Paul D. Greene
Pennsylvania State University

Yubakar Raj Rajkarnikar
Kathmandu 1

  1. The valleys of Nepal, like valleys anywhere, are echo chambers. Sounds that are made in a valley reverberate and echo, linger for a while, and mix together. In these mixed sounds, one can hear not only the many different sound sources, but also something of the character of the valley, evident in the particular ways that the many sounds come together. Particularly in Nepali valleys, which also house the urban centers of Kathmandu and Pokhara, the sounds which have been reverberating, echoing, and mixing are Nepali folk music, “modern” songs (aadhunik geet), film songs, Western pop songs, and Indian pop songs. Starting in the 1980s, a new, distinctively Nepali popular music emerged out of these mixed reverberations, called Nepali pop in Nepal.

  2. This article describes the Nepali culture of urban youths of the years 1985–2000: the listeners and main performers of Nepali pop. Its focus is the pop music and culture of Kathmandu and Pokhara. (The musical culture of the cities of the Terai to the south, near India, is not a focus of this article.) It chronicles social and technological changes that led to an explosion of bands covering Western pop and concerts at the end of the 1980s, the appearance of the first Nepali pop musicians, the emergence of lok pop (“folk pop”) from Pokhara in 1993, and the trend of remixing older popular songs using new singers and new music technologies in the late 1990s. The article shows that Nepali pop was, during these years, not only high-tech and influenced by Western pop styles, but that it also incorporated traditional Nepali folk rhythms and melodies. Nepali pop cannot be defined as the most popular or the best-selling music in Nepal at the close of the 20th century (notably, aadhunik geet outsold Nepali pop as of 2000). Instead, we find it more useful to define it as a specific kind of popular music. We define Nepali pop as music that is youth-oriented, produced in the private sector (rather than through government-sponsored media like Ratna Recording and Radio Nepal), and that incorporates not just Western harmonies and instruments, but also Western musical styles, such as rock, disco, rap, and heavy metal.

  3. Four general findings emerge from this historical examination: 1) Even a music genre that draws on Western musical styles as a primary influence still evidences a significant legacy of regional culture and of concerns specific to the region in its particular patterns of eclecticism. 2) Certain distinctively Nepali musical qualities (rhythm, singing style, instruments) can be found even in songs with strong Western musical influences. 3) The incorporation of Western styles accompanied the emergence of a kind of cosmopolitanism and open-minded listenership such that, for the most part, Nepali pop fans, listened to all forms of Nepali pop from 1985 to 2000. The listener base thus had exceptionally diverse musical tastes. 4) Although the sounds of Nepali pop were similar to sounds heard in other popular music scenes around the world, the meanings of these sounds differed somewhat, due to regional, Nepali ways of understanding them. Taken together, these four findings suggest that, although Western popular music has been widely imitated and incorporated into music making in Nepal, this does not indicate that only a simple or thoroughgoing Westernization took place. In the popular music of Nepal, and elsewhere in the world, Western popular sounds and styles have been drawn into regional cultural dynamics, taking on locally nuanced expressive meanings and functions, reflecting regional (rather than just global or universal) cultural concerns and processes.
  4. Early Reverberations: Popular Music in Nepal from 1950 through the 1980s

  5. In this section, we introduce some of the popular and popularized musics that preceded the emergence of Nepali pop, to provide a sense of the musical context for that emergence. Starting in 1950, the first government-controlled radio station, Radio Nepal, went on the air. Starting in 1961, the Ratna Recording Trust (later reorganized as the Ratna Recording Corporation) began producing phonograph records of Nepali music (Grandin 113).2 In 1973, the Royal Nepal Film Corporation began producing Nepali films and film songs, following in the Indian tradition (Grandin 114–15). At Radio Nepal and Ratna Recording, musicians including Master Ratna Das Prakash, Nati Kazi, and Amber Gurung gradually drew together elements of Indian light classical music, Nepali folk songs, and Western harmonies, to develop a new, often sentimental genre which came to be known as aadhunik geet. Over the last half century, singers like Prem Dhoj, Narayan Gopal, Aruna Lama, Tara Devi, and Arun Thapa have been featured in the private and public Nepali media, and they developed aadhunik geet into a distinctively Nepali popular music tradition.3 As of 2000, recordings of aadhunik geet singers like Ram Krishna Dhakal still outsold many of the top Nepali pop albums. Aadhunik geet’s main market is older, educated, urban music listeners.

