Article | Echoes in the Valleys: A Social History of Nepali Pop in Nepal’s Urban Youth Culture, 1985-2000, by Yubakar Raj Rajkarnikar and Paul Greene

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.1 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.

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.

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.

Early Reverberations: Popular Music in Nepal from 1950 through the 1980s

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Explosion of Nepali Pop

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Bhim Tuladhar and his band The Influence could be said to be the first popular Nepali pop musicians, in the sense that they produced and performed songs in Nepali as early as 1983. Much of their early output was Nepali-styled reworkings of familiar Beatles hits. As Bhim described it, the Influence derived its name from the band’s embrace of Western pop music in Nepali-language songs (Tuladhar). Bhim’s singing style, and the instruments his band used were based on Western pop, but they also tried to integrate a few elements—or at least the “feeling”—of Nepali folk and modern melodies into Western-styled melodies based on the Beatles and Pink Floyd. Before them, some Nepali musicians covered Western music in English, but no one played Western-style music in Nepali. The Influence became a symbol of a new, inescapable Western influence which many Nepalis, especially young people, were increasingly experiencing every day. Around the same time, a few other musicians and bands were also beginning to produce Western-influenced songs in Nepali, notably Crossroads, Sparsha (featuring Yubakar Raj Rajkarnikar), Indu Syangbo (“Jaagen Sara Raat”), and The Elegance (“Meri Meri Mayalou”).

Figure 1: The Sunsaan Raatma cassette (1985)

The first album which was not only in Nepali but that also featured original and distinctively Nepali music was Sunsaan Raatma, by a group called the Classical Guitar Society, released by Music Nepal in 1985. Lead singer Sunil Parajuli, together with guitar virtuoso Kishor Gurung (son of Amber Gurung, former head of Music at the Royal Nepal Academy), composed the songs. The album was a collection of philosophical songs, showcasing Kishor’s guitar solos. [Listen to an excerpt from the song “Kahile Kahin.”] After making the album, Sunil pursued his music career at the Berklee College of Music, and continued to work in the United States as a part-time musician. He later returned to Nepal to produce another album, called Aau, with Kishor (“Sunil Parajuli”). Following Sunsaan Raatma, The Influence returned to the spotlight. They produced several new albums over the next few years, from Sapanima in 1985, to JaaAgainJijibisha, and finally Sphattik in 1994, when the group disbanded. In the 1990s they, and Nepali pop in general, began to make appreciable sales: a successful album sold up to five thousand units.

Starting in 1992, singer Sanjay Shrestha found great success with a new, distinctive musical fusion by bringing a sentimental singing style into Nepali pop music (Shrestha). Shrestha formed a pop band called Crossroads with fellow students, playing a combination of Western and Nepali instruments. Their first album, Crossroads, concerned the condition of Nepali young people in the 1990s. In the 1990s, young Nepalis could come together and enjoy close friendships for a time in school, but then often found they must go in separate ways after graduation. The band members actually lived out this condition: following completion of the album, the other members of Crossroads left Nepal for study abroad. Sanjay persevered alone, and found great success with Crossroads IIIII, and IV, which he produced without the help of his original fellow band members. A note on the sleeve of Crossroads IV reads, “I regret the absence of my group members Sarad, Binayak, Bhusan & Nimbu.” Part of Sanjay’s success was not only due to his singing style, but also his ability to touch on real-life issues many young listeners experienced in the 1990s as a result of heightened mobility.

