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Jazzmandu 2005, Day 4: Taking It To The Streets


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The crowd started arriving three hours early, surrounding the trio on all sides. Children took in unusual looking and sounding instruments with transfixed stares. Plenty of applause greeted a fast and loose set venturing at times into the theatrical, such as solos featuring cymbals tossed off low-laying brick walls.

Norwegian guitarist Bjorn Vidar Solli didn't rank it among the better performances by his band Solid, but the novelty of the free outdoor performance on day four of the Jazzmandu 2005 festival was unquestionable for performers and listeners.

"Look at all of you—this is crazy," he told the audience at one point, many of whom likely understood little of what he said. Afterward, he said, "I'd be lying if I said it doesn't affect you."

The hour-long concert in Patan Durbar Square, one of the most popular historical sites in Nepal's capital city of Kathmandu, was the first of two free events scheduled during the eight-day festival. Intended to offer a rarely heard genre of music by notable musicians to Nepali residents unable to afford tickets that might cost more than a month's wages, there were few non-complimentary remarks from those in the crowd.

To think of it as the sophisticates educating the primitive masses is unfair, by the way, unless one dismisses the similarly hypnotic effect of a flute-playing python charmer on a throng of visitors along one of the streets my cab passed on return trip to my guest house.

The gathering of several hundred people in the square wasn't sizable compared to what more popular styles might attract, said Tilak Sresta, a finance administrator for one of Nepal's non-governmental organizations. He said there's four or five concerts there a year and youths most likely to turn out don't really relate to jazz.

"This is not a big crowd," he said. "Maybe if rock and pop was here the place would be full. Maybe the police would be here to control things."

Nepali listeners made up nearly all of those crowding the stage, while visitors with cameras, vendors selling trinkets and and locals dressed in colorful garb (and demanding rupees if captured by a tourist's lens) watched from the periphery. Mostly original songs by Solid were upbeat and heavy on long, playful solos—Solli scatting in tune to rapid-note picking, drummer Håkon Johansen playing whatever hand percussion he dumped out of a bag in mid-song, keyboardist Daniel Formo wandering between Hammond chords and toy piano riffs. They may not have concluded on the strongest note with Solli 's lounge lizard vocals on "All Of Me," but those getting their first taste of jazz got an accomplished and progressive funk/West Coast set (I confess skepticism about the follow-up interest of those whose initial impression comes from smooth/lite on the radio).

Raj Kumar, a tour guide in the square, said he likes rap music, but found Solid enjoyable because he hears similarities in the underlying rhythms. He said he thinks older residents probably have a harder time relating to jazz, an opinion echoed by a middle-age woman selling pendents with two teen-age girls.

"I do not understand this music (because) I don't speak English," she said during Solli's concluding number.

Children—eager to gather around a foreigner with a notebook, but speaking few words due to shyness or limited language skills—offered a few comments suggesting their enjoyment of the afternoon performance went beyond being something different to watch.

"It's good to listen to," said Sabina, a 10-year-old student in a blue skirt-and-button-shirt uniform. She's said she's never heard jazz before, but found it has "much life."

Offering a more advanced assessment was Kishor Mahorjan, a college-level finance student who was one of the few Nepali residents interviewed who listens to jazz.

"I like a style that is in the style of Nat King Cole—that is beautiful," he said. Solid's performance was enjoyable because of "all the combinations, the keyboards, the guitar—I like mostly the guitar."

Like many residents, he said there's little interest in jazz among most people.

"The mentality does not reach up to there," he said. "It is expensive to hear, too."

Festival organizers and some performers say they believe Nepal's jazz scene is emerging—or at least has potential to emerge. A letter to the editor in one of Kathmandu's newspapers the day of the performance offers food for thought. It calls a newspaper photo of traditional Nepali musicians playing during a multi-concert event on day two a cultural insult, arguing it doesn't accurately portray jazz or give locals a reason to seek out the music.

Solli said he got requests for autographs after the concert, along with people wanting him to explain the concepts of jazz—something as difficult to do with foreigners as at home since, as is often the case, it's a matter of playing what comes from the soul.

My personal experience with Nepali music is it's often spontaneous and a potent compositional foundation that casual listeners might find bears similarities to Eastern and Afro/Cuban (what an advanced listener might think is beyond me, not possessing that level of comprehension). While trekking a few years ago I found kids able to pick up simple improvising concepts like pentatonic scales as easily as those back home—and more attentive to boot.

But with few music schools and none devoted to jazz in Kathmandu, opportunities beyond self-study are fleeting. A handful of students are scheduled to get a glimpse of the possibilities in two days, when many of the bands at Jazzmandu are scheduled to perform and discuss their music at one of the city's more renowned schools.

First, though, is a return to Patan Durbar Square for a decidedly more upscale jam session at an adjacent museum between the various Jazzmandu groups and classical Nepali musicians. After hearing the latter crank out intriguing compositions on traditional folk instruments on day two I've wondered what they might sound like tackling the works of Monk or Coltrane. This may finally be a chance to find out.

Coming on day five: A peak (performance) and peek (listen) from the collective.

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