  6. Emerging in the popular music media of Nepal in the 1950s was a music genre called lok geet, “folk song,” which drew on and transformed traditional songs from Nepal’s villages.4 In contrast to village songs, lok geet heard on the radio and in recordings combined musical elements from various ethnic traditions, supplemented with non-folk instruments, and Western influences (Henderson, “Who Needs the Folk?”). In the 1950s folksong collector/singer Dharma Raj Thapa traveled throughout Nepal collecting and learning folksongs. In the early days of Radio Nepal he sang the songs on the air, and later became head of the Radio’s folk music section. Starting in 1965, Jhalakman Gandharwa sang songs of his own caste community, the Gandharwas (also sometimes known as the Gaines) for Radio Nepal. In 1961, folksong collector/singer Kumar Basnet began to sing at Radio Nepal and be recorded at Ratna Recording. He became especially famous for collecting and popularizing songs of the Tamangs, and collected songs from a great many of the ethnic groups of Nepal. His voice and subtle features of his melodic expression retained quite clearly Nepali village singing styles, while the instrumentation became increasingly Westernized (Henderson, “Who Needs the Folk?”). His early recordings produced substantial record sales (7,000 discs, according to Grandin 124). He continued, through the turn of the millennium, to enjoy a very successful career as a popular musician at Music Nepal, a private company and the country’s leading producer of music recordings. Lok geet, like aadhunik geet, was produced chiefly by privately owned recording companies, and incorporated non-Nepali instruments—including guitars and synthesizers. In 2000 these musics were popular among people of all age groups, particularly older-generation listeners. Lok geet sold better in rural areas, and aadhunik geet better in urban areas.

  7. Although discouraged by the government until 1950, North Indian film songs since became a prominent part of Nepali soundscapes. In Arnold Bake’s 1955 visit to Nepal, he found that “modern time [had] marched in, accompanied by radio and cinemas (there are no less than eleven of them in Kathmandu today) and floods of loudspeakers playing popular Indian film tunes day and night” (quoted in Grandin 113). The culture and language of Nepal are similar enough to that of North India that North Indian films and film songs became Nepal’s popular culture almost overnight. (Nepali and Hindi are both Sanskrit-based languages, and a considerable amount of the vocabulary overlaps.) Starting in 1973, the Royal Nepal Film Corporation began to make films under the guidance of people such as film veteran Prakash Thapa, who was a Nepali but had worked in the Bombay film industry for three decades. Sambhujit Baskota emerged as the leading Nepali film Music Director. He composed in a wide variety of folk, classical, Western, and modern Nepali styles, but generally steered clear of Nepali pop.5

  8. Another music that found a market in Nepal was Hindustani classical music. The Rana rulers of Nepal had made an effort to bring Hindustani classical music into Nepal since the beginning of the century, and urban, educated Nepali listeners were therefore familiar with the classical base of Indian film songs. Modern ghazals (Indian light classical songs concerning love) became considerably popular, and the songs of Pankaj Udhas, Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, and others were available on cassette and compact disc and in Nepali music stores during the period 1985–2000. Also, Kathmandu restaurant owners followed an Indian trend of hiring musicians to sing ghazals as customers dined.

  9. Beginning in the 1960s, Nepal became a favored haven for Western tourists and trekkers. With them came Western pop music, which became readily available in most Kathmandu cassette shops. The neighborhood of Thamel, which was Kathmandu’s leading tourist district during the period from 1985 to 2000, became a center of Western-Eastern cultural and musical interaction. In time, not only did Western tourists buy Western pop music, but Nepalis did as well. During the late 1980s and 1990s, with the advent of satellite television, MTV brought Western pop into Nepali homes to an extent that had never before happened. Moreover, MTV changed its program of Western pop much more quickly than a cassette store could change its inventory, so young Nepali listeners found themselves spending more time listening in order to stay current. Nepali FM radio stations soon began to offer a mix of Western pop, Indian film songs, and Nepali music.
  10. Explosion of Nepali Pop