Lok pop

Starting in 1993, a band called Nepathya began to rise in popularity, and ushered in lok pop, “folk pop,” which came to dominate Nepali pop by 2000. Nepathya was formed in 1990, while its original members were in college, and they initially covered Beatles, Credence Clearwater Revival, Eagles, and Pink Floyd songs in English. Gradually band members began writing their own music in Nepali. Nepali listeners heard in Nepathya’s music a “tastier flavor, for their compositions are a fusion of Western music and our folk music” (“Nepathya”). Perhaps this audible folk music “flavor” was partly due to the band’s roots in Pokhara, a city that has kept some distance from the fast-paced, Westernizing, modernizing trends of Kathmandu. Nepathya was the first nationally popular band that was not based in the Kathmandu Valley. Although lok pop retained few entire melodies from traditional folksongs, they generally constructed a sense of the Nepali folk through scalar forms and melodic figures from folk music, words from Nepal’s ethnic languages borrowed into the Nepali-language song texts, and narratives based on themes from village life. Song texts typically concerned journeys through the mountains, memories of mountains and rural culture, village festivals, love for a village girl, and village families (for more on lok pop, see Greene, “Nepal’s Lok Pop”). Nepathya came to be known as the “Village Pop Singers.” Initial sales of their first album, Nepathya, were sluggish, but with increasing promotion and the production of subsequent albums (such as Himal Chu-Churae from 1995, which included the song “Nakkali Kaanchi”), sales picked up and Nepathya became the first Nepali pop band to sell 100,000 pieces. Following in the wake of Nepathya’s success are a wave of Pokhara-based lok pop bands, including the folk/pop/reggae Peace Hankey Band, Kandara, Madhyana, Deurali, Nizzer, Pokhareli, Bro-Sis, Manoj Shrestha, and Vagabond, as well as others, such as Mongolian Hearts, who are not Pokhara based.

Heavy Metal

Although the best selling and most popular Nepali pop music of 2000 was lok pop, other musical styles also reverberated. One of these was heavy metal. Western heavy metal and hard rock have been popular in Kathmandu since the early 1980s. Metallica, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, and Guns ‘N’ Roses sold well. In the late 1980s, a number of bands covered Western heavy metal songs in English, notably Wrathchild. In 1998, Yubakar, then editor of Wave, began to witness an emerging heavy metal subculture in the Kathmandu Valley. He found that a growing number of young people were writing in to the magazine office, asking for specific biographical and musical information on Western heavy metal musicians. A Nepali heavy metal subculture solidified in the early 2000s; this subculture is not examined here because it is beyond the historical scope of this article.6

Early bands to combine heavy metal with Nepali musical elements and Nepali words included Heartbreaker and Cobweb. In 1993, musicians from several bands came together to form Cobweb, and released their first album, Anjaan (Cobweb). Inspired by Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin, and UFO, they incorporated the hallmark heavy metal sounds of distorted, overdriven electric guitars—both as a rhythm instrument and as a fast-moving solo instrument—into Nepali pop, forming a musical fusion that, in some ways, remained more Nepali than Western heavy metal in style.To be sure, they incorporated the loudness, the dynamic stage antics, and the virtuosity of 1980s Western heavy metal. But, as can be heard in, for example, “Yo Mutu” from the album Cobweb, they did not always adopt Western heavy metal singing styles. They often retained the sweet, polished vocal style common in almost all Nepali vocal genres. Moreover, although the musicians proved themselves quite adept and talented performers, their recordings rarely included Western classical arpeggiation, an important feature of Western heavy metal (Walser).

Other Nepali pop musicians also incorporated the distorted electric guitar into their music (such as Deepak Bajracharya in “Behoshima”). In 1997, a band called Stash emerged with the stated intent to “prove … that it is possible to record an album with Nepali heavy metal songs” with the “shrieking, hard-hitting styles” of Anthrax, Iron Maiden, and Metallica (“Stash”). Their songs found some popularity but did not chart in Wave magazine’s monthly Top Ten. As the Pokhara scene expanded in the wake of Nepathya, other bands also emerged with influences from Western heavy metal, including Mile Stone, and metal/grunge/punk band Grease. In 1996, in Omaha, Nebraska, a heavy metal band called Dristhy formed, comprised of Iman. B. Shah, Manohar Gyawali, and Noor. B. Shah, three Nepali musicians who were living in the United States (“Dristhy”). The stated goal of their forthcoming album was to present excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, combining Sanskrit slokas concerning war with heavy metal music. Unlike Cobweb, Dristhy began to offer a vocal part that was distorted, even difficult to understand—an influence from thrash metal. This led to the emergence of a Kathmandu-based thrash metal scene in the 2000s.

