Category Archives: Music

Ani Choying Drolma: The superstar nun

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I first heard Ani Choying Drolma in 2004 — her song “Phool Ko Ankhama” had become viral of some sort. It was everywhere — on TV, radio and playing across the CD stores in New Road. It seemed like almost everyone was addicted to that song. Its simple lyric and haunting melody soothingly introduced us to a Buddhist nun, an unlikely music star among the likes of Nabin K. Bhattarai, Girish-Pranil and Kunti Moktan whose songs lingered on the music charts.

In 2005, I was leaving for the United States for higher education. I packed a lot of things which I thought would remind me of Nepal in a foreign country. And I also packed Ani Choying Drolma’s super-hit album Moments of Bliss. I’m not sure why I thought her music would remind me of home — maybe I packed it because I liked her songs.

But in that lonely two-bedroom apartment in the US when I played her songs, they really reminded me, in a very strange way, of being somewhere close to home. I cannot say exactly how, but it did: maybe it was just listening to those words or the music and chants that often echoed along the streets of Thamel and Boudha.

Exactly 10 years later since I first heard her, thanks to my profession, I had a chance of interviewing her. There she was in her apartment, profusely apologising to me for being late as soon as she entered. She said she was taking guitar lessons and that kept her occupied in the mornings.

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As she made herself comfortable, we started chatting. Since we weren’t under a time constraint, I was at ease while talking to her. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous initially but as we chatted, there were bursts of laughter and moments of silence. In the two-hour timeframe, we covered a lot of topics — from her tormented childhood to music to her admiration for music, movies and food. And becoming a star, being branded as a ‘rock star nun.’

But then and there, she didn’t behave like one. Even in that formal setting, we chatted casually.

“You’re just like anyone,” I said when we were discussing about how people perceive about her and the notions of being a super star nun.

“Oh, thank you,” she laughed. “Thank god you think I’m a normal person – I am just like you and everyone else.”

Here’s my profile on Ani Choying Drolma for the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

VIDEO: Ani Choying Drolma on how she became a singer

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Remembering an icon

It’s been three days since the country lost one of its music legends — Fatteman Rajbhandari. But when I tuned into a tribute program on Kantipur Television tonight, he was singing with the same panache, striking every musical note that I have been hearing since childhood.

We lived in a conjoined house; he was my grandfather’s younger brother, my father’s uncle. And since he lived in the house next door, I called him “uta baa” meaning the grandfather next door. And for all of my siblings and cousins, for family members of my generation, he became “uta baa.”

Music has been in the family. While my grandfather chose the tabala, his younger brother, Fatteman, ventured into singing, both of the brothers defying what their father did: business. While my grandfather made his way to the army, his younger brother pursued music.

As a child, I remember sitting on uta baa’s lap and playing the harmonium — that’s the only vivid memory I have of those days. Maybe because the harmonium was such a fascinating musical instrument. I remember playing with the keys and more than that putting my fingers on the small circular holes in the front of that instrument, enjoying the puffed air that came out of it. While growing up, for the rest of the time, until last year when I was home for the holidays, I heard him practising his vocals early in the morning. To be honest, it did get annoying at times — listening to him sing at the crack of dawn when all I wanted was some sleep after a late night out. But I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start my day.

For all of us in the family, if I may say so, he was more than a singer — I think personal relationships always weighed in more than his profession. Growing up, I heard stories not about the legendary singer but of a strict father, a mischievous brother, and an adventurous uncle who went on an excursion to Bombay with my father and uncle. He never imposed the grandeur of his professional success and status in the family. As I heard many of his contemporaries and colleagues describe him as modest and devoid of an aura of a celebrity during his funeral, I can’t agree more. In the family, around the neighborhood, he was just yet another man doing his everyday stuff, singing included.

Having achieved so much, he never acted like this man who is undoubtedly in the list of Nepal’s finest. He certainly didn’t act like the modern-day celebrities who crave for publicity and thrive on their stardom. He didn’t need to because he was more than a celebrity — he was an icon.

