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

By Published: November 25, 2005
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.

I managed to convince the bouncer to let me in long enough to take a few awkward photos before I had to stop holding my breath and escape to the street for oxygen. It's definitely a place for the dedicated to get their fix, complete with memorabilia from world-famous and Nepali performers filling the walls. I listened to a couple of tunes from the street and it was pretty casual and unremarkable blues/funk stuff, so I wasn't feeling any great sense of loss.

The Kathmandu Post, often somewhat over complimentary in its coverage, did offer interesting tidbits about the intensity level later in the evening, including this about drummer Håkon Johansen of the Norwegian fusion trio Solid: "Håkon showed his techniques and fury in a blistering drum solo that split his drumstick into half. Amusing moments came after he broke his left-hand drumstick, too, as he searched around for something to hit the skin with. Giving up, he picked up his shoe and started playing with that."

Meanwhile, I had an unexpected backup plan thanks to a "live jazz" sign I saw earlier outside a bar near my hotel. Signs in Nepal don't always reflect reality, but in this case it turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of my trip.

A respectfully traditional rendition of "Footprints" was being played by an electric guitar/ bass/drums trio as I climbed the stairs to the second-story Full Moon Bar. It's a typical small Nepali hangout with maybe 10 floor-level tables where shoes are removed before sitting on cushions. Squeezed into a corner floorspace next to the bar three casually dressed younger guys looking more like they ought to be doing grunge - or at least jam band grooves - were authoring the '60s post-bop licks with authority.

Guitarist Jiojmee Dojee Sherpa, aside from his wah-wah tone lending a bit of blues attitude, ripped through a series of complex chords and meters, skipping the excess barrage of notes younger players often rely on to make an impression. The intelligent restraint also prevailed in bassist's Chi Thapa support and drummer's Sagar Shrestha rapid-but-light Roy Haynes-like flourishes. It was the first straight-ahead jazz I've heard in Nepal and the kind of stuff one can nurse for hours while noshing rakshi and chiura.

Sherpa is no stranger to Jazzmandu or Cadenza, the country's best-known jazz band. He played with them for four years before co-founding the JCS Trio a few years ago.

"They wanted to go funky," he said. "I wanted to do standards. It's the most intelligent music."

The trio plays weekly gigs at the Full Moon and also at a garden restaurant in a nearby district, often seeing many of the same listeners each week, Sherpa said. He said they've played past Jazzmandu festivals, but "we didn't get ready this year."

Thapa said he believes jazz is starting to be familiar to more people and "in a few years you will see more bands." Part of the problem, he said, is for a long time even those interested in playing were lacking more than educational opportunities.

"A few years ago there wasn't even a decent music shop in Kathmandu," he said. "Now you can go in and buy a guitar and amplifier."

The thought of upscale shopping had already crossed my mind going to and from the Upstairs Jazz Bar, which happens to be down the street from a couple of fully modern hotels like the Radisson. As a result there seemed to be a lot of shops selling the kind of Nepalese crafts more likely to be found in an import shop on Fifth Avenue than the Bronx. I had no intension of buying such stuff - books on Nepali politics, CDs, and $3 DVDs with the complete "Terminator" and "Matrix" trilogies somehow squeezed on are more my thing - but another stop in the neighborhood to see this mix of locals and tourists seemed worthwhile.

As luck has it, the final two days of Jazzmandu features events in the area. The first is an "all-star" night of individual concerts by most of the bands at one of those fancy hotels, followed the next day by a jazz parade for peace along the main street that has topped my curiosity list from the start. Wrapping things up the final night is a gala-like jam session at a hilltop hotel in another part of town - where it turns out I'll find that while I haven't seen any rats on the loose yet, it's definitely worthwhile to have a mouse or two around.

Coming on days seven and eight: Peace, pitfalls and prizes.

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