Interview With Amrit Gurung (Nepathya)
(Appeared on ktmROCKS mag Issue 11)
Nepathya was formed in 1990 and the three founding members were Deepak Jung Rana (now a Chopper Pilot), Bhim Poon (now settled in Hong Kong) and Amrit Gurung. Amrit Gurung is the current vocalist and has remained as the guardian and the leader of the band. Nepathya has released seven albums (Self titled Nepathya in 1991, Himal Chuchure in 1993, Min Pachas Ma in 1995, Shringar in 1997, Resham in 2001, Bheda ko oon Jasto in 2003 and Ghatana – Incidents of Nepal in 2005) and with each album, the band has evolved, it has transformed and gained a phenomenal momentum.
Here’s an interview with the Nepathya frontman, Amrit Gurung during his practice hours at Nepalaya.
What was the main purpose behind the concerts like “Nepathya for Peace”, “Sundar Santa Nepal” and “Santi ko lagi Sikchya”?
Nepathya has been singing about “maya-pirati” right from the start and we still do. However, when this insurgency problem started in Nepal, our peaceful country suddenly turned into one of the most violent places to survive. There were emergency situations almost every day, people were killing and getting killed day and night. The situation became worse in the villages, especially in the schools. Maoists were capturing the schools – kidnapping the teachers and students. They were doing all sorts of parades in the schools and at the same time, the army also started using schools as their camps. In a place supposed to have an environment of education, it was like a competition of guns and bombs not pens and pencils. The students should have been able to learn about poetry, science and arts, about building a society but they were learning about guns violence and killing people.
A gun might signify a different symbol for an adult, or a politician; that may be right for those people in their own philosophical terms, but what about those kids? Bringing guns in a school full of innocent kids, that’s not right in any terms. That should not have been happened in the first place. Schools are not at all a brutal playground for war.
As human beings and as a group of concerned Nepalese, Nepathya and nepa-laya started doing these concerts touring various parts of Nepal. We started singing for peace and humanity. We started singing songs with social messages, songs that would portray the wrong acts that were happening in the villages. All we wanted to do as a band was to have fun and enjoy music singing songs about “maya pirati” but the environment we were living started to make us think, eventually bringing a change. We still love to sing about “maya-pirati” but we cannot deny that this kind of situation effect an artist directly or indirectly.
It’s definitely not enjoyable to go and chant slogans of peace in concerts than to do programs just for music and fun. It does not feel good because we are not politicians. But somewhere somehow someone needed to make an effort, take a step. Political parties, they were only limited in the Ktm valley. It was obvious that Nepal was like two states. When you were outside the valley, you could not even walk freely, brother. You could not speak. We should be able to speak out about our rights and freedom, just like students should be able to go to school, farmers should be able to work in their lands. There were restrictions everywhere.
When political parties announced any public meeting or any events, there would be hardly a gathering of thousand numbers of people even here in Kathmandu. Outside the valley, not even a single politician could dare do such a thing. But we did it. I don’t proclaim that we single-handedly were able to summon thousands of people in our concerts; all the other artists and musicians who were directly or indirectly involved – they also had equally great contribution in making those concerts successful, in reaching numerous corners of the country and delivering the message of education and peace.
I was just shown this BBC report on Nepathya’s Peace concert in Dang. It was so amazing to see such a mass, people of all ages present in the event – dancing and singing. May be that was the first time in so many years, people of Dang were actually happy?
Yeah, it was amazing. That was our small effort, by contributing some time from our side for peace. We musicians as humans have our duty towards society and that was an initiative – so that people could communicate in real sense. That would contribute in some sense to make a political environment for the people to talk and discuss. If I could talk with you freely and you could do the same thing, then we would figure out the root of the problem. That’s what we wanted to do – just a little spark to ignite people’s passion. We cannot say or evaluate how effective our efforts were. I leave that to you.
