April 27 2011, Kathmandu
I am drinking tea and sitting in a music store I’ve just discovered on my last day in Kathmandu. The owner and his brother play me selections from CDs of modern Nepalese music. A track begins and within 10 to 30 seconds I say “Yes” or “Not so much” or “Can you fast forward to the next track please?” Rarely does a second listen turn into a yes.
The brothers—they’ve shortened their names to Cho and Gho for the tourists—are a little uncomfortable. Foreigners come in the shop, they say, but no one talks to them other than to ask a price. No one has sat down in their shop and asked for their opinion on the best modern Nepalese music. They are uncertain of their English. No problem, I tell them. It is better than my Nepalese.
They try different genres to see what I might like. No, I repeat. What do you listen to? What music do you buy for yourself? They look at each other and shrug their shoulders. No, nothing. They have music here, they say.
They steer me toward some light modern but traditional chant (nothing as radically altered as modern western chant) and some very light but pleasant melodic jazz. He does not know the word “punk,” so I mime manic rock and roll. He looks at his brother and they both raise their eyebrows and shrug their shoulders. When I mime guitar, they play some light but pleasant jazz—nothing bluesy or really jazzy.
Nepal is decades behind modern Arabic or African or Indian music. The difference between what I’ve heard here and what I’ve heard of modern Mongolian and Tuvan bands is the difference between black and white and color TV. I asked our guide what store the local hip kids go to buy their CDs and he let me out at an electronics store downtown that sold CDs between refrigerators and car tires. I walked quickly through the stalls—there were plenty of CDs—and dipped in here and there. But there was nothing truly great here—it was mostly not very good American and British rock and a depressing amount of bad European heavy metal. When I found a clerk and made myself understood that I was looking for local or a modern Nepalese music, I was steered to the same CDs I see everywhere—traditional chant, knock-off chant, some traditional Nepalese folk ensembles or small orchestras, some light jazz.
Most of Cho’s music sales come from “traditional folk music.” By traditional folk music he means the chanting of mantras. “Om Mane Padma Hum” is playing in every music shop I’ve visited in Nepal, which is rather pleasant in that I find I continue to chant it silently for a minute or two as I continue walking and wonder what it must be like to be in a room with the chant going on all day long. As it is, it’s a nice pick-me-up, but that’s not the kind of music I’m looking for today.
By the time we’re through, there are 24 nos and 8 yesses on the counter. He tells me the CDs are 400 Nepalese rupees each. I am expected to haggle. If something starts at 400 rupees, I’m supposed to offer 275 and settle for 300. And by buying eight at a time, I should bargain down the final price as well, at least by 10-20 percent. But 400 Nepalese rupees is less than $6.00 USD, and these are not bootlegs, these are official releases, so I hand him 3200 rupees and thank him for his help, waving off his attempts to return some of my money. I tell him it’s a small price to pay for their time and expertise.
When I tell him I am leaving tomorrow for the airport, he warns me that there is going to be a strike. This is the “Travel Year” for Nepal—2011—and there was an agreement that the Leftists wouldn’t call for any strikes this year. Tourism is the only thing keeping the country solvent, and any word about possible strikes is guaranteed to hurt tourism.
No one is really certain what will happen tomorrow. In the past, mobs at major intersections have been known to force business-as-usual trucks and taxis and buses to stop, drag the drivers and riders out of their vehicles and beat them to death on the streets, leaving their abandoned vehicles on the road as a warning as well as a barrier to traffic. Stores that refused to shut down have been burned to the ground. But they usually don’t harass vehicles with “Tourist Only” license plates, he assures me. He tells me I should get out of the city as early as possible as the Leftists aren’t early risers—and he and his brother share a laugh at this. But things will get more difficult as the day progresses and they warn me not to go out after dark. I tell them that my flight is in the early afternoon and they look at each other and frown. But the hotel will probably send a policeman with you, they say together, and nod. You will be okay. On the walk back to my hotel, I pass a teenaged mango salesman on a street corner wearing a t-shirt that says “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”
There is a notice at the hotel elevators, advising us of the impending strike, and we are urged not to go outside without alerting the doorman, who will keep an eye on us and make sure that we have safe transportation. The hotel will arrange rides to the airport tomorrow running every hour on the hour beginning at 6 a.m. for 100 Nepalese rupees per person (a more than reasonable fee for transportation to the airport from downtown Kathmandu). Most shops won’t be open tomorrow, and any stores that do open will be forcibly shut down by the strikers as the day goes on. The hotel’s cafeterias will be open throughout the day for meals, as well as room service. All national sites will be closed, so there’s really no reason to go out.
