08 June, 2008

THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE OF MUSIC

SUSHMA JOSHI
ECS Magazine, June 2008

Kirateswor is located on an obscure hilltop in the Pashupati temple complex, but many people can navigate their way there with effortless ease. That is because for the last fifteen years, classical musicians have gathered to play instruments and share their art every full moon, drawing crowds of reverent listeners.

The last full moon was no exception. The chaitra moon was almost crimson in its intensity, and the music of the ishraj, a little known instrument, dissolved the listeners to a perfect balance of melancholy and joyfulness. Santosh Bhakta Shrestha was accompanied on his ishraj by Navaraj Gurung on the tabla. The tabla is a special instrument at any occasion, but especially in Kirateswor where its rounded, full-bodied sound seemed to echo the dancing footsteps of Shiva, painted in full dancing posture on the stage.

We climb up to the little pati and sit next to the baba-ji who’s a permanent resident at Kirateswor. He dips his finger in his fire and gives me a tika of grey ash. My friends and I speculate that the Sanskrit slogan painted on the wall says: Anybody who doesn’t know classical music is like an animal without a tail. We laugh about this for a while, wonder if our Sanskrit guess is accurate, and then get lost again in the music, which moves into a high-pitched crescendo that one friend describes as a description of classical angst. Indeed, the musical moods seem to reflect the human mind—moving from horrible melancholy to a slower sadness, then exhausted into a calmer state, climbing up to a small spike of joy, then launching full-fledged into ecstasy before again quieting to introspection.

My sister-in-law, who learns harmonium and classical vocals from a guru, talks about a state called ananda when listening and singing to music. I am sure this ananda she talks about with such reverence is different from the casual ananda we talk about in colloquial speech. This full-fledged feeling of being one with the universe comes more easily when submerged in music, and today I feel it. Closing my eyes, I can feel the layers of sound dissolving down towards the knowledge of sansar, the worldly universe, down towards a more fundamental truth. (And no, I wasn’t smoking anything.)

The last set, with Bobby Gurung on the ghatam and Jeevan Rai on the tabla, got too competitive and too playful for the spiritual setting, but otherwise the music was exceptional. Sarita Mishra, a musician who is secretary and co-ordinator of the concert at Kirateswor, says that it took a while to build it up—when they first started the concert fifteen years ago, there were no women and barely any men. Now, the courtyard is always packed and people linger on after the concert is over, despite having to walk home in the dark.

This month seems to be a month for music. The the other concert to delight Kathmandu music lovers (besides Sabin Rai at Tamas) was the Viejos Flamencos with Jorge Pardos, a legendary 52 year old flamenco musician from Madrid who flew in to play to a packed hall in the Hyatt Regency Hotel on May 10th. Jorge played the flute and the soprano saxophone, El Chispa played the cajon (a wooden box with an opening at the back, and played by beating hands on the front), and Juan Diego the Spanish guitar.

Jorge Pardos was eighteen when Paco de Lucia, the musician who changed the way the flamenco guitar is played, hired him to tour together. In 1999, Jorge stopped touring with Paco, and started to do his own work. He did a big tour with Chick Corea, a legendary American piano player, in 2004.

After an hour of uplifting flamenco, the Nepali band Sukarma came on stage to jam with the Spanish troupe. The musicians had never met before, and yet they managed to play comfortably for an hour with harmonic symmetry. My friend whispered: I like them better when there’s a whole ensemble. The musicians took turns to play—with Dhrubesh Chandra Regmi on the sitar, Pramod Upadhayay on the tabla, and Shyam Nepali on the sarangi, the stage came alive with both Eastern and Western rhythms. Music is a language that requires no translation, and quickly the instruments learnt to speak to each other. The drummers delighted in finding out that they had the same beats—21 year old El Chispa (“the spark”) found a likeminded companion in Pramod Upadhayay, and the two jammed on their drums, uplifting energy and spirits. Dr. Regmi played the sitar impossibly fast, while Jorge responded with the flute. As Shyam Nepali’s sarangi played a melancholy riff that raised the hair on the back of our heads and left the hall dead silent, the Spanish guitar was the only instrument to respond with its own empathetic chords.

The hall was a bit too gigantic, too air-conditioned, and too chandeliered for flamenco, but no doubt the Hyatt has the good sense to make their new jazz club more intimate. The event, organized by the Delegation for the European Commission and the Hyatt, was a fundraiser for the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory, a new music school started in November 2007.

The conservatory was started by Mariano Abello, a Madrid musician who arrived in Kathmandu on September 11, 2005. “I escaped from the USA, that’s what I did,” Marino says. Marino was teaching in the universities of South Florida and feeling unfulfilled when his brother called. “My brother asked me for help for some stuff he was doing here. I contacted Jazzmando. Me and my wife we fall in love with the Nepali people, so we stayed. We love this place. Here we are trying to give something we know. Not to give--to share.” Marino’s wife, Janine Lusposa, an interior designer, designed the new and soon-to-open Jazz Club at the Hyatt.

With fifty plus students ranging in age from six to fifty (three are non-Nepalis), the Conservatory seemed set to continue the jazz tradition in Nepal. Lets hope the funds raised--Rs. 2000 per ticket from over 200 enthusiastic supporters—will help to sustain this new institution. I ask if they will be here for a while, and Marino answers with a smile: “Yes. For a while.”