Kind of blue
Jan 16, 2015-
It’s hot and stuffy inside Nepathya’s studio, at the Nepalaya premises. A harsh yellow light shines on the band’s musicians, who are all isolated in their little islands behind sound-absorbent barriers that have been strategically placed to produce the perfect acoustics. Four cameramen are stepping around wires and amplifier stacks, seeking optimal angles and spots to capture the band’s jam. Amrit Gurung, the band’s frontman, surveys the chaos, and calls things to order. “Iman, are we ready?” he asks Iman Shah, Nepal’s premier sound engineer, who is upstairs in the control room, watching the feeds on his mixing monitor. Iman gives the go-ahead and in those seconds before the next take starts, with only the metronome ticking in the background, I wait, with the hope that I will soon be bearing witness to the creation of a one-take Nepathya classic.
In a one-take recording, as the name implies, the musicians record a whole song at one go. This method deviates from how songs are generally produced in the studio--wherein most songs are patched together layer by layer, with the vocals and the instruments recorded in isolation; the resulting layers are then mixed together by the sound engineer. The layered process helps create mistake-free, polished tracks, but that very process can also inadvertently burnish out the soul of the song. Nepathya’s next album, which will be released in a couple of months, is made up entirely of such one-take songs. The band want to capture the magic of jam-induced numbers, fleshed out around skeletal tracks, in which the musicians feed off each other’s cues to carry the song along.
After a few cycles of the metronome’s ticks, Niraj Gurung, the lead guitarist, drops into the erstwhile sound-vacuum the meandering, drawling first bars of the song. His guitar-tone is classic Gibson Les Paul and the lead’s overall structure is spare, dirty-bluesy, without unnecessary adornment. Amrit Gurung closes his eyes, and breathes in--as if breathing in the melancholic notes--and after a few bars, breathes out the songs’ first lines. His voice is hoarse--almost whiskey-soaked--cracking around the edges. It’s going to be crawling-blues all the way, I can tell.
As the jam continues, I keep hoping that the band will stick to the blues-architecture and stay true to the form throughout. Among the band’s earlier songs, I have enjoyed most the songs that are not overdone--the ones that have been organically structured around either great riffs (such as Resham) or around traditional Nepali bhakas (such as Lampaate Surati). I have also often wished the band would do retakes of songs like Aganai Bhari, which have been marred by elements such as cheesy drum-machine tracks. The song that’s being recorded right now, Samjhirakha, seems to be going the right route.
After the first vocal verse, the bass slithers in--Subin Sakya’s looping, coiling lines are just the right kind of groovy; and then, Suraj Thapa, the keyboardist, comes in with his rippling Hammond Organ bits. And finally, as the first crescendo builds, the drummer, Dhruba Lama, enters with a steady backbeat--and soon everyone in the room is bobbing to the jam. The song is on a groove and its hook has everyone, the performers and the two other listeners in the room beside me, baited.
As the song goes through its stages--with the musicians improvising in response to each other--I find myself thinking about the lyrics. The lyrics offer advice, it seems, asking the listener to not change their disposition towards life--that no matter how badly one has suffered, one is to laugh and live to the fullest. It sounds strange, such lyrics, and against the blues backdrop, it sounds almost platitudinous. But there’s no disregarding the music’s infectious character. The song is destined to be received well, I am starting to believe. The musicians pull through to the end without having to stop along the way; and tired, but exhilarated too, they straggle out of the studio.
The song is definitely catchy, but something about it sticks out. It’s a dirty, bluesy track alright--the rendition so spare that the melancholic, pentatonic structure must have been thought up for a particular purpose. But unlike with many other Nepathya songs, there is no overt sense of Nepaliness to the lyrics or instrumentation. So, I wonder, is the band unknowingly inserting a starkly anomalous track into their oeuvre?
During the break, I talk to Amrit and he gives me the back-story to the song. The song, quite contrary to my initial take of its being a string of platitudes about life’s being beautiful, is a song for a particular unlucky individual. Many years ago, a destitute young pregnant girl had shown up at Amrit’s home; her husband, who was too busy being an activist, had abandoned her. As Amrit talked to her, he found himself thinking about a poem by Tulsi Diwas, and decided to turn that poem into a song dedicated to the girl.
When Amrit describes the song’s genesis, it all begins to make sense to me. Most blues or blues-infused numbers are about the hardscrabble life, the absurd hurts, the coming to grips with the fact that you are hurting. The songs find denouement in the acceptance of misfortune, and the catharsis the listener or singer achieves comes through their either toiling through or roiling in the pain. In this song, Amrit has tweaked the standard format of the typical blues lyrics: instead of a first-person singer-protagonist bemoaning his fate, the singer takes an almost Whitmanesque view of things. The singer turns himself, by absorbing another’s pain, into the quintessential minstrel--a role that I would guess Amrit has striven to play throughout his musical journey. And just as the traditional blues has been used, for ages, to heal, Samjhirakha asks the girl who showed up at Amrit’s doorstep to heal. And not just heal enough to survive, but to live. It’s a blues format that only a Nepali (we who are known for rolling with the punches) could think up, and the one-take format is perfect for capturing every raw bit of voice inflection and music that colours the song. I think this one has all the makings of a Nepathya classic.
Published: 17-01-2015 09:09