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Back Roads Beat

Burning And Chilling At Jazzmandu 2005

By Published: November 15, 2005
Most other places it'd be an ordinary night at a small jazz festival. Here it's culture shock in reverse.

The showcase event of Jazzmandu 2005 featured eight bands performing fusion-oriented jazz and Nepali music for seven hours on two stages. Roughly 500 listeners gathered on the lawn of a swanky golf resort on the outskirts on Kathmandu for the second day of the eight-day festival, clustering around smoky wood fires in large buckets constantly nursed by workers with diesel from small plastic bottles.

For locals, it was a pricey opportunity to indulge their curiosity about music never or rarely heard. For most foreigners - maybe all - it was a secondary diversion from long-distance treks, expatriate work and other primary reasons for visiting Nepal.

"We had no clue this was happening, but it's about the cultural experience," said Chris Barker, a distribution manager for General Motors' office in Dubai, lured to the resort with his family by a $400 per-person weekend golf package. "I don't play golf either, but it's a fantastic course."

The package costs about what an average Nepali worker earns in two-and-a-half years. A concert ticket costing 600 rupees ($8.50 U.S.) is about three weeks' wages and a Diet Coke (130 rupees) about four days' pay.

Given this, it's hard to fault a cab driver for getting lost four times and taking nearly two hours to make what's normally a 30-minute drive. It's doubtful he spends much time on the links.

Making the drive in ever-widening circles from the tourist district of Thamel (apparently on the assumption a sign or something will offer the driver guidance), one sees the things initially shocking to foreigners before a kind of numb indifference sets in. Garbage and raw sewage from squat toilets along riverbanks. Narrow streets inevitably jammed with aging tiny cars blaring horns, livestock, rickshaws, street merchants hustling trinkets and laborers carrying massive loads - all occupying whatever rut-filled space might be free regardless of road markings. Endless small stores and booths offering the same mix of food, CDs, clothes, souvenirs and necessities, often featuring trademark names bearing no resemblance to their real-world counterparts (something the corporate world seems to care less about here).

None of this really registered until I got the golf resort shortly before the Jazz Bazaar's 4 p.m. scheduled start (one learns quickly to allow extra time for the unexpected). Aside from being bow-legged after the marathon ordeal that included a couple of dirt traverses along riverbanks, I also got hit with reality vertigo from seeing the palatial five-star buildings surrounding the concert lawn.

Luckily I had an hour to gather my wits since, as has been mentioned, Nepal tends to operate on its own sense of time. The setting could have been anywhere: t-shirts and CDs on a long folding table near the entrance, and a half-dozen food booths selling hot dogs, fries, chili and beer (along with one offering Nepali meat dumplings known as momos - for more than five times the price one pays on the streets).

It's a small crowd compared to the 30,000 youths attending a recent rock concert at the city's National Stadium. Cost is doubtless a factor, since rock concerts may cost 50 rupees (about 75 U.S. cents), not to mention it being immensely more popular.

Festival Director Chhedup Bomzan acknowledged ticket prices are high for average Nepalis, but the cost of bringing musicians to Nepal and other expenses related to the festival leaves no alternative. The government provides no financial support. Some funding comes from private sponsors, but more common are trade-offs where venues provides things such as a few rooms for players in exchange for hosting a performance and earning money through vendor sales. In part, this is why events are spread around a large city that isn't easy to navigate.

"That's why we have the free events" such as a public square performance on day four and a "Jazzmandu Peace Parade" on the final day, Bomzan said. Also, tickets for an opening day youth band competition were 75 rupees, designed to draw young listeners and spark interest among new listeners.

The tactic successfully attracted Rajiv Shrestha, a recent graduate of commerce studies at a local college, to the Jazz Bazaar along with two of his friends. He said he enjoyed the youth bands even though they were mostly playing rock, but a single song performed at the end by the Norwegian organ trio Solid - who made up most of the competition's judging panel - convinced him to attend the pricey day two event.

"We were planning to come, but it was expensive so we had second thoughts," he said. "But after hearing Solid we decided to come."

