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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

BANGLADESH: Missioner priest preserves tribal musical heritage


TANGAIL, Bangladesh (UCAN) -- The beat of traditional tribal Garo drums are being heard a little more often these days in Pirgacha in Mymensingh diocese.

The playing of these and other traditional instruments is undergoing a revival thanks to the efforts of American Holy Cross Father Eugene Homrich, parish priest of St. Paul's Church in Pirgacha, Tangail.

Father Homrich, 85, has been working in this forested tribal area in the northwest since 1952 and has established a small museum to preserve traditional tribal musical instruments, some of which risked being lost forever.

He has also employed four elderly Garo musicians to teach youngsters how to play these instruments.

"After having spent over 40 years with the Garo people, I found that ... they have a rich musical heritage. So I've tried to be of some help" in this area, said the priest, who is known affectionately as Achchu (Grandfather) Nokrek.

Father Homrich started collecting and preserving instruments in Pirgacha parish, northwestern Bangladesh, in 1993. Since then, he has preserved about 300 instruments, spending about 197,500 taka (US$2,857) in the process.

Just like Western musical instruments, their traditional Garo counterparts include wind, string and percussion instruments.

Father Homrich says he had to obtain many of the instruments from India. "My friends in America and some wealthy local and foreign donors helped me to finance the scheme," said the priest, who speaks the Garo language and often celebrates Mass in the Garo tongue.

The museum also has a collection of traditional Garo household utensils, some of which are no longer to be found in the Garo community in Bangladesh.

Father Homrich has employed 90-year-old Sohin Mree as museum curator, as well as a teacher of traditional Garo music to 25 young Garo people.

"I learned to play musical instruments from my father," said Mree, who used to be a farmer. He added that he had not imagined that he would one day become a music teacher.

For Father Joyonto Raksam, a native Garo himself, Father Homrich "has revived interest in traditional Garo music which is also a part of local Catholic liturgy."

Father Raksam, rector of St. Paul's Seminary in neighboring Jalchatra parish, said, "The Garo have hymnbooks and Mass books in their native language," so musical instruments are important for accompanying hymns sung during Mass and other liturgical celebrations.

The tribal priest also said that Father Homrich's initiative has helped reawaken cultural awareness among parish priests in the diocese. They too, have started collecting and preserving traditional musical instruments in their own parishes, he said.

According to the Bangladesh Catholic directory, Catholics in the diocese numbered 72,952 in 2007. Most of the Catholics are tribal Garo.

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