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    Social, Economic, and Technological Dimensions of the Nepali Pop Explosion

  1. The advent of new media technologies and resources to Nepal during the 1990s had a great impact on the emergence of Nepali pop. Prior to the 90s, Nepali, Indian, and Western popular musics were audible in Nepal’s urban soundscapes chiefly through audiocassettes (Manuel). When Western television content began to be transmitted via satellite, and as cable television came to Nepal, as many as 29 channels of Western and Indian popular music and culture suddenly became available, including a South-Asia-oriented version of MTV. To be sure, Western and Indian music had always been available to Nepali music listeners of means. But suddenly a broader range of foreign music began to reach Nepali ears at an unprecedented rate. This sudden acceleration of cultural communication was a primary factor in the development of Nepali pop as a Western-influenced music genre. In addition, music videos of Nepali pop songs emerged and became popular. By 2000 they were telecast on Nepal TV through the Image Channel, and were also incorporated into other programs. For example, NTV’s Music+ combined music videos with conversations and interviews with listeners. Music videos played an important and growing role in promoting Nepali pop.

  2. Starting in the mid-1990s, FM radio stations emerged as a private-sector alternative to the state-run Radio Nepal. FM stations broadcast a variety of programs, including Nepali pop, Indian pop, and many kinds of Western pop music. By 2000 there were several FM stations, the most popular of which were Kantipur FM and KATH. Other stations included Sagarmatha FM, HBC, Hits FM100, and Classic FM Time. FM radio had poor reception in the alpine villages, so it remained chiefly urban-oriented. Nepali listeners frequently tuned into FM radio at work and home, receiving a strong dose of Western and Indian music, as well as Nepali pop. Nepali pop thus emerged as a leading element in soundscapes comprised of cassette, radio, and television sounds—soundscapes that also contained a wide variety of foreign pop musics.

  3. Figure 4: Greene at the R.R.C. Recording Centre in Nepal
    The advent of new studio technologies in Nepal made production of pop songs easier, faster, and more practical. Music production and recording technology were slow to come to Nepal until prices for the hardware dropped below a threshold of affordability. In 1983, Music Nepal emerged as the first complete music production company in Nepal in the private sector. As prices around the world dropped on recording and manufacturing technology in the 1990s, Music Nepal developed 8-track (in 1993), then 16-track (in 1996) recording facilities. As prices continued to drop, competitors emerged. By the late 90s, Nepali sound studios could offer pop musicians and record agents digital recording, drum machines, MIDI sequencing, serial digital effects processing, and thousands of sound patches in tone banks and synthesizers. By 2000 there were over thirty sound studios, several of which employed direct-to-disk digital recording technology, and over a dozen music production companies to produce and distribute cassettes and CDs.
  4. Youth Culture

  5. Nepali urban youth culture is centered in student life. As mentioned above, during the late 1980s and 90s, more people went to school, and more pursued advanced degrees. This meant that young people were traveling around within the country, and to an unprecedented extent were meeting people from many different Nepali and non-Nepali cultures. Wealthy parents in rural areas began to send their children to the cities for school, and as a result students from the many diverse ethnic groups and caste communities that make up Nepal began to encounter each other more than ever before. Nepali students thus experienced the multicultural nature of Nepal more than their parents, and as they became friends with people from different cultures, they developed a new level of cultural understanding of Nepal’s diverse cultures, a kind of Nepali cosmopolitanism.

  6. In schools, Nepalis underwent strong Western influences in their studies, and encountered students who had returned from study abroad in Europe and the United States. Paul Greene’s interviews with listeners reveal that young people felt they lived remarkably cosmopolitan lives, typically much more so than their parents. Young people said that, unlike their parents, they met and did things with people of all different ethnic groups and several caste communities. Young people also said they actively incorporated many technologies of Western origin into their lives (many of them were actually manufactured in China, Japan, and India). During the 1990s Nepal saw the popularization of video cameras, computers, desktop publishing, email, and internet cafés. Students were especially exposed to and open to new technologies, and a large portion of them were going into technology and computer-related fields. Almost all considered Western technologies to be of central importance in the study and leisure activities of student life.