Jazz can be heard regularly in a few locations in Kathmandu, including a club owned by Bomzan called the Upstairs Jazz Bar. Jawed Ashraf, a economics and commerce worker at the Indian embassy, said he goes to occasional performances there and it's "fine" compared to similar clubs he's been to in Europe and the U.S.

"What people play upstairs is not fusion - it's more traditional," he said, adding there there isn't any obvious Nepalese element to the music.

Some of that element comes when musicians from different groups interact, such as a recent performance at a museum where the Nepali fusion band jazz Cadenza played with traditional Nepalese folk musicians, said Marit Strand, a hydropower projects worker at the Norwegian embassy.

"That's what's fun about Jazzmandu, because they do mix," she said.

The Jazz Bazaar concerts began at 5 p.m. with a small group of traditional Nepali musicians and dancers performing on the smaller of two stages. A female emcee, speaking all night from a microphone somewhere offstage, said such performers traditionally traveled from village to village gathering news and translating it into song.

"In a sense, they were Nepal's first journalists," she said.

Among the songs they performed was an obviously popular tune I first heard and recorded by porters while staying in a trekking hut at 14,000 feet. The Jazzmandu rendition was more polished, but somehow less authentic and spontaneous. The same could be said for much of the music and dancing by colorfully dressed members; well-done and delivering fundamentals of Nepali folk in almost the stereotypical manner a visitor might expect after hearing it on countless overhead speakers in tourist shops, but lacking the extra spark of live music at its best.

Karma Avalanche, winner of the opening night's battle of youth bands, was the first act on the main stage and the rock-oriented quintet cranked out essentially a bigger and better version of their competition set. The songs and many of the solo passages were essentially similar, but the bigger crowd and multicolor flashing lights illuminating a larger stage - plus probably superior audio rigging - translated into a richer sound for the group's already strong arrangements. A person ignorant of the band's leanings probably would judge them a competent, if unadventurous, pop-fusion group based on original songs like the opening "Freedom In F Major," although vocal numbers like "Smile Away" made it obvious what much of their material consists of.

The alternating pattern of Nepali and jazz-oriented music continued throughout the evening. Probably the most impressive among the former was the instrumental trio Sukarma, whose name translates to "good deeds figuratively defined by the music they perform." A jazz-like interaction and spontaneity existed between Dhrubesh Regmi (sitar), Shyam Nepali (sarangi) and Pramod Upadhyaya (hand percussion), and their heavyweight credentials (Regmi earned the first Ph.D. in music in Nepal) ensured strong performances. Regmi's pluckings ranged from meditative to mandolin-like and Nepali's viola-pitch bowing was true to his described approach of "reflecting the typical Nepali style...very soft, melodious and touching." To a jazz fan their two sets during different parts of the evening came across as good ethnic example of the genre, if not genre- or mind-busting.

Given that Norah Jones and her ilk are headlining jazz circuits, it's hard to say the "acoustic progressive country and folk" set by Spanish guitarist and vocalist Dimple Singh Nandra was out of place. There wasn't anything particularly good or bad about the peace- themed songs such as "People Of The World Come Together" and "Time Is Running Out," but an unfortunate element was the overly processed sound from guest flutist Mariano Aballa of Cadenza. His spare but melodic playing would have been a strong addition standing on its own (as evidenced during subsequent appearances), but instead ended cloying and muddled. To their credit, they didn't flinch despite steady exposure to some of the worst smoke of the evening emitting from the scattered campfires.

The most anticipated jazz act for me was Cadenza, apparently Nepal's best-known jazz group. The base quartet is anchored by drummer/vocalist Navin Chettri, a founding member of the band and Jazzmandu, who described the group as "Nep-Jazz - a little different and a lot Nepali." The evening's performance, he said, would feature bits of jazz, blues, African and Latin.

Joined by several supplemental band members and visiting musicians with various influences, all those of elements were much in evidence - although I can't honestly say I heard "a lot of Nepali" in the mostly funk and fusion set. Chettri is a gifted chant-and-scat vocalist and a creative drummer whose foundations constantly elevates even average performances from other players.