  11. Inspired by the growing influence of Western pop music, many young Nepalis at the end of the 1980s picked up Western instruments themselves. Those who had the means, mostly students from upper and middle class families, began to follow the lead of the Hillocks, a Nepali band of the early 1980s. They formed their own bands and covered their favorite songs. Music schools like Kaleidoscope Music Academy and the Jupiter Music Centre opened up or expanded their offerings in “foreign guitar” instruction, lessons on how to read music in staff notation, and how to play a real “foreign drum set,” keyboards, and “foreign gadgets, mixers, amps, speakers”. At the same time, prices were dropping on electronic keyboards and synthesizers. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a generation of Nepali high school and college students organized themselves into Western cover bands, and performed in dynamic concerts of Western hits in English. Popular groups included Wrathchild, Crisscross, Chimpanzees, the Elegance, Prism (which originated in Darjeeling), and Next. The concert scene included not only auditoriums in schools but also large public spaces, such as Kathmandu Durbar Square, in a party to celebrate the Nepal Sambat, or New Year’s eve on the Newar calendar. Cover bands also began playing at restaurants, like Graffiti and Doublee Restaurant and Bar, encroaching on a market previously cornered by ghazal singers.

  12. Out of this spirit of youth-centered excitement later emerged a new sound that would come to be known as Nepali pop. Some of the bands were beginning to compose and perform original songs, often in Nepali. A few of these bands were beginning to make recordings, although affordable recording technology and professional sound studios did not become abundant in Kathmandu until the early 1990s. Performing Western covers was a kind of musical training for many musicians who would later form some of Nepal’s leading pop bands, including Rock Yogis, Nepathya, and Mongolian Hearts.

  13. Although young Nepali musicians had the opportunity to hear a wide variety of Western pop styles through satellite television and an expanding market of commercial recordings, they only chose to cover some of the Western pop styles they heard in their concerts. Initially popular sounds included heavy metal (especially that of Iron Maiden, Anthrax, Aerosmith, and Metallica), Pink Floyd, and the Beatles. Western styles that were later prominently incorporated into Nepali pop included disco, reggae, rap, grunge, and alternative rock. Weaker influences from punk and from blues, jazz, and Spanish guitar could also be heard. Not incorporated into Nepali pop were the sounds of gospel, soul, country and western, country rock, beach music, Motown, psychedelic rock, and vocal pop groups (such as New Kids on the Block and Boys II Men), although all these sounds could all be heard on MTV and Nepali FM radio. Thus, during the late 1980s and 1990s, some Western sounds reverberated in Nepal, while others did not. The specific pattern of eclecticism reflects the cosmopolitan, technophilic, and sometimes sentimental tastes and concerns of young Nepalis. The eclecticism also reflects the values of the youth culture which emerged during this period. This point is developed further below.

  14. In the exciting period of the mid to late 1980s, some young Nepali musicians were doing more than just covering Western, English-language music. Some were also listening to aadhunik geet and lok geet, and to older Nepali popular musicians like Harish Mathema, Sunil Upreti, Om Bikram Bista, the latter of which was the first prominent Nepali singer to start to use Western popular instruments into his recordings (Zeepee). They began to contemplate ways to incorporate Western musical influences into Nepali popular music.

  15. The primary fan base of Nepali pop was middle- and upper-class, educated, urban young people, mostly in high school or college. The influence of Nepali pop also reached into the lower classes with some success, particularly in the cities. “Young people” (ketaketiharu: see Liechty 179) meant mostly teenagers, but also included older people who were in school, unmarried, and not yet settled on a career. For those in the urban middle and upper classes, the ketaketi phase generally came to an end when they began to take on family and career responsibilities. Accordingly many listened to Nepali pop up to their early thirties. Almost all of the musicians came from this group as well, although a few were older musicians, such as Yogeshwar Amatya.

