Himalayan melodies and heavy metal
26 December 2014
Rocking generations of the Nepali diaspora in Britain.
In and around London, sporadic bursts of Nepali rock concerts take place in the usual suspect venues of pubs and bars. Attire matches lighting – black shirts, faux leather jackets, tattoos and long hair – the darker the venue, the darker the style. The bands, predictably loud, play punk and poetry, Himalayan melodies and metal.
Away from dingy bars, these bands once in a while play on cleaner stages to larger audiences. Distorted guitars wail over a headbanging crowd at the front where boys and girls scream. The speakers ring all the way to the audience sitting at the back: the aunties and mothers, baby brothers and grandfathers.
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At the turn of the millennium, with only one active Nepali rock band in the UK, such scenarios could not be imagined. However, from 2007 onwards, over 50 Nepali rock bands were created in Britain within a span of five years. Musical heavyweights from the homeland such as Nepathya, 1974 AD and The Edge Band have since played sold-out concerts at some of the UK’s most prestigious music venues, such as the Wembley Arena and the O2 Academy in Brixton – places which have hosted big artists from Bob Dylan to Beyoncé. Local Nepali rock gigs in the UK have become less regular but softer music styles and rap are growing in popularity. In 2014, rapper Lahure from Nepal was the major attraction for young people as the opening act of Nepali veteran rock band 1974 AD.
How did rock music get such a hold of the Nepali diaspora in this short period, and what happened to those 50-odd bands?
The first Nepali rock bands in the UK were formed at a time when most Nepalis who came to the country were in their twenties, seeking employment and fun, but unsure of when they would be able to return home. The brief history of the musical development of Nepali rock in Britain can be traced to Wembley, West London, in 2000. At a little restaurant, the Puja Cottage, a group of Nepali students who called themselves Prayas had their first gig, playing covers of Nepali rock classics to a mixed audience of around 70 people. Moving out of restaurants, Prayas soon went on to hold bigger gigs as their confidence grew. At Acton Priory, which has a capacity of 250, over 300 people turned up. For the Nepali New Year’s celebration in 2002, they booked the local town hall at Ealing and played to an audience of 600. They were popular with all ages for the familiar songs they played at community cultural events as well as their gigs. As uncles and aunties danced alongside students, where was the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll?
On the other side of the city, the Nepali music scene began to grow in Camden Town, London’s heart of rock music – where Pink Floyd played in 1966 at its main venue, the Roundhouse; where Jimi Hendrix swung by; and where a plethora of bars and bigger venues began to host nightly gigs from indie music to metal and from amateur bands to established artists. Perhaps the unholy trinity was not lost.
Landing in Britain in 1999 as a teenager with utter disdain for Britney Spears, and considering myself to be above ‘commercial pop music for the masses’, I came to Camden Town and felt I had finally found my spiritual home. Walking on the streets were men with eyeliner, women with multiple piercings, everyone with crazy haircuts, Doc Marten boots and t-shirts of their favourite bands. Everyone looked unique, dressing exactly like me! The place reminded me of Thamel, a tourist area in Kathmandu full of live music bars and shops selling merchandise such as woollen rainbow hats, dresses with Om, yin-yang and dragon motifs, tie-dye trousers, Golden Nagchampa incense sticks, singing bowls, chillums and other hippie bric-a-brac. The very same bric-a-brac was being sold in abundance in Camden, mostly by Nepali market vendors and ex-gangsters who had expanded their businesses from Thamel over to London. The familiarity of exotica curios sold to tourists in Nepal, the presence of visitors sporting dreadlocks and colourful cotton garments, the number of local venues dedicated to live rock events and the not-so-hidden drug deals, all in such a small area, gave a sense to many Nepalis, besides myself, that Camden was just like Thamel.
From 2007 onwards, over 50 Nepali rock bands were created in Britain within a span of five years. Musical heavyweights from the homeland such as Nepathya, 1974 AD and The Edge Band have since played sold-out concerts at some of the UK’s most prestigious music venues.
“Don’t hang out with those Camden boys,” I was advised by Nepali girlfriends who had settled long before in the UK, “Those boys, they are badmass (mischievous), they have long hair, fight and do drugs.” Sure enough, soon after I found work at the market stalls in Camden, I witnessed bottles and chairs thrown in drunken rage in Bar Solo and was forced to run away quickly with the boys, as the police sirens rang. From that day on, Nepalis were banned for six months from the bar. But this was routine; they were banned from one pub after the other on Camden’s high street, at least for a few months, until new management came who didn’t know their history. They boasted of how they were so famous even bartenders in the area knew how to swear in Nepali, and bragged about how many of them could seduce the same woman, or how many women would want to sleep with any one of them. In the area of the Camden market stalls, measuring less than a square kilometre, over a hundred Nepali boys worked or socialised for a short few years. They became a growing family answering to no one but themselves. Some had settled in the country by seducing European women for visas, others stayed as students signing up for classes they rarely attended.