“Ghatana” has a very different presentation for the general audience to understand. How did the album “Ghatana” take the shape of such an experimental and explosive form of rock album? I guess this is the first time in nepali music history that a band has recorded a 25 minute long song.
If you view the song from a ‘musical drama’ point of view, this is not the first song of that kind. There are several other songs in the form of radio-dramas or musicals. The main source of inspiration for the album is the ‘Maina Pokharai’ incident. When I read the articles about that unpleasant incident, it provoked me a lot from inside. I visited the place and talked with the locals.
When I started writing the lyrics and composing this song, I was not sure how things would shape up to be. The theme was obviously Maina Pokhara, the melody or the color was inspired by Gandarvas’ version of that ghatana. They also have their own version of the song which is about 10-12 minutes long. In the process, we never had any preconceived idea about how long or short the song should be – there were no restrictions. We went on writing and joining the pieces over a simple beat.
The song came out to be long and strongly dominated by music, because we never wanted to control and direct the flow during the arrangement. There was a total freedom for Hari (Maharjan, guitarist) to play whatever he wanted to play and the same was for our drummer and the keyboardist.
What about other songs in the album?
First, I want to clear out that we never consciously planned on doing this album. We were all traveling to all sorts of places in the country. We experienced so many things, met so many people, saw so many incidents – and naturally, every one of those events affected us in some way. I met one person in Dang and he said, “khaneko ke kura garney hajur, lagauneko ke kura garney kapada ko, basney chaat ko pani kura hoina. Hami ta bihana niskera belka ghara farkina paye hunthyo”. It was a really sensitive matter. If you wanted to understand it deeply, you would know how painful and frightening the situations were. That inspired me in writing the song ‘Joon jhai shitala’. Similarly, another song “Kata laagyou?” – it was about the regular demonstrations in Ratna Park and Bag Bazaar areas – how the business and activities, lives of the residents, tenants, daily wage workers and the shop-owners were disrupted almost every day.
“Ghar ko Kura”, we were playing in Phoenix (Arizona, USA). That place used to be a complete desert but it was developed into one of the finest cities in the world. And then I thought about Nepal, despite being so rich in water, we are the ones living in a desert like condition. I actually became jealous and wrote the lyrics in a bus and composed the song with a baby piano.
How do you go about composing a song? Do you do any actual field research and try to find folk-melodies?
Usually I write the lyrics and compose the songs alone. I used to record and collect new folk songs or tunes whenever I was traveling or hiking and it still inspires me to blend my composition with folk music. And then the whole band sits around and we do the arrangement.
Now, lets get back to some regular questions, how was the band formed, was there any specific vision?
We were young and good music listeners. Till this day, I have never regarded myself as a singer; I am just a good listener. Concerts were rare but we managed to go to almost every concert in Pokhara or in Kathmandu. We used to listen to everything from western rock songs to Nepali Aadhunik songs to folk songs. There were bands like Prism and Kathmandu Cats and we used to come from Pokhara to watch their shows. In my college days, I had never thought about doing music. I had a friend Bhim Pun who was a good guitar player. Then, together with Deepak Jung Rana, we collected our pocket money and started the band just like that – just for fun. I never imagined I would still be doing this, 15 years and seven albums.
There have been numerous changes of band members over the period of 7 albums and 15 years. How do you think Nepathya as a band has evolved?
The day we named our band ‘Nepathya’, we all had decided on one philosophy or a concept that we would always base our music on Nepali folk melodies. That was the ‘guru mantra’ for us. That was our theoretical stand then and it still is.
When the band members kept changing, I used to feel really disappointed. Music was not the reason they left though, they had their personal reasons. It’s ironic that we never had a long term plan for the band but still when the members leave the band, it was really frustrating and the will to continue would be weak. The band actually got on the verge of breaking up in two occasions. But there were always some friends who would inspire and encourage me to continue the band.
