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Jazzmandu 2005: A Musical Expedition Ends

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(All About Jazz exclusive: Two songs by a variety of musicians during a day five jam session generally considered the festival's best performance are available in this MP3 file (click to listen in a separate window, or right-click to download). Many thanks to those recording the event and sharing the file).



It sounds harsh, but the world would be a better place without Jazzmandu happening this November.



Blame the world, not the festival. Nepal's biggest jazz event is normally in March, but King Gyanendra's Feb. 1 dissolving of the democratic government in favor of monarchy rocked a country already reeling from civil war with Maoist insurgents and other political turmoil. Delaying Jazzmandu until November became the only realistic option in the wake of international travel warnings and other problems.



Peace demonstrations are also a seemingly daily occurrence, and Jazzmandu players and organizers made themselves heard on the final day of this year's eight-day festival. Few expected serious political impact, but setting a mood for the moment and passing the message in a different way to a different crowd in the outside world was meaningful enough.



"There's a lot of negative press about Nepal's situation," said Tipriti Kharbangar, lead singer for the Indian blues band Soulmate, while picking out a set of cowbells to play during the parade. "This is a chance to put forward a better message."



The Jazz Parade For Peace was one of three events during the final weekend. A "Best Of Jazzmandu" series of concerts by individual bands on day seven and a "Jazzmandu All-Star Jazz Jam" on the final evening offered lots polish in two top-tier hotel gardens, but also the most forgettable night of the festival.



The setting at the "Best Of Jazzmandu" concert at the Shangri-La Hotel was lush, with linen tables and now-familiar fire pits. The buffet featured dishes with cute names like Nicoise by Moonlight (tuna/bean/potato/tomato/anchovy casserole) and Poulet Ray Charles (chicken with nuts - not sure how the legend's name translates to those last two words).



The evening itself was a dud - so much so I left around halftime.



Every festival has down days and the problem is the audience and musicians weren't connecting. Attendees - I wouldn't call most of them listeners - were seated at the tables well back from the stage and spent at least as much time talking among themselves and concentrating on dinner. That sapped energy out of the music and, having heard better most of the week, it was discouraging to watch.



I'll avoid blame since I have a hypocritical anti-snobbery bias - I can't feel at home without Internet access and Western-style toilets. It also means my summary of the night is short, hence the combining of the final two days into this article. For those interested in a more optimistic viewpoint, I'm including intermittent excepts from the Kathmandu Post in (parentheses and italics).



The familiar opening pattern of mellow folk jazz didn't help, although it's safe to assume there aren't many repeat listeners at the big events beyond participants and festival supporters. Spanish guitarist/vocalist Dimple Singh Nandra teamed with flutist Binod Katwal on a few harmonious peace-theme songs that, similar to a concert on day two, were highlighted mostly by Katwal's darting fills. Also familiar, but maybe doing their best performance, were Canadian vocalist Carmen Genest and classical guitarist David Jacques, playing mostly different standards and French-language than the ones from most of their sets earlier during the week. The highlight was an original at the end featuring Jacques' guitar dropping in and out throughout, and vocals more varied in volume and pitch than normal for Genest (who continued her strong even-keel presence). But the most disappointing thing was never getting a chance during the week to hear Jacques play up to his credentials - I noted in an earlier update his resume is lengthy and varied - as his role was mostly background rhythm.



(From the Kathmandu Post: Peaceful and energizing...(Nandra's) smooth resonant voice, neither too mild nor to hard on the ears, coupled with the angelic and melodious flute playing of Binod Katwal had the audience's senses distracted from food to the stage. Canadian pair Carmen and David were up next and no matter how many times you listen to them, you will never get tired. Their flamboyant jazz, sprinkled with tinges of French, is totally enthralling.)



Evidence of the audience disconnect came during the next set by the Kathamndu fusion band Cadenza, where leader/drummer Nabin Chettri couldn't get the hands of most listeners off their dinner forks and wine glasses with the blistering full-kit solos that have roused every other crowd to date. Ultimately, the bands covered the sound and tempo basics, but the solos were lacking the energy and creativeness of their better shows during the festival.



(From the Kathmandu Post: Nepal's premier Jazz outfit Cadenza too put up a cracking show, reminiscing of its good performance in Gokarna. After Thursday's incredible show at a packed Jazz Upstairs, Cadenza seemed more robust than ever. The energy emanating from the band members seemed incredible as they played their most popular songs.)

It was at that point I left, missing the Norwegian funk trio Solid and Soulmate, although various musicians and others I talked to during the next day mostly agreed things just didn't click.