  16. Nepali pop is urban music. It was most popular in Nepal’s cities, which are situated in the valleys of Himalayan mountain chains, and in the Terai, a rapidly developing area in southern Nepal that is an extension of the Gangetic plains. Kathmandu was the largest market, but the music was also popular in the smaller cities of Pokhara, Dharan, Narayanghat, Butawal, and Biratnagar. Nepal’s cities are centers of education, cultural exchange, tourism, and mass media, and because these industries grew during the period from 1985 to 2000, the disjuncture between rural alpine culture and valley urban culture was growing. Fewer schools and universities were founded in rural areas during this period. During the 1980s and 90s, wealthy villagers sent their children down to study at urban universities, and many then remained to pursue careers in the urban valleys. Although Nepali pop incorporated some musical influences from folk music, in most respects it participated in a growing disjuncture between folk and urban cultures in Nepal.

  17. As mentioned above, Nepali pop was associated with the upper- and middle class. Zeepee, anchor of Nepal TV’s leading program on Nepali pop, Music+, finds that the popularity base of Nepali pop extends from the upper class down to the lower middle class. David Henderson also finds that there has always been a substantial following for Nepali pop among lower-class city dwellers (personal communication). For young people in the lower class or lower middle class, Nepali pop is one means of identifying with those of the middle or even upper middle classes (Liechty). This means that Western pop styles such as heavy metal and rap, which have their origins in American and British working-class communities, were, paradoxically, heard in Nepal as upper- and middle-class sounds, particularly from 1985 to 2000.

  18. Nepali pop also gained impetus from the simultaneous and parallel developments of Indian pop and of the pop musics of the Indian diaspora, such as bhangra. Songs of Indian musicians like Baba Sehgal, Asha Bhosle, Sukhbir, and Alisha, together with singers of India’s diaspora like Apache Indian, are audible on Nepali FM radio and sold on cassettes almost immediately upon release. In interviews conducted by the authors, listeners generally acknowledged that production quality was higher in Indian pop than in Nepali pop. Yet, by the 1990s sales of Nepali pop overshadowed those of Indian pop in Nepal. Listeners said that Nepali pop felt more close to their immediate cultural concerns, because it was primarily in their national language, Nepali, and because they could hear in it distinctive rhythms, melodies, and timbres of Nepali music.

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Works Cited


1 This article is a collaborative project by Paul Greene, an American ethnomusicologist, and Yubakar Raj Rajkarnikar, past editor and founder of Wave, Nepal’s leading pop culture magazine, based in Kathmandu. The article offers a historical glimpse into a particular formative era in the evolution of a popular music. Our aim is to pull together some of the important moments, sounds, and people in this living music tradition. We apologize to those we have left out of this history: certainly, there are also many other important stories of Nepali pop to be told. An earlier version of this article was published for a time on the Wave website, and also as the cover story of Wave magazine in Nepal (“Echoes in the Valleys”). Field research was made possible with the support of a Global Fund grant from the Pennsylvania State University and matching funds from the Delaware County Campus. Research would not have been possible without the tremendous assistance of Mr. Shamsher B. Nhuchhen-Pradhan, and the generous guidance and help of Prof. Dr. Gert-Matthias Wegner, Chair of the Kathmandu University Department of Music. The article also benefits from ongoing scholarly conversations with David Henderson. The authors would especially like to thank the following people, who generously contributed their insights and time in support of this project and other research on Nepali music: Kumar Basnet, Prakash Thapa, Sambhujit Baskota, Brazesh Khanal, Ganesh Prashad (Zeepee), Sarita Gyawali, Sanjay Shrestha, Bhim Tuladhar, Shreejan Upadhya, Anil Shahi, Kumar Kanchha, Deep Tuladhar, Little Star Shrestha, Raju Manandhar, Buddha Shrestha, and Uttam Mali.

2 In 1950, the Rana regime, led by the ruling family of Nepal, was overpowered, and its policy of banning mass media from Nepal was quickly reversed.

3 See Grandin (116–19) for a history of aadhunik geet.

4 See Henderson, “Who Needs the Folk?” for more on lok geet.

5 Sambhujit Baskota was a strong proponent of Nepali modern songs, or aadhunik geet. He considered Nepali pop to be somewhat trendy, and was cautious about incorporating it into film songs.

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