At his funeral on Tuesday morning, the sensational singer was resting peacefully. It had been a painful week — his upper body had swollen to the extent that he couldn’t breath; his face was puffed making him almost unrecognizable.

But the last morning that we would ever see him, it seemed he had re-emerged to his true form — the swelling had subdued and it was the same face that we were used to seeing. And as we kept staring at his body, one of his songs played in the background: “Marna Baru Garho Hunna/ Timro Maya Marnai Sakinna (It would be easy to die than to let go of your love).”

This timeless classic that made him a national icon was the soundtrack to his funeral. Though emotions ran high and tears trickled down, we all knew that though he’s not with us physically, he will always be alive in his songs — his voice would keep echoing through those eternal songs about love, life and heartaches.

That moment, amid all the grief and sorrow, seemed like an immaculate ending.

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San Zhi: New band in town

It’s a different kind of joy listening to new bands – they’re fresh, and their gigs always seem intimate. It’s not like paying a ridiculous amount and getting a seat that’s not even worth the price. (Read my previous posts on To Kill A King and Benjamin Francis Leftwich.)

Last week, I paid £3 to see San Zhi at the Dalston Servant Quarters, and I must say that it’s one of the best gigs I’ve been to in a long time. This new London-based band is not only impressive but gets infectious.

I came across San Zhi through a friend who is a friend to Suraya, the female vocalist of the duo; the other member is vocalist and guitarist Peter Howarth-Brown.

The Egyptian and English duo met during their university studies and what started as a bedroom project is now out in an EP form.

San Zhi’s music is dreamy. Their single “Ice Light” starts with drum beats which in seconds is overlapped by guitars and keyboard before Suraya and Peter’s vocals sets that dreamy mood. While Suraya’s voice is distinct, Peter’s voice is difficult to ignore – there is some sort of unparalleled harmony that works perfectly fine.

Blakholes” also start with a distinct drum beat and a constant keyboard tune until Suraya kicks in – listening to the song, again, it’s very dreamy with a dose of heavy guitar and vocals that’ll at least keep you awake and make you realize that you’re still in San Zhi’s musical sphere.

“It struck us how many metaphors are being used to describe our music and perhaps especially those conveying the feeling of being transported into another world,” Suraya told me.

While listening to them, you can’t help but think about the influences from Aluna George and also The xx. During their session with BBC 1, Rob Da Bank says, “The xx, watch your back,” after San Zhi’s cover of Lauryn Hill’s “The Ex Factor.”

San Zhi’s music, according to Suraya is all about how they feel.

“Our main focus at this point is to make the music we feel,” she told me. “[We want] to express in lyrics the effect of cosmic and global vibrations in surreal terms whenever and wherever the mood takes us.”

San Zhi’s music has been on a loop since I’ve discovered them – it’s addictive.

I’m very much looking forward for their music in future, and hopefully a great album.

As the Guardian‘s Paul Lester puts it: “This pop duo tick all the right boxes for huge commercial success – they just need the right producer.”

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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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Taal Sutra: Yak Attack’s debut EP

If yaks remind you of the Himalayas and of Nepal, then you’re on the right track.

Yak Attack, a London-based band with its musical roots sprouting from Nepal, has released its first EP Taal Sutra.

In a city like London crowded from commercial—and successful—musicians to independent artists and performers who bring world music to the musical spectrum, where does a band like Yak Attack that has non-English songs in their album stand?

Combining Afro-Asian funk music with traditional Nepali sounds tweaked into modern music, Yak Attack delivers what it calls world music.

Breaking away from the stereotypical sounds of Tibetan melodies—often meditational hymns and chants—the band borrows and mixes sounds from the East and the West. Each of the four tracks in the album creatively composes the musical harmony from two different parts of the world.

