“It was in my genes,” Ashesh Kulung Rai, 19, says with an infectious grin when we ask him how he got into music. His fascination with eastern classical music began even before he was old enough to understand it and he remembers walking around home “banging on everything” in an effort to emulate what he saw at home and on TV. By seven he had settled on an instrument and was ‘playing’ his grandfather’s unguarded tabla with a hammer.
Ashesh’s grandfather, Ram Hari Gurung, played tabla in the palace of Chandra Shamsher, spent 24 years in India studying with renowned ustaads, and continues to play today at 87. Determined to pass on his musical talents to his prodigious grandson, Gurung began training Ashesh, bribing the restless eight-year-old with sweets and packets of Wai Wai. “Nobody else in Nepal could have passed on traditional music to me the way my grandfather did,” says the tabla boy with deep gratitude. He feels the same way about his father whose support has been unflinching.
At 16, Ashesh outperformed many of his seniors and won the best tabla player and overall musician awards at the Kirateswor’s annual traditional music contest. Two years later, he completed his Master of Music degree in tabla from Prayag Sangeet Samiti in India. During the 2012 Jazzmandu Festival his magical hands won the hearts of a panel of visiting international musicians and bagged the ‘Jazz for the Next Generation’ band contest. From studying on scholarship at Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory to teaching his own classes, Ashesh now wants to learn Carnatic music in South India so that he can perfect his grandfather’s sur and taal.
Although classical music runs through his blood, Ashesh has always had a welcome disregard for genre and classification: “Trying to put music into different genres is so constraining. There are no boundaries to music.
Everything I hear inspires me, even the daily traffic noise. I find music in everything, everywhere I go.” Bringing his musical background to the world of Jazz, he sees opportunity where others would see obstacles. “I want to bring East and West on common ground and create real fusion,” he says. “Today, people copy Western drum grooves and play them on tabla and call it fusion. They are using the instrument, but with limits, I want to use all the possibilities the tabla offers.”
A slip of the tongue
Dulla and the shoe factory
Doctor at your doorstep