When 37-year-old musician Dip Bahadur Gandhari left his impoverished village in the Himalayan mountains two decades ago, he had two goals: to play music, and to raise musicians in his community above their 'untouchable' caste label. Nepal's Hindu society believes people are born into various castes, and musicians are right at the bottom. As untouchables, they are shunned and often abused by the upper classes. Nepali musicians are relegated to the sub-caste of Gandharbas, sometimes called Gaine. For centuries, these wandering minstrels have pleased the ears of the powerful. Their peregrinations brought them from the royal palaces to common taverns. 'We were like the radio of today,' says Dip. 'We spread news.' They sung tales of heroic battles and love stories. They peppered their songs with juicy gossip, often irreverent. The Gandharbas' singing is accompanied by the sarangi, a four-stringed instrument played with a bow, similar to an erhu or lap-held fiddle. The main frame is carved from a local tree that grows in the mountains. Goatskin lines the resonator, the strings are goat intestines, and the bow is made with horsetail hairs (not unlike a Western violin bow) pulled taut on a strip of bamboo. They also use Indian-inspired instruments such as drums and flutes. The only input from modern times is a harmonium. When King Prithvi Narayan Shah unified the country in the 18th century and expanded Nepal to the borders of today, he recruited these skilful singers to propagate his nationalistic views and his personal glory. Yet their social status remained unchanged. They were servants denied the right to own land. Entertaining, like playing music or being a prostitute, was regarded as a degrading trade. The group's isolation was perpetuated by the taboo that forbade musicians to marry outsiders. Although the caste system was legally abolished in 1963, it has taken decades to change a mindset forged over centuries. And while most modern Nepalese claim to be open-minded, old reflexes sometimes kick in. Dip is one of the pioneers fighting to lift the Gandharbas' status. The musicians founded an association in 1995, with the help of an American Peace Corp volunteer. Dip was the first secretary, then president of the Gandharba Culture and Art Organisation. It has some 125 members, but Dip says the government has ignored them. 'To them, we are untouchables, too poor and low in the social hierarchy to have any say. We can only count on ourselves.' Visitors from richer Asian economies such as Hong Kong or from Europe and the US sponsor them. The flow of tourists has an unexpected effect on the repertoire. 'These last years, we have composed songs to encourage trekkers. The beat is uplifting and the stories tell about the beauty of climbing,' he says. What Dip calls the Arts Centre is a simple, unheated room in a building located in Thamel, a resting spot for backpackers and trekkers in Katmandu. Life here is relaxed. Lessons in traditional Nepal instruments are held in the mornings. Classes are open to foreigners wanting to learn about this old art. By afternoon, the musicians are roaming the streets selling their cassettes, CDs and wooden toy instruments as souvenirs. Money collected provides a meagre salary for members. They perform nightly, relying on the generosity of the audience. Sometimes, they are called to entertain patrons in expensive restaurants. The tips from those special events go to support schools for orphaned children in the impoverished and remote villages. 'We want to help others who have no means,' says Dip. 'We know how hard it is to have nothing.' These days, like any other Nepalese, the Gandharba pay the price of the so-called people's war launched by Maoist rebels to overthrow the government. Tourists have been scared away. The Gandharbas' donation tins are now often empty. But thanks to the popularity they are beginning to enjoy abroad, the Gandharbas are gaining recognition in their homeland. Recently, a television station broadcasted a performance for the first time. But it was swan song for the group's old maestro Jhalakman Gandharba, who was a leading figure of the community. He died one month later.