While playing pool at a local Camden haunt with Amy Winehouse and members of the Libertines, London’s second Nepali band, Layasutra, was formed. In 2002, they drew a small crowd in Stables Market for their first gig (yes, there was a fight there too), and later they played packed gigs at local pubs overflowing with young Nepalis. So what did Layasutra, champions of vice and violence, play in this drug-ridden place so apt for rock’n’roll? Fusing folk songs with electric guitars, they sang of mountains and lakes, of never losing love for one’s village, of sweethearts left behind at home.
These themes may seem surprising, but the early bands in London mostly played covers of the music which had contributed to building nepalipan (‘nepaliness’) in Nepal; patriotic songs that were developed largely as part of the nation-building project following the emergence of the autocratic Panchayat system and the advent of Radio Nepal. From the 1950s onwards, lok geet (folk songs) of Nepal’s many ethnic groups were recorded and translated from local languages into Nepali, presenting romanticised images of a shared folk culture. Adhunik geet (modern songs) were also developed by singers and songwriters from Darjeeling and Nepal, with support from the Nepali state. Since then, bands in Nepal have developed their interpretations of adhunik and lok, mixing them with pop, rock, blues and jazz. In London too, the first Nepali rock bands nostalgically played adhunik and lok covers in their own way.
Fusing folk songs with electric guitars, they sang of mountains and lakes, of never losing love for one’s village, of sweethearts left behind at home.
Nirvana and community elders
Over the years, greater restrictions made it difficult for Nepalis to enter the UK on student visas. But changes in British legislation that granted settlement rights for serving and retired Gurkha soldiers and their families accelerated migration since 2004, as a result of which the Nepali diaspora grew significantly. While the 2001 census recorded 5938 Nepalis in the UK, the 2011 census recorded 60,202 Nepalis in England and Wales. Current estimates give figures of around 80,000. The social landscape changed from young professionals and students to include old pensioners and children. Networks of extended families and neighbours were replicated in the diaspora, and the ethnic composition also changed. Many of the Gurkha families are from historically disadvantaged ethnic groups and indigenous minorities. In Britain, these minorities became the majority amongst the Nepalis there.
Gurkha families settled around the outskirts of London in places such as Wembley and Plumstead, and in even greater numbers around army camps in suburban and rural areas of Hampshire and Kent, in southern England. Many were provided housing by the British government while others quickly bought houses and pooled family incomes to pay mortgages. Settled with their families, and within wider networks of relatives and friends, young Nepalis increasingly had different sets of worries than the ‘badmass’ market vendors in Camden Town, having to deal more with integration than with problems of extending visas, sending money home and missing their families.
Many of the lahure ko chorachori (children of Gurkhas) had led privileged lives in Nepal, Brunei, Hong Kong and other areas of Gurkha army encampments due to their fathers’ incomes. Educated in good schools and used to displaying the latest fashion and gadgets, they were stereotyped as ‘spoiled brats’. Having moved between more developed countries in Asia and Nepal, and having grown up with absent fathers away on duty for years at a stretch, settling as nuclear families in the UK’s quiet country villages and towns proved to be quite an adjustment for these youth, forcing them to forge new sets of relationships. Although almost all had studied English and consumed popular culture in ‘Western’ media, their lack of confidence regarding language, alongside other issues of adjusting to the new surroundings and ‘fitting in’, drew many to socialise with each other rather than with non-Nepali peers.
The changing social composition of the Nepali diaspora left its impact on the music scene. Among the Gurkha youth, those with shared musical interests began to form bands, even if it meant simply covering American rock classics for an all-Nepali audience. These bands, usually four or five teenage boys from particular ‘Nepali’ neighbourhoods, often got a chance to perform in the same settings as the first bands – at community cultural gatherings and religious festivals. There was no sense of irony that bands belted out Nirvana tunes over the din of gossip from elders catching up with each other. They rocked as loudly as possible while aunties and uncles headed for the buffet. These bands were treated no different from the other children who displayed their talents, from singing Bollywood hits to dancing to Michael Jackson songs. Longing to break away from rehearsing in bedrooms and playing at community gatherings, these bands were lured by calls from Camden.