Keyboardist Bastian Flury's modal/funk lines reflected the mix of influences he says he draws from Herbie Hancock's fusion and Steve Coleman's free improvisation. Aballa was a much stronger contributor on saxophone and flute than during Nandra's set with sharp, smart and easy to follow licks that didn't feel shallow when slow nor like excessive note indulgence when the pace quickened.

Songs ranged from rock-fusion originals like "Boot" ("It's kind of the short form for 'Budda's Long Out Of Town,'" Chettri said) to a fairly straight, if contemporary arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Caravan." By global standards it would qualify as good; as a showcase for exposing listeners to jazz Nepal it was first-rate.

Still, the best pure jazz playing came from the imported talent of Solid and their heavy progressive/West Coast leanings. Playing mostly original songs "with an obscure standard here and there," their variety of interplay and ability to stray tunefully from basic structures was clearly a step above. Guitarist Bjorn Solli's cool-era chops were the most authentic of the evening and his riffs-and-repeats were the exception, not the rule, when it came to building tension. Daniel Formo wrung the expected Hammond tonal twists with a mixture of dense chords and mallet-like hammering, while drummer Håkon Johansen got attention for solos ranging from triangle-pitched edge hits to lengthy full-kit rolls.

The final act was Groove Suppa, a funk quintet from Bombay that has performed at three Jazzmandu festivals and, like Solid, is appearing at many of this year's events. The chill affecting all of the post-dusk bands was at its most bone-numbing for them, and they said beforehand it's among the biggest challenges of playing at the festival.

"You just deal with it - enjoy the pain," said percussionist Vibhas "T2" Rahul.

Their heavy rock/fusion beats were good for crowd response, less so for nuanced playing. Guitarists Benoy Rai and Sanjay Joseph highlighted the set with combinations of contemporary fusion mixed with some classic raga influences, but the heavy density of the songs meant much of their work got muddled when the notes were at their fastest.

Joseph, during a pre-show interview, said it's a positive thing Nepali jazz is still in the developing stages since, among other things, it makes it easier for Nepalese artists to be prominently featured instead of being pushed aside by imported talent.

"Guys really had to struggle" without the benefit of music schools, instead through tradition and listening to outside music, he said. "That develops you in a different way than going to school for three years and coming out," he said.

Also, like many aspects of Nepal, there's lots of opportunity for growth, said drummer Lindsay D'Mello.

"It's a really small festival, but it has enormous potential," he said. "Where else will you find a jazz festival in the Hymalays?"

I cut out toward what I assumed what the end of their performance, figuring I'd beat whatever rush there might be for cabs and other transportation back to the city. Bad move - turns out the evening wrapped up with a unbilled group jam that according to the Kathmandu Post "was the most sterling performance of the night. A bigger dancing party had gathered and all the musicians just played on to a single tune, sprinkled with genius and improvisations." Even considering the hometown newspaper seems a bit overly complimentary in many of its reviews, missing this was a disappointment.

The cab ride home was mercifully short, since every driver is well familiar with the tourist district and many streets outside of it are empty after dark as Nepali residents turn in early and wake at sunrise for work. Along the way were the usual mix of locals staying warm by huddling around burning piles of trash in the curbs, and street kids and animals alike rummaging through refuge for food. In Thamel were the usual late-night throngs hitting the bars, "Pizza Hut" restaurants and stores selling all of the "Star Wars" episodes crammed onto a single DVD for a couple of dollars.

There's no guilt, because it's pointless and there's no villains between Jazzmandu and the streets - and the inequity isn't unique to Nepal. The affluent in New York City eat sushi with prices capable of sustaining a homeless family for a month and buy crocodile-skin handbags with funds capable of sheltering them for a year. What rock fans fork over to watch the sixtysomething Rolling Stones in concert could buy enough tickets to send a whole classroom of Nepali students - or maybe the entire school - to the evening's Jazz Bazaar.

Instead, there's a burning curiosity to see if crowds at the free events and students getting a workshop from musicians at a local school will react similarly to those at the Bazaar. The answer won't come for a few days, since the event takes a break Sunday before resuming at another expensive joint - this time seeking something with a decidedly more southern flavor.

Continue: Day 3

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