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Burning And Chilling At Jazzmandu 2005

Mark Sabbatini By

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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."


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