Jazzmandu 2005, Day 6: Jazz And Nepal's Youth

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In a country of extremes, Nepal's youth is no exception. Frighteningly high numbers are displaced, killed and suffer abuses such as being sold into prostitution. But when students go on strike it's a big deal as everyday commerce screeches to a halt.

Schools outside cities are lacking and a target for Maoist insurgents in their civil war with the Nepali government, which is also contributing heavily to the other problems as children become deliberate "soft targets." Many youths flee to the cities or nearby countries such as India to escape the threat of kidnapping and abuse. Even without the conflict, survival is a far bigger concern than education in one of the world's poorest countries, where perhaps 10 percent of homes have electricity and there is roughly one phone line for every 50 residents.

When Kathmandu newspapers mentioned yet another student strike planned during a visit a few years ago, it didn't seem like a big deal. But these aren't the sign-and-chant rallies featuring a mix of activists and class-cutters. The normally swarming streets were deserted. Nearly every business had the iron shutters down except a couple of food stores in the main tourist district that opened for a few hours for those willing to crawl under the still mostly lowered entrances. A taxi driver in the vicinity accepting a fare was surrounded and his car pelted with rocks.

So day six of the 2005 Jazzmandu festival, featuring a performance by several bands visiting Budhanilkantha School - one of Kathmandu's best - was as much a field trip for visitors as students. The day also subsequently offered an unexpected glimpse of some promising youths at work.

Among the few students interviewed at the school familiar with jazz was Samyan Rajbhandari, 18, a guitarist interested in players such as George Benson because "I just find it so melodious compared to other music." He is studying physics and chemistry at the boarding school, where he said students need "a really good reason" to leave campus, so music is a self-taught hobby.

"There are no institutions for jazz in Nepal, so that's why I'm self-studying," he said, adding that by listening to the Jazzmandu guest performers "maybe I can get some ideas of jazz from different places."

The performances and reactions from students mostly hearing jazz for the first time wasn't much different than might be seen anywhere. Seated on a worn floor in a bare- bones auditorium, mostly segregated with girls up front and boys in the back, they reacted loudest to fusion-oriented drum solos and chatted among themselves during more subtle - and accomplished - moments. But most interviewed afterward seemed to grasp the essentials of the genre and said they enjoyed the show, even if it probably didn't win many hardcore converts.

"Everybody from different countries came here and they have their different style," said Shraddha Poudel, 13. "I love that."

Haritmani Pokarel said he knew about jazz, but never heard it before the session. "I find it quite interesting," he said, saying some rhythms are similar to Nepali music he is familiar with. "That music has supernatural power to make anything interesting."

Leading off the performances, as they have other days, was the Canadian duo of vocalist Carmen Genest and classical guitarist David Jacques. Their mix of folk-jazz standards and originals (in French, which no student here is studying) wasn't much different than earlier shows, but Genest's energetic singing and lap-slap percussion on songs like "Ticket To Ride" and "Love For Sale" kept students listening.

The Kathmandu fusion group Cadenza got the first real cheers, beginning with a guest vocalist Arpana Rayamajhi, 18, belting out a fast-paced R&B number (although with not quite the energy as a show the previous evening) and drummer Navin Chhettri hammering out a short but comprehensive solo. A percussion-heavy "Afro Blue" was also well- received.

The closing act, the Indian blues band Soulmate, got a mixed response. Rockish R&B work held students' attention, but when things wandered into some long-form evolving fusion featuring some Bill Frisell-like guitar musings the audience chatter picked up. I won't say it was disappointing - it's a pretty common occurrence among any general audience.

The festival's scheduled evening performance offered a look at the role of jazz in the everyday life of Nepalis - or so I thought.

The doors were locked when I arrived at a free jam session at the Upstairs Jazz Bar, maybe Kathmandu's most notable jazz club - and it wasn't due to a lack of interest. People were jammed in to the point of being unable to move, which Chhedup Bomzan, the club's owner and director of the festival, said is not typical during regular gigs.

"It's really a nice intimate place," said Meg Ferrigno, a Rochester, N.Y, resident who has spent the past year in Nepal studying Buddhism. But on this night she was locked outside, separated from friends who arrived earlier.

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