Between Camden and cultural fairs
In London’s heartland of rock, members of the early band Layasutra recognised the demand for venues created by the sudden influx of newly formed Nepali bands. In 2006, a series called ‘Get a Gig’ was created at a small venue for live music, Camden Rocks, where Nepali and non-Nepali bands were given a platform to perform. The series was quickly dominated by Nepali bands playing the louder spectrum of metal music genres, such as death and thrash. Key players of this crowd, like brothers Alan and Alice Shrestha who had come over as students, were from Nepal’s first black metal band Cruentus. Such extreme rock styles drew a limited audience, but the Camden Rocks gigs nevertheless became more regular than other Nepali Camden gigs.
Simultaneously, in north-west London, a more inclusive annual series called ‘RockSmarak’ was formed. At local pubs in close proximity to Nepali diaspora populations, the type of music the rock bands played was more diverse and the crowds more mixed and less dominated by men. Other small live gig events were created in London; there was one hosted by a member of the first rock band Prayas in Shepherd’s Bush, and a short-lived series called Ghamailo Events, notably run by two young women. Live rock music events also began to spread beyond London to quieter areas with Nepali settlements. There were regular sessions at the Old Prince of Wales Pub in Ashford, for example. Even in the rural town of Aldershot, a heavy metal event called Rock Mantra drew a significant crowd in 2010. These events would, on average, draw audiences of 200-300 people. Ironically, events that pulled larger crowds of around 1000 would take place in front of the very parents and relatives that the bands had tried to move away from in the first place.
Perhaps equally ironic is that it was one of the ‘uncles’, Ramesh Sarangkoti, a well-known figure in the Nepali community, who launched an annual series called ‘The Nepalese Band Competition’ in 2008. This competition offered NPR 100,000 (USD 988) to the winner and became a catalyst for the formation of new bands. Bands came from regions of large Nepali populations in Britain, as far as Manchester and coastal areas like Folkestone, and with them came relatives who joined in support. They were given the incentive of a platform where they could perform on a large stage with a professional sound system. A large school hall in Wembley became host to this event, and respected community personalities were called as judges. Dressed in suits, they watched bands perform before enthusiastic fans who would often have to be dragged away by security guards when things got too wild near the stage. Violent fights between partying youths were not uncommon, and security was tightened at large events such as the annual Nepali Mela.
The Nepali Mela, launched in 2009 as a festival to celebrate diversity and to bring together different ethnic organisations, provided another platform for bands. The Mela attracts an average of 5000 people annually and is run by an organisation called Tamu Dhee. During the first four years, dual stages were set up on opposite sides of a football field, where the Mela took place; one stage to show cultural dances and ethnic costume parades, and a Youth Stage to host everything from pop dance groups to metal bands. The elder board members of the organisation said that the second stage was created so that youth could participate in the Mela without getting bored. A youth wing was also created to help with the organisation of the Youth Stage. This was meant to teach young people responsibility. Giving them responsibility for logistical tasks ranging from hiring stage set-up, sound systems and finding performers, was also a way of training them to run future community events.
There was no sense of irony that bands belted out Nirvana tunes over the din of gossip from elders catching up with each other. They rocked as loudly as possible while aunties and uncles headed for the buffet.
Young performers were encouraged by Tamu Dhee to play music using Nepali lyrics, but this was routinely ignored. After the controversial 1992 song ‘Killing in the Name’ by American band Rage Against the Machine became the number one Christmas single in Britain in 2009 (due to a Facebook campaign), the song became a popular choice for young Nepali bands and for the next few years covers of it were played frequently. Many cited it as the one song that was requested the most and that most worked up the crowds. The band Soundbox sang it at the Nepali Mela and Plug N Play covered it at the Nepalese Live Band Competition, shouting the chorus “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” without any repercussions from community elders who watched in amusement.
One young Nepali man recently remarked that he could never date a girl who didn’t know Pink Floyd. Classic and historical rock bands from the UK and the US are highly influential in the Nepali music scene. Pink Floyd, like Rage Against the Machine, continues to be a popular choice for covers among Nepali bands both in the UK and Nepal. But while British classics were, and still are, influential, from the 1990s onwards Nepalis were largely exposed to American rock bands that came to dominate radio and satellite television in Asia. Bands such as The Missing Link, Impact Depth and Gorilla Bubblegum repeatedly play covers of Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Collective Soul and Pearl Jam.
Classic rock became popular in Nepal in the 70s when foreigners on the hippie trail brought cassettes of their favourite music into the country. Nepali rock bands were formed playing covers of the music that tourists liked such as the songs of Deep Purple and The Doors. Nepali-speaking musicians from Northeast India and Darjeeling, where rock music already had a foothold, contributed to the genre’s development in Nepal and created Kathmandu’s first rock band, Prism. The tendency of covering Western rock bands helped develop skills to create unique Nepali sounds. Playing covers continued as old forms of rock music like ska and punk were rediscovered, and new forms such as extreme metal embraced.