The earlier albums like ‘Himal Chuchure’ or ‘Min Pachas Ma’ had songs which could be categorized as ‘village pop’ songs and were mostly about ‘maya pirati’. There were so many ‘hit’ songs as well. Lately in the albums like ‘Bheda ko uon’ and ‘Ghatana’, you have songs that deal with social issues like education, peace, life and rights which are definitely beyond any ‘maya pirati’ matters. Is this a conscious change in the vision of the band?
Nepthya has always been a socially conscious band right from the start even though we sang about ‘maya pirati’. Whenever we went to play ‘bhailo’ and collected some money, we used to donate the money to blood banks instead of going to picnics. After we released our debut album, we did a concert and the money we collected was also donated. And since I travel a lot around villages and read books most of the times, I gradually started to be socially aware.
Nepathya obviously has changed. If you had to compare, what kind of differences would you find between the early Nepathya and the current Nepathya?
If it would have been possible to continue with the founding band members, we all would have been very good musicians and Nepathya would have become a better band, way better. Because we all had one vision and thinking. And because we were all friends since childhood, we could have worked and understood better. When a member changes, it’s a bit difficult to adjust the thinking.
So which Nepathya do you prefer?
For me Nepathya has always been the same. When we started, we were all young and fun loving, the society we perceived was different and we worked differently. Now the way we work is a bit different, other than that it’s the same Nepathya for me. Just like a mother cannot set preference among her children, I cannot favor earlier Nepathya or the present Nepathya. Yes, there has been lot of members changing and in a way, this band has become a platform for so many musicians.
What keeps you motivated to continue Nepathya after all these years? Was there any point in this period that you felt like ending the band?
We never had any money in the early days. There were many friends who have helped the band in many ways. One of those friends, Deepak Jung Rana has contributed a lot in keeping the band alive. Even after he left the band, he was the main source of encouragement for me. He kept assuring me to continue in any condition. I had actually gone back to Pokhara with the intention of ending the band but he brought me back to Kathmandu and then he managed the band financially – he paid for the house rent, bought food for the band and he even gave us pocket money. That’s how we had survived at one point of time.
I don’t suppose that you are continuing because there’s nothing else to do. There’s this general trend we are all familiar with – that once somebody is in this music field, there’s nothing else to do but sing and play and make people dance and earn money. So many are doing it just for the sake of doing it, why are you doing it?
Well I want to tell you that I can do so many other works better than music. Nepathya has never been about earning money. I am an artist and music is the form of expression that I have chosen. Just like a painter’s work depicts certain message, I want to impart that message to the society through music. I believe that all artists must have duty towards society beyond any personal aspiration, especially financial. So I am doing it because it is my passion. Maybe someday, no one will listen to Nepathya’s songs. There’s no obligation and I will not complain at all.
So have you ever kept record of album sales?
No I have never kept it. In the early days, it was a matter of concern among the members but I was never interested. It does not really bother me how the album sales are doing.
What was the first ever concert that you attended?
My first experience of seeing a live band was in Kathmandu when The Prisms were playing. I was just a teenage then. I couldn’t understand much, there was just big noise. But it was exciting.
Do you still go to concerts?
Yes. I might be one of those who attend every concert in Kathmandu or Nepal.
How about Radio, how often do you tune in?
I don’t these days. I used to listen to radio exceedingly much in my school and college days.
So I suppose you do not listen to any other bands that are in the mainstream.
I do. I buy tapes or CDs. Years back, I used to spend a whole month’s salary buying tapes – all sorts of Nepali tapes that were in the shop.
Were there any specific albums that were rock or western influenced?
I cannot say any thing about any specific rock albums but in my opinion, Sunil Parajuli’s “Soonsaan Raat Ma” and “Jagey Jagey Sara Raat” – these two albums released in the 80’s were two of the few albums to incorporate western music with Nepali style and Nepali lyrics. The songs in those albums are arranged in simple drum beats and electric guitars and fused with sarangi sometimes. You must have heard “Aakashai Ma Cheela Udyo Dharti Ma Chaya”. That song became extremely popular. I guess these albums gave a taste of westernized music to the listeners outside Kathmandu valley.