(From the Kathmandu Post: SOLID!, which has turned out to be the most favorite band in Jazzmandu, vindicated its popular status again with the obscure standards on guitars, the Hammond organ and percussions. Complex patterns and scales but crystal clear notes of Bjorn were crazy enough to give one the thrills, if not the very creative drumming of Håkon Mjåset Johansen and Daniel Formo's organ coupled with bass lines.



Shillong blues band Soulmate were raging up next as the last performers for the night. The extraordinarily powerful yet soothing voice of vocalist Tipriti Kharbyngar was again the highflier as smooth blues riffs and techniques ripped through Rudy Wallang's guitar. And after four fabulous songs, Soulmate had to call it a night due to the lack of time. Encore!



Towards the end of the night, the bands played well as usual, but it was a pity that the audience just didn't seem to be up for it. Perhaps the cold night was to be blamed.)



The jazz peace parade, on the other hand, was for me the most anticipated event of the festival.



After seeing student strikes essentially shut the country down and reading deliberately inane newspapers articles during the media crackdown (such as editorials endorsing wearing socks), I wondered if clashes with authorities or colossal crowds might result. As it turned out, the surprise was a fairly ordinary procession that seemed to attract more curiosity seekers who happened to be around than people who made a point of coming to watch.



The street along the parade route was devoid of spectators at the 1 p.m. scheduled start time and those working in the assortment of shops didn't seem to know about the event. Participants were still picking out instruments and getting organized at the Upstairs Jazz Bar, with about 30 of them setting off 35 minutes later for the Shangri-La hotel that hosted Friday's concert.



Dressed in everything from outlandish costumes to the most informal of everyday threads, and playing a wide assortment of ancient folk and modern band instruments, the music was basically a continuous classic-style Nepali beating of drums accompanied by a fairly simple melody from other instruments. Nothing exactly jazz-oriented, a shame since it was one of two free festival events for the public to hear the rarely played genre. Or so I thought. Chettri, in response to a question I asked in jest, said that, yes, some Sonny Rollins material was played, along with samba, Brazilian and other jazz-oriented compositions. Since I was moving along the route taking pictures and notes the whole time, it's possible I missed the nuances.



Reaction from those listening to the passing procession was more interesting than most crowds. Some were totally indifferent, usually those hardest at work such as women selling produce and porters with loads stacked high above their heads. Others ran excitedly upstairs to get family members and it seemed most showing an interest followed the procession to its end a half-hour after starting.

It was a far cry from a touring rock show that attracted thousands, mostly youths, during a Kathmandu street performance just before the festival. But those who came specifically for the parade generally seemed satisfied with the results.



"Everyone who is in Nepal is for peace," said Milan Nepali, 12, one of about 10 youths from a Kathmandu orphanage who joined the procession. "People say that, but when music is playing people are peaceful and listen."



The final festival performance at the Hotel Summit featured food grills and chairs scattered throughout a sprawling hilltop garden, so finding good seating near center stage wasn't necessarily a priority. Chettri, perhaps mindful of the disconnect from the previous evening, made an early appeal for listeners take chairs closer to the action.



"We need your energy on stage," he said.



Most of the sets had more kick than Friday's, boosted by some mix-and-match jamming and last-day energy. It also went beyond the two hours or so of most other nights, ending around midnight. More memorable than the music - I didn't feel I was hearing much different than previous nights, although Solid did something of a more thoughtfully mellow set than usual - was a small rodent problem.



Or lack of one. In this case, a mouse.



One of the soundboard people who also was recording the show didn't have one and it turned out to be a case where carting my Powerbook everywhere turned out to be of enormous mutual benefit. He got the much-needed mouse to run the board, which also allowed me to get the songs from the day five concert that are mentioned at the beginning of this article. So again, many, many thanks to him, as they are a fine sampling of the best the festival had to offer.



As to the overall success of the fourth Jazzmandu, reaction was mixed. Generally it seemed better than the first festival, perhaps not up to the level of recent ones.



Claims that interest in jazz is increasing among Nepalis seems to have merit. The first Jazzmandu had a total attendance of about 3,000 people, 75 percent of whom were foreigners. Last year's attendance was 10,000, with Nepalis representing half the total. Hard figures weren't available while I was there, although I tend to agree with others who say this year's figures didn't appear as high. But the delay caused by political strife has to be a consideration.



Chettri said even with Jazzmandu, jazz is progressing slowly in Nepal. But as with anything in its infancy, the potential for both rapid and extensive growth is enormous.



"Jazz is difficult and people are reluctant to do anything like that," he told the Kathmandu Post. "Hopefully with workshops, the confusion and mystery floating around jazz will be cleared. Still compared to other countries where jazz has already existed for years, the young jazz scene here is growing at an amazing speed."

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