As in northeast India, the popularity of different genres of rock music created subsequent generations with a penchant for pedal drums and guitars. Some of them became the uncles and dads of students in Britain, others the older brothers who introduced younger ones to what should be the appropriate rock music to listen to. When Nepalis moved to Britain, they brought with them the rock music they grew up with, from the Eagles to Metallica. Unlike those Southasians who had migrated long before, Nepalis were the ones performing as rock bands at Europe’s biggest Southasian festival, the annual London Mela. Other Southasian diasporas had not produced fifty independent rock bands in over fifty years of migration. Instead, their second and third generations have experimented with different forms of traditional music from the Subcontinent and musical innovations from Britain, fusing Indian ragas with reggae, Bollywood beats with electronic dance music and bhangra with dancehall.
Nepalis in the UK on the other hand stayed away from such cross-cultural fusion, choosing instead to produce new songs within the genres of their rock music influences. Only two bands, one called Yak Attack and the other Cross Cultural Global Music Fusion, delved into fusing traditional Nepali music with genres such as Afro-Jazz. But these bands, led by a world music promoter and a student of ethnomusicology respectively, are more popular amongst non-Nepalis. For most Nepalis, covers had to be covers rather than interpretations, and death metal had to sound like other international death metal. It was fashionable among the young Nepalis in the diaspora to cultivate a disdain for certain music styles like emo (emotional hardcore). While some bands had a range of disparate influences, others stayed true to the spirit of their style. The band JPT Rockerz, for example, combined the different tastes of their members, from the poetics of classical Nepali songs to the 90s American band, Phish. Metaphase’s members listened avidly to nu-metal bands like Avenged Sevenfold and Japanese metal band X-Japan. Lemon Curse composed lyrics evoking the imagery of American 90s bands with songs like Prairie Dancer, even though neither England nor Nepal has prairies. As for punk, there was Justice Nowhere.
In the spirit of punk, Justice Nowhere wrote lyrics to spread political and anarchist messages. “You see, I believe everything that’s wrong with this world is due to capitalism!” declared Khadga, the band’s lead singer. The band’s members are anarchists. Their ideologies had been developed back in Nepal under the influence of anarchist band Rai Ko Ris. Unknown to most young Nepalis in the UK, Rai Ko Ris was pivotal in Nepal for creating a sonic space to voice political awareness. Khadga, a young fan involved in Kathmandu’s underground scene brought this ethos to London. With his friend Bibek, they recruited an English bassist they had met over the internet, a daughter of an anti-war activist, and proceeded to create songs in solidarity with the Palestinian cause and against Nepal’s politicians.
The ethos and aesthetics of particular genres such as metal and punk brought greater interaction between like-minded Nepali and non-Nepali bands through joint gigs and competitions. For example, Emergenza, the world’s largest unsigned international band competition staged in Camden with an average of 200 bands, propelled Nepali metal bands Symbol of Orion and Hadez to the finals and semi-finals respectively. They continue to play with English bands at different heavy metal gigs around London.
Notably missing from most of these bands and spaces is the presence of women.
In the UK, there were two bands with female members. Currently, there are no active ones. The first band, simply called Nepalese Girls Band, was formed in 2007 by four girls then aged between 16 and 17 who lived with their families in rural Farnborough. They would regularly cover songs by the 90s American band 4 Non Blondes and some Nepali pop. They disbanded as members moved away to study in college. The other band called themselves The Nerds. This band had male members but it had a female lead vocalist, Sonia, and a female drummer, Lucky. Dressing in men’s clothing and keeping her hair cropped short, Lucky also played for other all-male bands. To date, she is the only female drummer in the Nepali music scene in the UK.
Singer/songwriter Natasha Shah aka Nattu arrived in the UK in 2005 to join family members and study music and film. At the age of 15 she composed ‘Nattu’s Song’, which she posted on YouTube four years later. The song went viral so quickly that other young Nepalis began to post their videos covering her songs. Nattu has since left the UK and permanently moved back to Nepal to seek professional musical opportunities and to record an album. There are many more young UK-based Nepali female singers who, like Nattu, post their songs on YouTube, but they tend not to play loud rock, instead using keyboards like Shreya Rai, or acoustic guitar like Karuna Gurung. They have taken the singer-songwriter route, writing and singing about loneliness, love and relationships unlike most male singers and bands whose songs cover topics such as politics, death and destruction. Jerusha Rai has written politically conscious music inspired by the Occupy Movement in London, but like the other women, her music tends to be reflective and melodic.