The EP starts with “Tibet,” what you might think as some sort of a mediation music. As the piano and saxophone lends its tune along with the six-strings and drums, you think the music is leading into some jazz form. And suddenly, you’re thinking what just happened—the progressive jazz turns into a fast-paced tune dominated by the sound of sax based on the traditional Nepali musical note.

In one of his first mainstream media interview with the Nepali press, Shubha Giri, the founder and frontman of the band, says Nepalis in the diaspora need to recognise their musical heritage and immerse themselves in the bandwagon called world music.

Rightly with the help of his fellow musicians, Gagan Thapa on guitar, Allan Shrestha on drums, John Martin on saxophone and Robyn Hemming on bass, Yak Attack mixes Nepali and international talents.

The blend of two musical cultures is clearly audible in the second song, though in Nepali and the only one with vocals, is the highlight of the album, at least for me who grew up listening to the original version of this song.

“Hariyo Dadha Maathi,” with its literal translation as “atop a green hill” is one of the timeless classics.  A song from the 80s popular and often sung during the rice plantation season, I haven’t come across a classy remixed version.

The Nepali music market is flooded with remixes of classic Nepali songs often tailored for the dance floor. Oftentimes, the remixed versions just kill the original in all its form.

However, Yak Attack’s version, though it suits for the dance floor—however you got to know the Nepali dance moves —it hasn’t tarnished the song. Singer Raju Lama, a well-known singer from one of Nepal’s famous pop band lends his voice and does a god job to keeping up the beat of the evergreen hit.

The remaining songs of the EP stick to its theme: free spirit and joy. While “Phagu Purnima” resonates to the spring festival of Holi, “Be Free” is asking listeners to pause all other sounds and flow with Yak Attack. A combination of the tabla, a pair of hand drums used in Indian classical music, guitars and saxophone, don’t get it confused with the sounds of the Hare Rama, Hare Krishna, a Hindu devotee movement that weds music and spirituality.

Infectious and catchy, though Taal Sutra falls into the world music genre, I would call it a combination of jazz and funk along with the flavours of international sounds.

For the devotees of commercial music, Yak Attack’s sound will not fit your expectations—and it shouldn’t as well. For someone who likes indie/folk music, you might want to give this album a listen. But this album is for people who don’t mind listening to new and fused music and enjoy the sounds, rhythms and beats.

Though some of the sounds come from Nepal, it’s meant for all ears. Yak Attacks’ Taal Sutra is worth a listen until you’re infected by the music and decide to have it on repeat.

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Live: Benjamin Francis Leftwich

Two years after I bid goodbye to the musical Mecca, the live music capital of the world, I said hello to some good live music last night.

In between Austin, Texas, and London, I landed in Mumbai, Kathmandu, New Delhi and Cape Town, but my musical appetite was never satisfied. But last night, when I saw Benjamin Francis Leftwich live, I realized what I was missing: good live music.

Leftwich is new to my music list; he was nowhere close to my musical radar until last week when I stumbled across his music. Call it a co-incidence, I won a ticket to see him perform.

At The Lexington in London, Leftwich left the crowd of 100 inside a small, packed room silent.

It wasn’t a loud gig—he was up on stage only with his six strings. An hour’s worth of acoustic performance was surely an immense treat for the ears.

“He is just beautiful,” I heard a lady behind me say. “I just don’t know what else to say.”

In between his songs, the 22-year from York shared some anecdotes.

“This is when I was with a rock band,” he said of one of his singles “Butterfly Culture.”

But it was nowhere close to the sounds of rick ‘n’ roll. It subtly sided with the folk/acoustic genre of music.

Sipping in water—and not beer—during songs, Leftwich literally serenaded the romantic souls with “Picture,” “1904” and “Box of Stones.” They’re all from his 2011 album “Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm.”

Musically, I would compare him to anything like a splash of Ryan Adams, sharing a lot of similarity with the tones of Iron & Wine and William Fitzsimmons.

Do take a listen to him. He might soothe your soul, if not, your ears for sure.

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