  7. Figure 5: Greene interviews listeners at the 10+2 higher secondary National View College in New Baneshwor, Kathmandu
    In interviews, young people eagerly described new freedoms they enjoyed which people in previous generations did not. They described the freedom to roam freely around the cities, and to return at late hours. Boys described the freedom to spend more time with girls, to date, and ultimately to choose their wives (rather than have parents completely arrange marriages). Girls described new freedoms to interact with people of all ethnic and caste backgrounds, to prepare for and compete for jobs never before opened to women, and to transcend limitations imposed on women in traditional Nepali culture. Some also described new problems, such as deterioration of cultural traditions, and increasing drug use.

  8. Nepali young people associated the West with the technology that became so central in their lives, and with the new freedoms they celebrated (Greene and Henderson “At the Crossroads”). They commonly incorporated English words into daily conversations to mark themselves as cosmopolitan. There was considerable pressure to “be English,” a phrase which meant to draw Western elements into one’s life and social identity. None of the people interviewed said this meant abandoning one’s identity as Nepali, but rather described it as a process of incorporating valuable elements of the West. As a result, many Nepali young people spent some of their leisure time in tourist areas like the Thamel district of Kathmandu, where they shopped at many of the same stores as Western tourists and trekkers (a point developed in Henderson, ”The Sound of the City”). When young people increasingly began to play guitars, drums, and keyboards and covered Western songs in the late 1980s, their goal was to gain fame in the youth culture by embodying selected elements of Western pop.

  9. Figure 6: Young people playing back Nepali pop cassettes at a Dakshinkali picnic

  10. Nepali pop was especially important during parties. Nepali parties commonly took place in homes or youth hostels. Often they followed a traditional ritual performed at an important stage of life, such as a marriage. Some “picnics” (banbhoj—literally “forest feast”) included Nepali pop. Picnics followed rituals of worship (puja), and were also organized as get-togethers for school groups, office groups, organizations, and family groups. They took place in special places, such as the Dakshinkali Temple, Balaju Garden, Godavari Botanical Garden, Vajra Barahi Temple, Surya Vinayak Ganesh Temple, Dhulikhel forest, Sundarijal, and Thankot Park. Such parties were important, memorable social occasions of a young person’s life, and were shared by both boys and girls. Picnics typically lasted all day, starting at 7 or 8 AM and involved breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sometimes a small group would go to the site the evening before the picnic began to build a campfire, spend the night together, and prepare breakfast for the rest of the group, which would arrive in the morning. Starting after lunch, one person took on the role of DJ and played Nepali pop cassettes and CDs, together with foreign music. People talked, drank, and danced all day. Some brought instruments and made their own music. Starting in 1997, a few dance halls, or discotheques, received government permission to open. As of 1999 there were six legal discotheques. Discotheques charged high entrance fees (NRs. 300/-, or US$ 5.00) and offered young people the opportunity to dance to the accompaniment of recorded music. Most of the music played back at discotheques was Western popular music, but Nepali pop was also included.

  11. There was also considerable ambivalence about new freedoms, technologies, and about the West in general. Many students experienced a sharp contrast as they moved back and forth between student life and traditional family life. Also, they voiced the concern that traditional culture was getting lost in the shuffle of rapid cultural and technological change. Many Nepalis perceived that there were dangers in having too much freedom, saying that pursuit of individual freedom led to violence and drugs for some. They expressed concern that crime, drug problems, and family problems they perceived in the West may be coming to Nepal. Liechty’s 1995 study of youth culture in Kathmandu examines many of the problems confronting young people of the 1980s and 1990s. As he points out, many interests competed to construct the identities of those in the growing liminal category of “youth.” Many experienced a sense of confusion and dislocatedness. For complex reasons that warrant further study, violence also became part of youth culture, notably in the early 1990s, when students organized themselves into “gangs” (e.g., Falcons, Kids, Devil’s Gang, Mask) and engaged in fights (“Tuff Turf”).

