Recreating Indigenous Sounds

January 23, 2014 , by Jerusha Rai, Leave your thoughts
Recreating Indigenous Sounds » My Dreams Mag


In the 1970s, when Nepal was still in the process of creating a national identity, programming policy inhibited foreign music on Radio Nepal and the only record publishing firm of the time, Shree Ratna Recording Corporation. There were a few short programs featuring English or American pop hits, Western classical music and Indian film songs during late hours, and the official policy was to reduce these broadcasts furthermore. Instead, ‘Nepali music’ was to be played, to foster a national allegiance. 


However, the formation of ‘Nepali music’, a musical representation of the young nation as a whole, was incomplete and in some ways it still is. Nepal’s art music was greatly influenced by Indian classical and was not consumed by the masses. On the other hand, folk or ethnic music, whose composers were unknown and obscure, developed in virtually isolated pockets of local cultures. They signified fragmented ethnic loyalties rather than a unified nation. It seemed as though a new genre had to be created. 


In this hurry to form a national identity, the state endorsed a sort of ‘light music’, known to us as ‘adhunik geet’ which, ironically, reflected years of influence from Indian cinema. Though the lyrics were in Nepali, and there were distinctly Nepali elements like smaller instrumental groups and sweet, consonant tonalities, there were a lot of similarities with Indian film music: a preference for a sentimentally soft solo voice accompanied by an ensemble of indigenous and Western instruments. For example, combinations of the guitar with Nepali drums, or Nepali drums played like a bongo. The theme of the songs also found its counterpart in Indian film music, with a heavy sentimentality particularly with reference to love.


Fast forward to 2014, the post-modern era. Social scientists call our generation ‘the digital natives’. It implies that offline geography, culture and belonging have become obsolete. Though the internet has allowed for global connectivity, our lives are more detached, our ‘selves’ are disembodied virtual personas. In this hyper-mediated, hyper-narcissistic, hyper-voyeuristic social network, it is hard to remember who we really are. The busy lives we lead, the flood of information that surrounds us, the freedom we think we have gained from individualism alone fragments our identity to the point we don’t even recognize ourselves. It seems as though the project of declaring our identity is even more urgent than the 70s.


Just then you hear this music, the purity of which takes you aback. It seems a novelty, but it has a familiarity that you cant quite pin down. Maybe it reminds you of childhood, maybe of home. And if you keep listening, it all comes back to you; the chanting monks at the stupas, the thumping of drums and dancing feet at Chandi, the wailing mridang leading your neighbour’s wedding procession, the bittersweet song of the gaine dai at your door, soulfully playing his sarangi. The rhythm seems to slow down the hurry you always seem to find yourself in, to a pace that is more in tune with yourself. This is the music of the land you grew up on. Though your identity now many be modified and manifold, you will never see the whole picture without it. 


The threat of westernisation, homogenization and loss of identity looms large in the postmodern atmosphere, but Nepalis still approach culture in fluid ways. I’m sure most of us would find the policies of the 70s eerily totalitarian. Luckily for us, there are several contemporary artists simultaneously exploring different musical forms while making creative efforts to preserve and promote indigenous music and instruments.



“Our vision is to popularize gradually disappearing instruments among young musicians, to increase appreciation of this music among as many people as possible. So we do draw a line to how far we want to experiment but also take it to a level where all generations can enjoy it”, share the members of Kutumba. 


Initially experimenting with rock music, the members of Kutumba bring together traditional instruments like tungna, arbajo, sarangi, flute and various percussion instruments and effects. Though these instruments are from very different parts of Nepal, the band have skilfully combined them to play well known folk instrumentals as well as truly unique originals. In these combinations, we might find the kind of music that could represent the nation as a whole. It certainly encourages listeners of different folk groups to appreciate each other’s musics.


Committed to research and preservation of Nepali indigenous musics, this ensemble has successfully promoted the rich diversity of Nepali culture to international acclaim by recording, collaborating and touring extensively. 





Night is another band that “aims to reproduce and even reinvent some of the many endangered/lost instruments of Nepal and aim to create new sounds, music and stories from these instruments”. Along with the instruments, Night also incorporates folk ways of singing. 


Both Kutumba and Night usually play songs about the experiences of the common Nepali, having travelled around the country in search of authentic folk practises. Their focus is also on teaching such music to younger generations. Such skill and passion is put into their music that even the hippest of young’uns would proudly show it off as their country’s music.




Binod Katuwal

Similarly, there are Nepali artists abroad who are collaborating with international musicians to create folk fusion. Binod Katuwal, who currently resides in Spain, plays bansuri and holds workshops inviting people to learn this Nepali instrument. A curiosity into our culture is brewing around the world. 


Diwas Gurung

Understanding that culture and identity are not sedentary, but free-flowing and dynamic, it is deeply interesting to see the creative hybridization of folk and foreign music in several artists’ attempts to preserve their idea of Nepalipan. Take for example the Nepali rock band Ayurveda’s Diwas Gurung’s experiments with neo-folk, where he combines folk rhythms with rock and electronica. 


Nepali Ho: Contemporary and Traditional Music of Nepal

Another good example is the album Nepali Ho, an attempt to capture the wide spectrum of music currently enjoyed in Nepal. Brought out by various artists: 1974 AD, Kutumba, Anonymous Who, Subani Moktan, Mukti, UrJazz, Mayo & Ashesh and Vajra it showcases the Nepali soundscape today, including folk, pop, hip-hop, jazz and western and Indian classical.


Our music has the ability to revive forgotten aspects of our complex selves, to ground us to where we come from, to put us back in touch with our community and history, to our shared experiences. These artists’ efforts are commendable to show the world what our authentic, folk traditions have to offer.Their music tells our story so far. And to the upcoming generation, it shows, that there need not be such a difficult conflict between a communitarian responsibility to preserve culture and an individual artist’s exploration and expression. 


I leave you with this beautiful new addition to neo-folk by the promising 21 year old composer Ashesh K. Rai, a poignant prelude to what has been and what can be created with our own instruments.


Text By: Jerusha Rai
Image Source: Patan Academy of Health & Sciences


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