Remixes

In Nepali pop one could also hear some especially strong reverberations of other Western musics. The popular band 1974 AD, formed in 1993, took its name from the era of Western pop that particularly inspired its music. The Matrix featured a Western, heavy rock sound in their 1994 album Matrix in Swapna. Also reverberating in Nepali pop were the very Western sounds of blues guitar, from the popular band Robin ‘n’ Looza. Their 1999 album Nepal combined Western and Nepali elements, and included four songs in English and four in Nepali. Vocalist Robin, a Nepali, grew up in Canada, and his band was said to have a very Western, “Thamel sound.”7 In Thamel, cultural and musical exchanges took place in both directions, as foreign tourists and Nepalis continuously heard Indian, Nepali, and Western musics resounding from countless places at once, layering and mixing in the many streets, restaurants, and hotels.

In the late 1990s, “remixes” of older pop songs began to rise in popularity. Remixes often featured new singers before hip, high-tech musical backdrops. A remix set a familiar song to a shifting accompanimental montage of musical styles—usually Western styles—often with a prominent, danceable beat. The accompaniment of a typical remix shifted between a disco beat, rap, a heavy metal-styled guitar solo, reggae, and Nepali folk music.The technology to record at least eight tracks of sound was key to making remix production feasible and practical. Starting in 1993 there was an explosion of multi-track technology in the Kathmandu Valley, facilitated in part by the 1992 global release of the Alesis ADAT. Many remixes were longer, faster in tempo, and were designed for pop dance culture, which was on the rise in the mid to late 1990s. Pop dance, whether based on Western pop, Nepali pop, or film songs, was known collectively as “disco,” in distinction from folk dance traditions such as rodi. Young people danced at parties, picnics, and Kathmandu’s new discotheques. Proponents said remixes kept traditional musics alive while updating them to a more contemporary sound. Critics said remixes detracted from the celebrated original songs, and the whirlwind of sonic montage brought an element of chaos and disorganization to Nepali soundscapes. (For more on remixes, see Greene, “Mixed Messages”).

Figure 2: Cover art for New Media’s Mega Mix remix album (1998)

The practice of reworking earlier famous songs for a contemporary market was not new. At Music Nepal’s sound studios, famous lok geetsinger Kumar Basnet had been reworking folk tunes from all over Nepal for popular consumption for decades, frequently incorporating elements of Western rock and pop. Indian remixes, chiefly of Indian film songs, began to enter the Nepali music market around 1995. In 1998 the first Nepali album of remixes, Mega Mix, was compiled by Brazesh Khanal and produced by New Media (which then became Unlimited NuMedia Pvt. Ltd.), featuring the voices of Kumar Basnet, Brazesh Khanal, and others (listen to the openingand a folksong excerpt from their “Deusee rey extended mix”). This was followed by several other remix albums, including Master Film Hits Vols. 1 and 2 (remixes of Nepali film songs); His SongMy Voice31 Non Stop Remix; and Mega Mix 2. Most remix albums were created by record companies, although a few pop groups, like the Rock Yogis, 1974 AD, and Robin ‘n’ Looza also made them.

The band Mongolian Hearts typified the threefold concerns common among pop listeners around 2000 in several respects: embracing Western cultural and technological influences, encountering Nepal’s many cultures, and holding on to Nepalipan, “Nepaliness.” The opening track of their 1998 album Mongolian Heart, “Unbho Unbho,” starts with Tibetan Buddhist devotional sounds. The song is about passage from Nepal to Tibet, in which a Nepali boy meets a Sherpa girl. The song also incorporates Sherpa words, and melodies are reminiscent of Nepali folk tunes. 

Figure 3: Mongolian Heart CD, by Mongolian Hearts (1998)

In interviews, young Tibetan listeners in Kathmandu said that the incorporation of Tibetan and Sherpa words and instruments in the song helped to make them “feel included” in the Nepali pop scene. Following this opening is bluesy guitar and a pop musical texture. The song also alludes to the remix trend in its shifts from one musical texture to another: shifts which bring to mind the dynamic, high tech, multicultural world in which young people found themselves in 2000. In different ways, the music of Robin ‘n’ Looza, the Rock Yogis, Jems Pradhan, and the Namaste Band also reflected the concerns of young people. At the same time, a very popular, Western-pop-based middle-of-the-road sound was emerging from musicians including Nabin K. Bhattarai, Babin Pradhan, Sanjeep Pradhan, and Nima Rumba: a sound that avoided the expressive extremes of both Western pop and lok pop.