  12. In some regards, Nepali pop culture from 1985 to 2000 seems to have been in an experimental phase similar to the American rock scene in the 1960s: virtually all listeners were open to a wide variety of musical styles. As far as we could determine, the Nepali pop audience seemed not to be organized into music-based subcultures. Although a number of distinct styles emerged in Nepali pop, none of them was the basis of a subculture. (One exception was thrash metal, for which a small but cohesive subculture began to emerge, initially around the band Drishty.) In fact, record companies found it remarkably difficult to predict different listeners’ interests in music because particular musical tastes within Nepali pop did not seem to correlate with other identifiable social variables. In addition, Nepali pop musicians did not develop cult followings. Although young people listened to their music, they typically did not buy posters of their favorite musicians or come out for events like album signings. Music promotion company New Media organized an album signing once which only three fans attended. Although the concert scene was lively around the late 1980s and early 90s, in the mid to late 90s even some of the best-promoted concerts by Nepali pop bands typically drew only a few hundred people. Pop fans were content to listen to their music at home, at school, during parties, or at the discotheque, and form social groups around these events rather than around musical styles or musicians.

  13. Female voices and musicians were underrepresented in the Nepali pop scene. This was in contrast to other kinds of popular music in Nepal. For example, in Nepali film songs and aadhunik geet, some female singers, like sentimental singer Aruna Lama, became tremendously popular. Women’s participation in making Nepali pop increased by the end of the 1990s, with recordings by Nalina Chitrakar, Sarishma Amatya, Radi Chhetri, and Anjan Shakya. The new, all-female band, Sparkle, formed and released an album, Jamana Hamro Laagi Ho. As of 2000, a subculture of female fans seems not to have emerged. In interviews, female musicians indicated ways that their lives were still more circumscribed by rules and cultural expectations than male musicians (“Girl Power”). Interviews with over thirty female pop listeners suggest that a large portion of young women in Nepal around 2000 were critical of constraints which, despite recent changes, still persisted from traditional culture. These listeners were eager for more progress. Moreover, many of them were avid Nepali pop fans. They heard in it a newness, an allusion to a West in which women enjoyed greater freedoms, and a hope of positive social change.
  14. Concluding Remarks: Interpreting the Echoes

  15. In the mountains, echoed sounds not only reproduce their original sources; they also become subtly nuanced and inflected by the particular shapes of the valleys within which they are made to resound. One of the primary factors giving shape to the primarily valley-based urban youth culture of Nepal was a growing disjuncture in the 1980s and 90s in flows of knowledge, technology, and music to and from different spheres of cultural life (see Appadurai), such that many young Nepali students experienced a more urban, cosmopolitan world than their elders. A similar disjuncture emerged between the upper and middle classes on the one hand and much of the lower classes on the other, since many in working-class families typically could not afford as much formal education for their children. As new technologies of sound production took root in cities, they were immediately drawn into a lucrative urban youth culture rather than rural music production. In many ways, then, rapid cultural changes starting in and radiating outward from urban schools transformed the lives of upper- and middle-class urban young people. These changes had a lesser effect on their parents, and hardly affected rural communities or the working class. As a result of these social dynamics, Nepali pop emerged largely centered in particular social classes, a particular age group, and specifically in urban settings. The earlier popular musics of film song, aadhunik geet, and lok geet were more broadly popular, and less centered in particular Nepali population groups.

  16. Much as a keen listener can perceive the shape of a valley by listening to sounds echoing and reverberating within it, so we can learn something about Nepal’s urban youth culture by listening to Nepali pop, and by listening to the ways in which various sounds—Western pop, Indian pop, Nepali folk, aadhunik geet, lok geet, and filmi geet echoed and reverberated in this new pop genre. The particular qualities of cosmopolitanism of the new youth culture were reflected in the particularities of the bricolage of their soundscapes. Nepali instruments, vocal qualities, rhythms, and scalar elements persisted in Nepali pop, giving the genre a sense of Nepalipan—“Nepaliness”—that may not at first be audible to non-Nepalis. Also, the fact that Nepali pop musicians and listeners selected certain Western sounds and not others in some cases seems to indicate that some sounds were more compatible with traditional Nepali aesthetics than others, and in other cases seems to indicate that some Western music styles spoke better than others to the particular concerns of this youth culture. To Nepali youths, the “West” was a resource, which they selectively evoked and contemplated in their evolving culture of Nepali pop.

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