I’ve already written many musical musings of my own, with considerable pieces on Nepali composers, singers, lyricists, and arrangers – both Nepal-born ones and those from the other Little Nepals outside Mother Nepal.
Those essays and records were published when I was at The Kathmandu Post, post-Y2K. So, many young readers of today were mere toddlers then, or not yet conceived, much less even imagined.
And here is another one, then. But there are almost no repetitions in this series, as I still have other unpublished reminiscences to share in this latest missive.
My past as a self-exiled Darjeelingay in Kathmandu and being, by now, the grand old man of the then post-modern Nepali music “happenings” – in terms of founding the first professional nightclub band and the first Rock n’ Roll boys’ band in Darjeeling, pioneering live stage shows in college and towns, and performing neo-creative electronic music in Nepali and tinkering with other experiments in that little Hill Town from the late 1950s to the mid-60s – are recorded by such cultural historians as Tshering Choden and Yubakar Rajcarnikar of Kathmandu.
Their research also covers my Darjeeling years as a guitarist at Mr. Amber Gurung’s Art Academy of Music, being the bassist with Mr. Louis Banks’ Quartet, and later founding my own five-member band called The Hillians. So there’s no need to repeat these stories here. Instead, there are other hitherto undisclosed news items to be shared in this series.
My Höfner precedes me to Kathmandu
It was my guitar that arrived in Kathmandu first, some four years before I myself did. It happened in the post-1962 period when King Mahendra of Nepal invited Amber Gurung to Kathmandu, following the sensational success and popularity of his record of the song “Nau Lakh Tara Udae,” its lyrics written by Agam Singh Giri. Mr. Gurung and a large entourage left Darjeeling for Biratnagar and Kathmandu. Being a junior member of his Art Academy, I didn’t merit a place in the Grand Nau Lakh Tara Tour.
But my guitar did. It was a deep brown six-string acoustic Höfner which had acquired a nice timbre and low-tension softness to the strings and frets due to my rigorous usage. I had “tamed” it, so to say.
It was my older cousin Lalit Kumar Tamang who had the honor of joining the Nau Lakh Tara Express from Darjeeling to Kathmandu, and he borrowed my instrument for the visit. He played the same guitar in Amber Gurung’s recording of “Ma Ambar Hun Timi Dharti” one year later. One must listen to the track to understand what I mean.
I didn’t bring the acoustic with me when I came to Kathmandu in 1966. I brought another fancy looking and shiny black-and-white flat-body electric guitar (a big mistake!) and a portable amplifier which I had bought from Mr. Louis Banks when he left Darjeeling for Soaltee Hotel in Kathmandu, and I left the Höfner with five other acoustic, electric and bass guitars and three amplifiers in The Hillians’ rehearsal room at the GDNS Hall in Darjeeling.
I also left my Philips record player and all my LPs and EPs and other musical “stuffs” and memorabilia back in Darjeeling. I would never see them again because, as it turned out, I would be permanently gone from Darjeeling and wouldn’t return to my hometown in the next ten months, as I had planned.
Dilli Bazaar Days
Once I arrived in a gang in Kathmandu, we found an apartment on the incline of Dilli Bazaar. It was a traditional three-storied house which stands to this day. Our group consisted of Ranjit Gazmer, Anuradha Gurung (now Koirala and the Mother of Maiti Nepal), Phurba Tshering Bhutia, his sister and nephew, and me. Other “guests” joined in and left as the months went by.
Since Ranjit, Phurba, and I were of The Hillians in Darjeeling – the other two were my younger brother, Mark, and Kamal Kumar (KK) Gurung, who were left behind – we had our instruments with us. Ranjit didn’t have his drum set, true, but he had his scale-changer harmonium and tabla, and Phurba had his silver trumpet and bamboo and reed flutes.
But it was my electric guitar that rendered itself practically useless. When we settled down in the evening for music-making after our day’s work, the electricity in Kathmandu began dimming.
By seven in the evening, the city looked rural with oil lamps lighting the houses. The 220-watt voltage of the electric bulbs reduced to mere flickers, and the interiors of houses looked bleak and the streets outside totally dark.
In our days, amplifiers were powered by valves – transistors and chips and microchips would follow only much later. My amplifier had four small and another four larger valves which slowly lit up and heated to supply 500 watts of volume through a 10” speaker. Once switched on, my old-style amplifier’s valves took one long minute to warm up and burn to exude the electric sound of my guitar.
The daily evening blackout was due to the American-built ropeway at Teku which started its cargo ferrying operation between Kathmandu and Bhainse Dovan at that ungodly hour everyday.
The ropeway, the Timber Corporation sawmills, river ferries and other USAID projects were so wasteful and great oil guzzlers and energy burners. When we heard the ropeway plant’s machine begin humming at Teku – yes, we could hear it whining up in distant Dilli Bazaar in those days! – the power outage began, and by the time the ropeway was in motion with full throttle, the city’s houses looked pale-yellow dim inside.
The Yankee ropeway thus ate the entire electricity capacity of the Kathmandu Valley every evening, and people in fact lit candles and kerosene lamps, and shops pumped up hissing gaslights called Petromax. When normal voltage resumed at eleven o’clock at night, Kathmandu, not being a nocturnal city in any case, had gone to sleep. I had the foretaste of things to come early on in my life as musician in Kathmandu.
It was then I realized my big mistake. I had another larger acoustic electric guitar, made in Holland, and I should’ve brought that along with me. It had a big body and deep sound and could be played as a non-electric acoustic.
Come to think of it, even today, the capital city of Nepal has always been short of electricity and potable water since the day I arrived here some 46 years ago.
Three Hillians at Radio Nepal
Ranjit Gazmer was already an established music director in Darjeeling who composed music and arranged it, and I was one of his principal male singers and guitarist (rhythm, lead and bass all combined).
He had founded the Sangam Club in Darjeeling with Sharan Pradhan, Aruna Lama, and Jitendra Bardewa while I was the bandleader of The Hillians, with Ranjit as drummer. We thus operated as each other’s chief and comrade; while he bossed around at Sangam, I led The Hillians. The simultaneous professional roles worked out just fine with us.
In Kathmandu, Phurba and I worked as croupiers at Casino Nepal at night while Ranjit was Amber Gurung’s assistant at the Royal Nepal Academy’s Department of Music. It was Ranjit who very soon took Phurba and me to the nearby gates of Singha Durbar and we entered Radio Nepal and its recording studios.
We became workday studio musicians there from 1966 and continued until Phurba returned to Darjeeling and Ranjit left for Bombay in a few years. I played guitar and double bass there until I, too, left Radio Nepal in 1976.
To be continued...
The writer is the copy chief at The Week and can be contacted at email@example.com