Kutumba: Mainstreaming Nepalese folk music

The first time I saw Kutumba was during the 2010 Jazzmandu. I had returned to Nepal after a long time, and watching this Nepali folk music ensemble in an international jazz festival hosted annually in Kathmandu was a great musical experience.

Since 2010, I have heard Kutumba at various venues, and every time it has been a different experience, including the one in London yesterday.

It was Kutumba’s maiden UK tour, and their first performance in London. Just the fact that they performing at St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, also known as the Actors’ Church, was different, but their line up was particularly diverse than what I have heard. It certainly sounded like they were prepared to play for the Nepali diaspora with a mix of original compositions as well as classic Nepali tunes. From Nepali folk to film soundtracks, Kutumba’s tunes brought Nepalese living abroad closer to home.

While the classic Nepali tune “Reshan Firiri” was an instant crowd pleaser, the 200 plus audience provided a chorus to the evergreen song “Asarai Mahinama” (Here’s my favorite cover by Diwas Gurung). And the audience did not deter from dancing in the typical Nepalese way to a medley of nostalgic tunes that included folk songs like “Lekali” and “Sodha Ramalai” and popular soundtrack from Nepalese movies like “Mohani Lagla Hai” and “Maitighar.”

Just before the show, I talked to Pavit Maharjan, Kutumba’s percussionist. I have met him several times in Kathmandu, and it was good to see a familiar face, and a popular one at that, in London. He told me it was a “totally new experience” for the band being in the UK for the first time. Moreover, the band members told me that their collaboration with Scottish musicians during their Scotland performance was rather unique; it was a fusion between Nepalese folk with fiddle and bagpiper.

Having travelled far and wide across Nepal, and the globe, Pavit told me that Kutumba’s musical mission is to “bring all the [Nepalese folk] instruments together and represent Nepal.”

In London, they were successful in doing that.

For London-native Madleine Marsh, Kutumba was a “real surprise.” The 51-year-old said she heard about the concert from a Nepalese friend and did not know what to expect.

“I knew nothing about Nepalese music, and I love it now,” she said as she wiped her sweat as she exited the dance floor.

Kutumba’s music has also helped Nepalese youth to connect to folk music, partially, if not in its full entity. Their music is enjoyable yet it retains the ethnic flavors of the diverse Nepalese culture.

Kutumba gives young Nepalese an opportunity to like Nepali folk music. They have mainstreamed folk music to a certain extent and their collaborations with commercial Nepalese artists have further aided in its popularity.

At Jazzmandu, the band collaborated with Cadenza Collective, a popular jazz group. At an event in Kathmandu Durbar Square, a cultural square in central Kathmandu, they played together with Nepalese rock group Albatross for the first time–it was a well-crafted musical camaraderie.

But one of Kutumba’s best performances has to be at the Rashtriya Nachghar in Kathmandu in June. They performed alongside pop singer Astha Tamang Maskey and rock band Jindabaad. The fusion of pop, rock and folk created a sound that was creative, commercial, very Western and yet very Nepali.

With eight years since its existence, Kutumba has produced five albums and in their performances they play their original compositions and improvize other Nepali tracks otherwise.

One of my friends argues that listening to Kutumba gets monotonous after seeing them live for a few times. I agree. But I think what makes the difference is the setting and the venue itself, and of course the crowd is always different, which makes a difference too. Though they played some of the same tunes, seeing them during Jazmandu was totally different from seeing them at the Rashtriya Nachghar in June where they included a group of women folk musicians playing the dhime, a traditional Nepalese percussion.

One of the best parts of watching Kutumba live is to just see them perform. Every time I see them, I see a passion in their performance. While performing, they interact through their eyes and smiles among themselves. And just looking at them, listening to them, you can tell that totally absorbed into it.

During the 90s, Sur Sudha, a three-member Nepalese musical trio, made Nepalese folk music popular locally and internationally using traditional instruments like tabla, flute and sitar. Their compositions are highly acclaimed and the trio has also been accredited by many titles, including Nepal’s musical ambassadors.

Kutumba is in a similar league, but they have managed to incorporate some modern sounds to their music. This has therefore helped them to become a more commercial and accessible to young ears for whom the folk sounds have become more enjoyable, something they can dance to.

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