Scene Spotlight: Nepal’s thriving, yet often-overlooked, alpine hub
A vibrant incubator of creatives, eager to form a community, artists in Nepal rarely rise to fame beyond the country’s borders.
Words by Dhruva Balram
Dhruva Balram is an Indian-Canadian journalist who has contributed to publications such as The Guardian, GQ, is also the co-founder of not-for-profit Chalo and has co-edited a book of essays, Haramacy.
Nepal boasts a remarkable musical landscape. With tensions growing in other parts of South Asia, especially between Pakistan and India, Nepal has become a hub for artists to congregate. A vibrant incubator of creatives, eager to form a community, artists in Nepal rarely rise to fame beyond the country’s borders.
I've been writing about and documenting South Asian culture for nearly a decade now, visiting nearly every country I'm allowed to enter and Nepal continues to stay at the front of my mind. Running Chalo and Dialled In, two South Asian-focused organisations, has aided my discovery of South Asian culture, helping me unearth and observe incredible music. It has also given me opportunities like visiting Nepal for the second time, spending three weeks facilitating an artist residency which brought together a cohort of nearly 20 individuals from across South Asia and the diaspora to interact and collaborate.
On one of our first days in Kathmandu, there was an artist mixer hosted by our partner organisation, Kaalo.101. Members from Nepal’s creative scene flocked together to exchange ideas with international and local counterparts. A group of musicians took up residency on the rooftop. They were throat singers and spoons players, who went on to perform an improvisatory meditative jam session. Slowly, the rooftop was filled with people soaking in the atmosphere, immersing themselves in a truly unique setting, which lasted for hours until the sun went down and the mosquitoes came out. We spent the following evenings exploring areas which hosted traditional Nepalese musicians who perform religiously every evening, coming together in groups of seven or eight, singing and ritualistically playing together, passing down knowledge through generations.
An often overlooked hidden jewel of the region, nestled in-between two super global powers in China and India, Nepal is mostly known as a destination for those seeking an escape. The lush greenery of the forests and the snow-capped Himalayan mountain range offer exactly that: a blanket of serenity and a place for creativity to prosper.
Take, for example, the Nepali rap scene. It’s existed for years with few artists ever making it mainstream, but the underground has bubbled along consistently. Among the acts to have come out in recent years is 21-year-old rapper, Smriti Bishwakarma, better known as Dmriti. A native of Jhapa, her razor-sharp lyrics are starting to turn heads as she defiantly plants a foot in the scene. “Female Rapper / Call me the best rapper / Don’t need your label / For me to get bigger,” she asserts on her stand-out track, ‘Female Rapper’, which was written in response to a host recently calling her to stage with her gender being the main qualifier. “I’ve worked hard to be where I am,” she told me recently. “I didn’t know anything about the industry initially, but I have faced a lot of patriarchal bull. I’ve stayed solid in the mainly male-dominant field and I’m still growing and learning.” None of the major labels have acknowledged the talent in Nepal, with some artists choosing to go to Mumbai to secure a deal only to find that racism and classism obstruct their entry point to the industry there.
Electronic music, though, is - and always has been - a mainstay.
In the 70s, Kathmandu became a hub for backpackers. It was the heyday of the hippie trail. Psychedelic music - specifically psytrance - enveloped the region after it made its way up from Goa. Political unrest seemed to dissipate the potential explosion of the genre and electronic music found itself subdued in the country before the ‘90s brought about a fresh audience eager to tune into DnB, garage, techno and house. Dj Kranti, Ankytrixx and DJ Nishan led the scene alongside Ranzen Jha.
After a decade-long civil war ended in 2006, the government targeted nightlife, bringing another end to the dance music scene. Curfews were imposed at 11pm and law enforcement regularly busted parties. Younger generations started gravitating towards house, techno, and bass-heavy music, and a distinct DIY culture developed: festivals such as Shanti Jantra, Universal Religion, Moodelila, Dark Sun, Ambient Valley, Dancemandu and Sine Valley Festival came and went.
The artists remained and continued to showcase their creativity.
Phatcowlee, the electronic music moniker of Rajan Shrestha, also a member of Jindabad, a prolific rock band, emerged. In 2017, he released a four-track EP titled Cinema on the Indian label Consolidate,which would be lauded across South Asia as a seminal piece of work from a Nepalese producer. YNZN.P is another artist whose ascendency continues to new heights. A producer and DJ who appears to be the stalwart of the scene, he has made his prolific work rate look effortless, releasing a new project every few months.
Artists such as Amazumi, Foeseal, Enhancify, Goofy, and KTM Souljah are starting to make waves as DJs, producers, rappers and creatives. There is a whole new generation across genres and disciplines, patiently waiting, crafting their work and whittling away the rawness to create forward-thinking music the country is slowly releasing.
Despite - or perhaps because of - the myriad of obstacles faced to get to where they are now, Nepalese artists are fiercely creative, with an inspiring group consistently arising every few years, building on the previous generation’s work. Often overlooked but never downtrodden, they instead bide their time away from the limelight, ever ready to be shone on again.
The alternative rock scene is one I’ve been delighted to see re-emerge. Jindabad, one of the country’s most popular bands, have reunited after a ten-year hiatus, touring the country recently to their adoring fans. In their time away, Jindabad’s absence left a vacuum in the country’s alternative rock scene. Beers n’ Cheers opened in 2016, attempting to fill that void, creating a centralised space for the rock musicians of Kathmandu and Nepal to congregate. The pub now doubles as a popular hang-out for locals and foreigners,as well as being the heartbeat of the country’s rock scene. They’ve championed young, emerging talent such as kidsandheroes — whose lead singer, Manogya Bishwakarma, is one of the country’s youngest and staunchest activists - and rising acts like VZN.
Spending time in Nepal for art was eye-opening, allowing me to reflect again on why art coming out of South Asia excites me so much. For a region that makes up a quarter of the world’s population, when it comes to culture, specifically in the context of Global North publications, it is often overlooked and neglected. The mainstream is easily accessible but underneath the surface lies an insurmountable amount of art waiting to be considered. Often, the diamonds within it never get to shine as there are too few individuals searching for them. Immersing myself within Nepealse culture, I was able to come across so much music that I’ve been left feeling quite overwhelmed. It’s also a convenient reminder that only so much can be discovered and learnt through the Internet, with algorithms generally boosting those who already have a large following.
In today’s landscape, we need to dig - and visit if possible - to find real gold. As with Nepal’s mountain trails, it's often the world's remotest locations that provide the richest rewards.
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