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Back Roads Beat

Burning And Chilling At Jazzmandu 2005

By Published: November 15, 2005
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.

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