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Back Roads Beat

The Heights Of Nepal's Jazzmandu 2005

By Published: November 7, 2005
If there's any question Nepal is a world of its own, ask someone the time.

When it's noon in India, it's 12:15 p.m. on the other side of the northern border, as Nepal operates in a time zone independent of every country on Earth. Maybe there's a small effort at rounding off to better fit the modern world - the offset was 20 minutes until 1996 - but for arriving foreigners it's the first jolt into a lingering surrealism going well beyond jet lag.

In jazz lingo, imagine dropping a random planeload of jazz fans into an Anthony Braxton concert.

The majority probably storms the exits seeking the familiar comforts of Chris Botti and Starbucks, while the few remaining find deep enrichment in those freeform lines seemingly devoid of anything resembling harmony. There's no shame for the former - in Nepal it's easy to get hustled, robbed, deathly ill, and repulsed by rampant poverty and filth. There's also the not-so-small issue of serious political turmoil, prompting foreign governments to advise against traveling here. Whether trekking in the world's tallest mountains or the urban jungle of Kathmandu, survival for typical Westerners means abandoning almost all familiar habits and adapting to local ones.

So when it comes to Nepal's biggest jazz event, one shouldn't question if it meets or defies expectations. It is madness to have them.

The fourth annual Jazzmandu, an eight-day festival that started Nov. 4, offers a razor-sharp picture of a country in the infancy of jazz development. Most in-country bands are playing something other than jazz, few dedicated fans of the genre are in the audiences, and there's a good chance just getting to and being at the gigs is a more immersive cultural experience for both artists and listeners.

"Jazz is a growing thing here," said Mahesh Sajnani, the festival's administrator and media coordinator. 'We're definitely in the baby will take many years to mature."

Musicians find themselves taking cabs whose drivers unconvincingly insist they know where venues are, playing in bone-numbing temperatures and choking on clouds of smoke from fires burning in buckets among the crowd. Listeners experience much of the same, plus concerts conforming to Nepal's unique concept of adhering to conventional time, getting to locations scattered far and wide in the massive city and - for locals - prices sometimes exceeding what an average worker earns in two or three weeks.

But if the jazz is unremarkable - and it's a stretch to say transformative work has been heard so far - it's hard to imagine anyone but the genre's most shallow fans not finding "other" works such as traditional and modern interpretations of Nepali instrumentals far more interesting than money-making headliners like Lauryn Hill and Lionel Ritchie at world-famous festivals. Some formidable talent exists among the handful of foreign musicians Jazzmandu can afford to book. There's also free events so anyone interested can get exposure to rarely heard music, including a scheduled peace parade on the final day that carries promise of substantial meaning given the political instability.

Nepalese residents said they consider Jazzmandu a major event in a capital constantly buzzing with activity, even though rock acts are far more affordable and draw much larger crowds.

"For this kind of thing this is our first time," said Nabin Shrestha, a government dairy industry worker attending an opening-day event. But he said local newspaper coverage is heavy and "I expect this place to be filled with people."

Sainani said the festival is popular with expatriates - embassy workers in particular seem prominent at initial events - and estimates 10 percent of attendees are foreign visitors.

None of the foreigners interviewed for this story said they came to Nepal for the jazz festival - all were attending between planned activities such as trekking in the Himalayas and rafting in some of the world's most sought-after rapids.

"I was quite surprised to hear they have a festival," said Manny Patel, a resident of Bristol, Scotland, attending a first-night concert with a friend after being forced to abandon a trek of the Annapurna Circuit when unseasonably heavy snow killed 18 people and 300 yaks (a major catastrophe for a mountain population that depends on them for survival). He said they go to jazz festivals in Scotland and England, but avoid the major and more crowded ones because "if you look you can always find a good festival to go to."

His friend, Stef, who asked her last name not be used, said they are planning to attend some of the less formal Kathmandu events such as the peace parade since, between the storm and disruption to future plans, they find themselves spending more time in Nepal than originally planned.

"We're going to India next, but we're waiting a bit because there's been a bombing in Delhi," Stef said.

The Next Generation - Of Jazz?

The festival's opening event was a first-ever "Jazz For The Next Generation" competition for musicians under 24 years of age, with the winning group getting to play during a series of concerts the following day at a plush golf resort - promoted as the festival's biggest event - plus learning at workshops with visiting bands. There were also gift certificates and other prizes for the top three finishers and, since only three of the five bands entered showed up, all took home something of value.

Performing first in the small garden/courtyard setting was Jocos, a guitar/bass/drums trio with little jazz experience. The group started playing three years ago, focusing mostly on blues and reggae, said guitarist Rabin Bishwakama.

"We were just learning music with the same teacher," he said. "We tried to see if we could play together."

Jocos finished last in the competition after playing a couple of instrumental blues jams, a slow vocal blues and a mid-paced reggae song that, candidly, possessed the simplicity of players who know the basics getting together for a garage jam. But Bishwakama, speaking before the event, didn't seem to care too much about what they might win.

"We can just interact with the artists," he said. "That is a really great prize."

They were followed by Karma Avalanche, a quintet playing tunes more reminiscent of classic instrumental rock by Eric Clapton or the Eagles than Monk or Marsalis. Their soloing, mostly by guitarist Bibhusan Basnet and keyboardist Abhisek Bhadsa, relied largely on repeating riffs, but the crowd was responsive and as a group they possessed a tightly controlled sound full of energy thanks to a strong foundation from drummer Allan Shrestha.

Basnet said they typically play "underground" rock gigs where crowds are "bigger and badder." But they were impressive enough for the judges to name them the winner.

"They were trying to do some improvisation and technically what they were doing was more accomplished," said Tom Gravlie, director of International Affairs for Rikskonsertene, a Norway organization involved in a jazz-centered cultural exchange project with Nepal and several other countries. The other judges were the members of the Norwegian organ trio Solid, a featured performer throughout the festival.

The third youth group was In Between, an electric guitar/bass/drums/vocal group performing mostly hard rock/blues with some decent in-the-chordal lines soloing by guitarist Prashauf Gurang. Vocalist Diwas Mayur said they didn't come with a jazz mindset ("actually, we thought it was a blues competition," he said). But Gravlie said given the wide reach of jazz from traditional to electronica laced with classical influences, they and the other groups weren't necessarily out of place at the competition.

"That is a difficult question," he said. "What is jazz?...If it's blues, if it's fusion, what's most important is it's good music."

Solid played one song on instruments borrowed from the bands while the the votes were being tallied and from the opening bars they clearly showcased jazz on a much higher level. Guitarist Bjorn Solli's bluesy solos went beyond the scale lines and got interactive rather than passive rhythm support. Keyboardist Daniel Formo's riffs served merely as glue between complex chordings and tonal shadings. Drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen's solo featured extensive stick clicking, unconventional sounds from edge hits and a climax of technically accomplished speed rolls. The crowd responded in-kind, shouting for an encore, but time constraints denied them one as the band headed to a restaurant they were performing at that evening for a sound check (although it should be noted they were nursing beers an hour beyond the scheduled start time). The night performance was one of two restaurant shows - the other was Indian band Groove Suppa - and a look at some of their festival performances will be featured in coming updates.

Coming on Day 2: Burning and chilling at the main event.

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