshampas have lost the ability to do what they love, including playing music.

“In Nepal, when we came to Nepal from Bhutan, the situation was not good. We stay in a small hut, which is a small house made of bamboo. I’m inside,” said Pandak. “We can’t go out. That’s the rule of staying there. So our minds really aren’t working that well. That’s why we can’t remember the music.”

At Akron, Pandhak found music again and regained his love.

“My flute teacher is the famous musician Sushil Vishwakarma because he was sharp because he was on Radio Nepal for 33 years in Nepal,” said the internationally renowned Bansuri player. Of his teacher who is, Pandak said. “And he retired from there. Then he came here.”

Randhoj Pandhak plays bansuri.

Vishwakarma and other Rochampa musicians gathered in northeastern Ohio to rekindle their musical traditions. Several of his Lhotshampa bands are active in the Akron and Cleveland areas, including his popular Druk Fusion Band, Randhoj’s own band, and the Typical Bansuri Band.

Randhoj Pandhak and his band, the Typical Bansuri Band, perform covers of classic Nepalese folk songs.

Another way Pandhak and Lhotshampa refugees keep their tradition alive is the ‘Greater Akron Lok Dohori Samuha’. Lok Dohori, or simply Dohori, is a unique form of music performed cooperatively and competitively. His two groups of musicians (usually men and women, each behind a leader) exchange spontaneous improvised verses in conversation.

Greater Akron Lok Dohori Samuha plays Dohori (with English subtitles).

Focusing on things like travel, farming, parenting and the pitfalls of marriage in a harsh world, Dholi’s lyrics reflect the complexities of life in Bhutan.

Pundak spent nearly two decades unable to convey these culturally significant expressions of his people. He enjoys the freedom to do it again in his new home.

“I’m not a professional music player, but I love music and I’m trying to learn something,” said Pandhak. “And when I play flute, vocals, Madal and other music, then I’m happy.”

Randhoj Pandak sings Nepalese folk songs that give life advice.

Randhoj Pandhak plays traditional Nepalese songs on a bamboo flute called bansuri.

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