Cadenza and Friends
Kathmandu's resident ensemble, Cadenza, is not only the moving force behind Nepal's jazz scene but has also helped propel the country into international jazz stardom.
It all started when Cadenza was performing at the Palmer Street Festival in Australia in 2000 and they wondered why Kathmandu couldn't have a similar gig. Jazzmandu was born: our very own annual international jazz festival.
When he dropped in unexpectedly at the Upstairs Jazz Bar in Lazimpat last year, music superstar Sting noted, "Any band is only as good as its drummer and this one is surprisingly good." He was speaking of the man behind it all: frontman Navin Chhettri, who is also the band's vocalist.
Cadenza's roots go back to the mid-1990s when Navin and his friends were struggling to get gigs at various Thamel bars. Often, passers-by would jam with Navin and turn out to be superb players, and that's how he began to discover jazz. To keep the band alive, Navin convinced friends Laxmi Raj Thapa (Chi) and Jigmee Dorjee Sherpa who were playing garage in Darjeeling to join him in Kathmandu.
A decade and two Jazzmandus later, Cadenza is grooving on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Upstairs Jazz Bar where they have been known to pack it in even on a mid-week jam. With just enough room to chill-but probably not to lounge with legs extended-the cosy den is the cradle of jazz in the Valley.
At this year's Jazzmandu, Cadenza will take the stage as a 7-member group. Original members Jigme on the guitar and Chi on the bass both think of the festival as a chance to see how far they've come since last year and to learn more. Says Jigme, "It's like Dasai for jazz musicians." Chi adds, "There's no jazz school here so it's a great chance to see different styles." Young and talented Gaurab Raj Pandey, a former student of Navin's, will also be returning on the keyboard. Newcomers include drummer Siddhant Thapa, another of Navin's students, on congas and percussion. Peter Kroultil on the clarinet, saxophone and flute hails from the Czech Republic. As a working musician, Peter has bagged several awards in his homeland and admits, "I never expected anything like this in Nepal in terms of quality of music when I arrived." The youngest addition is James Lhalungpa on the tenor saxophone, which he is learning in high school. The 16-year-old prodigy has been playing for five years.
This year will see the return of another homegrown musical product, Samundra. A union of five gandharbas they will add a traditional touch to the event. Bandleader Sanu Kancha Gandharba is clear that his group has its own traditional style. And just to be sure, they're coming with sarangis and classical raags their great grandfathers played.
On an invite from a Japanese student who fell in love with the sarangi while studying in Nepal, the quintet is preparing for a tour in Japan after the release of their latest album, titled Samundra Band, which is available in two parts. It's a huge accomplishment for all five members of Samundra, especially since Buddha Gandharba, Ram Krishna Gandharba, Samsher Gandharba and Arjun Gandharba, all in their thirties, have mastered the art of the sarangi but have no formal education. "It's not in our culture," explains Sanu Kancha. Kathmandu's music lovers who missed or didn't get enough of their music in the recent Gandharba Festival will have another chance to listen and dance to this quintessentially Nepali folk music at Jazzmandu.
Sanu Kancha runs the Gandharba Culture and Art Organisation in Thamel. He hopes to keep the gandharba traditons alive and popular, and help educate the musicians at the same time. They are a self supported organisation, carving sarangis and selling them to tourists to raise funds and teaching the sarangi.
They have instruments we've all seen before: madal, bamboo flute, sarangi, tababla and santoor. But Hom Nath Upadhyaya and his 6-member group Prustaar throw together classical raags and folk tunes, producing a very precise rhythmic variety that he simply terms "fusion".
The music is the result of Hom Nath's labour of love: the music he composes comes from the rare collection of raags and folk tunes he has accumulated over 15 years of exploring and research. "The inspiration came from Pandit Nararaj Dhakal who told me to mix raag and folk," explains Hom Nath. It has worked out perfectly. During his many years as a teacher at Tribhuban University Fine Arts Campus he wanted to offer something new and refreshing to the students. They developed a technique where the band begins with a classical song, then things pick up with a Nepali song or rhythm and then finish with something fast.
Since 1998 Upadhyaya has been dividing his time between teaching tabala and madal at the University of California in Santa Barbara and Kathmandu where he is involved in many music projects. He is president of Pasupatinath Music and Art Academy which holds devotional song sessions twice a month and an annual Shivaratri event. Upadhyaya's duties include encouraging sponsors to help artists. He is also working on publishing Kashi to Kantipur in English, a history of tabala music in Nepal.
"King Surendra Bikram Shah brought a tabala player from Banaras for the palace. The tabala player's sons and grandsons also played and generations followed creating their own style, very different from the Banarasi, which became our Nepali style."
The most exciting parts of being home for Upadhyaya and the band is Jazzmandu. They performed at both previous events. "Jazzmandu is an event that gives a lot of inspiration to Nepali artists. From East to West, all come together and make one family. That's our goal too, and it's working out very well." As an afterthought, Upadhyaya adds: "A lot of good has happened in all styles of music here. And most amazingly, it's without government support. There's so much talent in our Nepali artists."