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Back Roads Beat

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

By Published: November 25, 2005
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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