If we are flying tomorrow, we are urged to leave for the airport at least four hours before our flight, as there may be checkpoints on the roads. We could be stopped at any time—and even several times on a single trip—and investigated by the police.
In the morning our waiter tells us that there are no reports of any vehicles with “Tourist Only” plates being attacked, but the only road to the airport has been shut down several times.
There is no policeman on board the van that takes us to the airport. There are small crowds at every intersection. “See,” says our guide, “There is at least a military man and a policeman at every roundabout. This is where people gather because this is where traffic slows down, this is where the trouble starts.”
The policemen and military men look into our van as we pass, making sure we are only tourists on our way to the airport. But we never feel in any real danger, and when we arrive at the airport there is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. We are soon in line, checking our bags, almost five hours early for our flight back to Delhi.
Modern Non-Classical Music of Nepal
Arun Thapa: Jati Maya Laye Pani
Arun Thapa was a Nepalese pop singer (1952-1999) who was born in Calcutta, but his family returned to Nepal when Arun was three months old. In college he fell in love with a girl and ran away from Kathmandu. He has claimed that all of his hundreds of songs are written about this relationship. “Jati Maya Laye Pani” is his first big hit, released when he was 19 years old. His song Reetu haruma timi hariyali basant hau (You are the spring amongst the seasons) is number 7 on the list of the World’s Top Ten songs of all time. A statue to him stands near the house where he spent his teenage years. He died of lung and liver ailments in Kathmandu on July 22, 1999.
The Axe Band: Chiya Barima
The Axe Band have a Facebook page, but it’s all in Nepalese, so I don’t know what it’s saying. But there are lots of links to videos and such on their site.
Khmer Fusion Project: Juno Katah
The Khmer Fusion Project is made up of a group of four Californian musicians who moved to Cambodia while still teenagers to learn traditional Khmer instruments and music and record the music of the current masters. This track is a collaboration with Nepalese musicians of a traditional Nepalese folk song.
Mana Raja Nakarmi & Gopal Rasaili: My Compassion
No information on either artist. From “Nepali Folk Songs” compilation.
Narayan Gopal & Kali Prasad: Kehi Mitho Baat Gara
I have no information on Kali Prasad.
Narayan Gopal Guruacharya (October 4, 1939 – December 5, 1990) was born in Kathmandu. His father was a teacher of classical music, who would not allow folk music to be sung in his house, but Narayan would become the most famous composer and singer of Nepalese folk music in his lifetime. He studied music at Maharaja Sayajirao University, but dropped out before completion. At the end of the ‘60s, already known as a popular folk musician, he began listening to records by Bob Dylan and the Beatles while staying in Calcutta, which began to influence his own compositions. He was referred to in Nepal as Swar Samrat (or Emperor of Voice) and the Tragedy King. He died childless of diabetes at the age of 51.
Newa Beatles: Yala Yala
No information on Newa Beatles.
Trikaal: Mana Muskan
Trikaal is a musical ensemble from Nepal who try to incorporate as many instruments and musical styles as they can from around the world.
Timrai Kasam Bho & Pahdindra Dhakuri: Rajan Thakuri
No information on either artist, although there are several videos available by Timrai on YouTube. From “Nepali Folk Songs” compilation.
Sur Sudha: Tamangselo
Sur Sudha was the Goodwill Ambassador for Nepal during their Tourism Year, 2011. They feature the three instruments most popular in Nepal—flute, sitar, and tabla—and play traditional folk songs, as well as original material in traditional modes. They have been the subject of documentaries in France and Germany, and in 1998, theirs was the 2nd most frequently played international music in the world, and remained in the top ten in the world throughout 1998.
Upendra & Friends: Wind of Naeba
No information available, although I found many CDs available by Upendra (keyboards), both solo and “Upendra & Friends,” which is his touring group while in Nepal.
Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.