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.

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.

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.

Youth Culture

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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”).

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.

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.

Concluding Remarks: Interpreting the Echoes

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.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 geetlok 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.

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Public Culture 2:2 (1990): 1–24.

Basnet, Kumar. Email Communication. March 9, 1999.

“Cobweb.” Wave 15. Dec. 1996: 30–31.

“Dristhy.” Wave 41. Aug. 1999: 21.

Grandin, Ingemar. Music and Media in Local Life: Music Practice in a Newar Neighbourhood in Nepal. Linkoeping, Sweden: Linkoeping University Dept. of Communication Studies, 1989.

Greene, Paul. “Mixed Messages: Unsettled Cosmopolitanisms in Nepali Pop.” Popular Music 20:2 (2001): 169–87. Reprinted in Wired for Sound: Engineering and Technologies in Sonic Cultures. Eds. Paul D. Greene and Thomas Porcello. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2005. 198–221.

—–. “Nepal’s Lok Pop Music: Representations of the Folk, Tropes of Memory, and Studio Technologies.” Asian Music 34:1 (2003): 43–65.

—–. “Electronic and Affective Overdrive: Tropes of Transgression in Nepal’s Heavy Metal Scene.” In Metal Rules the Globe, eds. Jeremy Wallach, Harris M. Berger, and Paul D. Greene. Forthcoming.

—– and David Henderson. “At the Crossroads of Languages, Musics, and Emotions in Kathmandu.” Popular Music and Society 24:3 (2000): 95–116. Reprinted in Global Pop, Local Language. Eds. Harris M. Berger and Michael Thomas Carroll. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2003.

“Girl Power: Sarishma Amatya and Anjan Shakya.” Wave 25. Dec. 1997: 48–9.

Greene, Paul, and Yubakar Raj Rajkarnikar. “Echoes in the Valleys: A Social History of Nepali Pop, 1985–2000.” Wave 63. Mar. 2001: 16–18, 21.

Henderson, David. Personal Communication. 

—–. “The Sound of the City (Kathmandu Remix).” ASPAC paper, June 18, 1999.

—–. “’Who Needs the Folk?’ A Nepali Remodeling Project.” Asian Music34:1 (2003): 19–42.

Kaleidoscope Music Academy. Advertisement. Wave 7. Jan. 1996: 29.

Liechty, Mark. “Media, Markets, and Modernization: Youth Identities and the Experience of Modernity in Kathmandu, Nepal.” In Youth Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Eds. Vered Amit-Talai and Helena Wulff. New York: Routledge, 1995. 166–201.

Manuel, Peter. “The Cassette Industry and Popular Music in North India.” Popular Music 10:2 (1991): 189–217.

“Nepathya: The Village Pop Singers.” Wave 7. Jan. 1996: 29.

Shrestha, Sanjay. Personal Conversation. Aug. 11, 1999.

“Sunil Parajuli.” Wave 41. Aug. 1999: 15–16.

Surendra S. Phuyal. “The Influence: It’s in the Name.” Wave 28. April 1998: 36.

“Stash.” Wave 15. Dec. 1996: 11.

Tuladhar, Bhim. Personal conversation. December 22, 1998. 

“Tuff Turf: Reminisces of a Lost Childhood.” Wave 20. July 1997:11–14; Wave 21. Aug. 1997: 18–22.

Walser, Robert. Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Hanover NH: Wesleyan UP, 1993.Zeepee [Ganesh Prashad]. Personal conversation. Aug. 15, 1999.

  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.
  6. For more on post-2000 developments in Nepali heavy metal, see Greene, “Electronic and Affective Overdrive.”
  7. Thamel was from 1985 to 2000 the leading tourist district of Kathmandu, where Western shoppers met Nepali merchants.
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