Saturday Features

The post-Adhunik minstrel

- Post Report, Kathmandu

Jul 22, 2017-

Listening in to Rajan Shrestha’s debut EP, Cinema, you are bound to be transported to another time and place. In the four tracks that make up the EP, Shrestha—who performs under the moniker Phatcowlee—has taken samplings of the Adhunik Music that burst into the Nepali consciousness in the 60s and 70s, and used it as a springboard to invite listeners onto a sonic rollercoaster that traverses through the depths of melancholia, the heavy fog of nostalgia and the lightness of partaking in a novel experiment. And while the music, by Shrestha’s own admission, will not be immediately accessible to all listeners, it is a refreshing (if sometimes disorienting) coming together of the easy charms of Adhunik Nepali music and the fringes of the electronic sound. In this conversation with the Post’s Sanjit Bhakta Pradhananga, Shrestha talks about why there is no such thing as ‘Nepali music’ and the importance of pushing art forms beyond their ‘Kathamandu bubbles’. Excerpts: 

You’ve been a part of successful acts like Cadenza, Atomic Bush and Jindabaad. Why was it important for you to strike it out as a solo-act?

I got my first guitar when I was in the seventh grade, and by tenth grade I was already recording with a little band that I had. Thereon, I started playing bass in a band called Elysium; then I went from Cadenza, to Atomic Bush, to Jindabaad. 

Basically, I am a bass guitarist, but for a while, I quit Jindabad. I wanted to pursue photography seriously, because I felt that just one art form was not enough of an outlet to express what I wanted to. But then, I always came back to music, so I started this solo project Phatcowlee.

A band, you see, is like a marriage in a way. It always involves some form of compromise, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Everybody brings their own influences and that merger of ideas is the beauty of it, but I wanted a solo-project for my self-expression. 

Tell us about your debut EP, Cinema. What moved you to take old Nepali songs and breathe new life into them? 

There really wasn’t an ‘Aha’ moment. I was eating, flipping channels on the TV, when I stumbled on this channel called TV Filmy, which plays old movies and songs. So, that was the trigger for a whole lot of nostalgia. Then I started looking for classic Nepali songs, and realised that all of them have this long drawn out intro, which is unique to the music made at the time. I wanted to work with this motif and started recording samples of old songs before interpreting them through the lenses of my own musical influences.  

Why is it that this strain of Adhunik Nepali music from the 60s and 70s still resonates with so many people? 

The more I travel, the more I realise that because Nepal is such a rich mosaic of cultural and musical experiences, you can’t really catagorise one type of music as ‘Nepali Music’. Even with Adhunik Nepali music, that was heavily promoted with the advent of the radio in the 1950s, all the recordings were done in Bombay and the arrangement was all done in the Indian style, just with different lyrics. But that being said, Nepali Adhunik music has its own peculiar characteristics—a sense of nostalgia almost, and its own brand of lyricism. Which is why, even if there isn’t a thing called ‘Nepali Music’ per se, that word will always evoke the songs of artists like Narayan Gopal, Amber Gurung, Tara Devi and Gopal Yonzon. This is true regardless of where you travel to in Nepal.  

So, like so many other people, I can strongly relate to the music that was created in that prolific age for Nepali music and thought that it would be a great base for my album. Were I to box myself into one genre, I would call my music Post-Adhunik Nepali Music. 

How would you define Post-Adhunik?

For starters, we have moved so far ahead technologically. Say, I now use my computer as my primary device when making music. Another thing is that the kind of electronic music that I am producing is not really accessible to a lot of people—it’s not the kind that you dance to; it’s a bit dark, a bit weird. That’s probably how people reacted to Adhunik Music when it first began airing. But then again, I am not saying I am pushing any genres further. But if I had to call it something, I’d call it Post-Adhunik, not Post-Nepali Pop. 

Your music is admittedly a bit dark (weird even), and by implication has a small audience. How would you assess the independent music scene here in Nepal?

It’s really tiny. Say for the electronic music scene, you might as well call it non-existent. To add to that, it is all also very urban-centric. For instance, when I put my music online on, people from, say, Dadheldura aren’t going to be downloading it. I would want them to listen to my music as well, but that’s just not happening. So, you have to create that scene for yourself, there is no real music scene here at the moment. 

Why do you think that is?

I think people got tired of seeing no money. Also, with bands, it’s usually young people who are making the music. And the people who can afford good gear to make music are also people who can afford to go study abroad in Australia and the US, and, you know, life just happens. You can do art for the sake of art—that is a good idea in theory but not always very practical. 

Is that why you gravitated towards other mediums like photography and videography?

In part. The main reason I drifted towards photography was because I felt music wasn’t enough to express myself creatively and the visual medium is very accessible. For example, you can go to Jomsom and people will recognise Michael Jackson and Bob Marley, even if they haven’t listened to their music. That’s the power of the visual medium. 

But now, I realise that the different mediums spill over and feed into each other. The more interdisciplinary your art is, the more layered it becomes. 

Is the creative impulse the same for you across mediums then?

For a long time, I, like so many other people, suffered with that “Artist’s Complex”. You know, where you waited for that perfect set of conditions, that sudden inspiration to write or create something perfect. But I think I’ve begun to realise and accept that nothing is perfect. You just practice your art, it grows and you share it—then your audience will either accept it or reject it. Now, I wonder, if that intimacy with your audience is more important than just locking yourself up in a room to create art for art’s sake. You just do your thing and share it; and as you do those little sparks—not magical ‘aha’ moments—grow into various forms of art. 

How important is that intimacy and exchange with your audience? If a song isn’t received favourably, is it a lost cause? 

There are people who write to me saying this is the feeling I got while listening to your songs, is it what you are trying to portray? (It usually is not!) But that feedback pushes me to do more of what I am doing. One single email or a text is a big push because it means you’re not creating in a vacuum. But that doesn’t mean, everybody has to like it and it has to be a national hit. But ultimately, all artists are trying to connect with their audiences. 

Your music has been well-received, at least in the ‘Kathmandu bubble’. How can that bubble be expanded, or even burst?

The bubble will expand, but I doubt if it will ever burst. Nepal, for some reason, has very little collaborations between artists. For example, if you’re a painter, you are painting within your own bubble. A painter is not concerned about musicians; the musicians are not concerned about the writers; the writers are not concerned about the journalists, and so on. We are creating artworks in our own bubbles, never really merging disciplines. Then when small collaborations take place, people are so astonished with the end product. 

So, our bubbles will expand with more collaborations. It’s going to be a struggle, but that expansion is the need of the hour. If these isolated artforms start merging, the crowd will eventually begin to swell. 


Published: 22-07-2017 11:36

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