Classic rock became popular in Nepal in the 70s when foreigners on the hippie trail brought cassettes of their favourite music into the country… When Nepalis moved to Britain, they brought with them the rock music they grew up with, from the Eagles to Metallica.
Unlike most of the boys who have largely ignored significant British rock bands like Oasis, Blur and Artic Monkeys, the female singers seem more conscious of rock and indie developments in the British music scene, choosing to cover bands like Bastille. They have also created events like the Blossom Buds series to encourage a female space for performance, but they do not command bands or play as loud as the boys. Those who did, like Nattu and Lucky, often chose to adopt masculine attire.
The lack of female rockers reflects gender disparities in rock music scenes elsewhere in the world. Reasons cited include being prevented to travel late at night, lack of family and financial support to invest in instruments that seem ‘too masculine’ like electrical guitars and drum kits, and general perceptions of loud forms of rock music and metal as too masculine.
Women artists are generally not discouraged from performing by the Nepali community. But for the Nepali diaspora in the UK, there are greater hurdles of mobility and finances than in Nepal, where those who are part of the urban upper and middle class can pursue the arts more freely. Although limited, Nepal has at least a presence of strong female artists and musicians in its spectrum of rock bands, from the black metal band Antim Grahan to Rai Ko Ris and Abhaya and the Steam Injuns. This was and still is not the case in the UK.
Although independent gigs at bars and small places were created by those in the rock music scene, it was Nepali parents and elders who provided more desirable stages for bands to perform, with events like the Nepali Mela. Rock music was very much accepted, as it has been in Nepal. It was not perceived as a new foreign culture picked up after migration, but instead as something that has long been part of the Nepali popular music world. In the Nepali diaspora, rock music was divorced from its roots in rebellion and deviancy, and instead viewed as a constructive hobby for youths to keep them out of real trouble, never mind what lyrics they sang or how unpleasant they sounded. Rock music did not necessarily embody a lifestyle, but brought a means to develop talent and creativity, especially for later bands.
As for the clearer associations of deviancy in Camden Town, the locus of commercialised subculture, the heavy metal scene there waned due to promoters leaving for a better life in Nepal. Tastes in music have changed with a newer generation of youths who did not grow up listening to cover bands in Thamel. They listen to the British charts and to the KPop (Korean Pop) that has proliferated internationally in recent years.
They also access Nepal’s contemporary music scene via social media, envious of the affordable production skills and freedom granted back home. Songs created by artists in Nepal garner far greater YouTube hits than Nepali ones produced in Britain. Rap battles in Kathmandu streamed via the internet have grasped imaginations in the UK. Youths following the Nepali hip hop scene created rap events in the UK. Similar to rock bands emulating American, rather than British, rock music, rappers battle in American accents and cite older hip hop influences, ignoring developments in the British urban music scene from garage to grime and dubstep. This is understandable given that the majority of them live in quiet villages and towns.
More than rock gigs, it is dance parties organised by entrepreneurial young students in recent years which have drawn crowds at times numbering over 2000 people. Events became slicker as fashion shows are produced which include dance and song performances. Some bands have begun to play on makeshift catwalks instead of bars. Those who were lucky were able to play as opening acts and backup bands for visiting artists from Nepal who commanded high ticket prices at famous venues. As for the rest of the 50-odd bands, many were disbanded as greater responsibilities for work, studies and family took over. However the legacy of their development is revealing and creates questions about a new generation gathering future templates of sounds.
Diasporic music does not necessarily develop through encounters with new creative influences borne from areas of settlement. Encounters can be highly selective, such as the engagement with 90s American alternative rock or the emerging pull of Kpop over the British indie music scene. Spaces for creative production in the Nepali music scene in the UK have been contingent on seemingly unexpected generational relationships. Camden’s associations to rock, and Nepali rock, is significant yet not straightforward when the bigger picture includes grandmas watching youths on stage at the Live Band Competition. Yet Camden continues to remain a locus for drawing performances; as the old scenes vanish, new ones emerge and death metal shows are replaced by acoustic female sessions.
Some things remain such as the struggles regarding gender balance in the development of some music genres, while others change inevitably through time. Will new opportunities serve creative aspirations? Many of the members of the early rock bands are now fathers. The old Camden boys instagram daily photos of their children. Perhaps they will be the ones to buy their daughters a drum kit.
~Premila van Ommen is co-founder of London-based Himalayan arts collective Satsang Productions and editor of fashion archival project Nepalis Got Swag. She holds a Masters degree in migration and diaspora studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).