Reasons why Nepathya never sang in English?
When we used to attend concerts, I always used to wonder why Prisms or Kathmandu Cats or Criss-cross never sang Nepali songs. In the stage, they were always performing Dire Straits, Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, etc – but never Nepali songs. We used to talk among friends what if those bands sang Nepali songs, it would be so great. By the time we started our band, there were so many other bands and singers who had started singing Nepali songs – Sunil Upreti, Harish Mathema, Bhim Tuladhar and his band the Influence. It was getting interesting on one hand but on the other, our Nepali Folk songs were in a state of extinction among the young generation, especially in Kathmandu and Pokhara. And worst of all, if you listened to Folk songs; ‘Lok Geet’, you would be teased as ‘pakhey’. That was the generation – if you held a certain ‘english’ magazine in your hand; you would be feeling superior, kind of a hero. That was a general environment in youngsters, very pretentious.
So when we started the band, we decided we will always base our music on ‘lok geet’ and sing in Nepali. Why compose songs that are like their (Western) folk songs, why not do our own folk songs? ‘Lok geet’ is in our heart and it will always remain there, other forms may fade away some day. Nobody was listening to pure ‘lok geet’ so we thought if we started fusing ‘lok geet’ and western music, may be the young generation would not completely forget about folk music.
What are you listening to these days, any new bands or artists that you really like?
Among the new artists, I like Lochan Rijal very much. Babin Pradhan is one artist I like from old days, he has a very beautiful voice. And I’m listening to Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Rush. Pink Floyd is the band I always listen to. But since I am collecting a lot of ‘maulik’ folk songs, I also listen to a lot of those songs.
You said you collect songs while traveling; do you record them or write them down?
I record them. You see, I was never meant to be a musician; I’m a complete illiterate musically. I was not even a singer in the band.
Okay, so what did you do? Since I’ve never seen the old Nepathya play live, I am really interested to know what you actually used to play in the band while there were other vocalists.
Originally I was assigned to play bass guitar by Bhim but since I did not have a bass, I played rhythm guitar. After the first album, I fractured my right hand and wanted to quit the band. But no one was willing to let me go.
Does that mean you were not really involved in the band then?
No, I was totally involved. I started managing the band and writing lyrics, sang a couple of songs in every album. I was also like a producer, not the one who finances money, but I looked over the song structures and overall output. From “Resham” album, I started singing, writing and composing songs on my own.
So like I asked earlier, do you think the three albums Resham, Veda ko Oon and Ghatana represent a different Nepathya than the first four?
The arrangement of the songs were done differently but overall the music is similar in my opinion, don’t you think so?
Umm.. I find the music different. Especially this Ghatana album, which is a really explosive rock album in my opinion, compared to earlier pop rock songs.
Well may be that was our age – chanchaley and sweet. And may be we did not know much about playing music. But I want to assert that it’s not because of change in the line up. Since I compose the songs and then the whole band arranges it according to a certain melody or bass line, I don’t find huge changes in the musical style, it’s just the arrangements.
However I want to mention Naresh Thapa; he gave a certain dimension to the band’s sound in ‘Resham’ album. I really miss him as a band member. And while doing Ghatana album, there was a total musical freedom for everyone. And if I was a critic, I would say most of the listeners wouldn’t like this album because there are not many rock listeners, especially outside the cities.
So what can we expect in the next album?
It will not be like Ghatana that’s for sure. I wish we wouldn’t have to record any album like Ghatana again.
What do you mean?
That album is full of so many terrible things. It was such a painful album to do. It’s such a sad album. I feel that many people won’t listen to the album twice because there’s no pleasure in listening to the songs. This is such an emotional album that it would be hard to do another again.
Changing the topic. Nepathya has played quite a lot in foreign countries as well. Is it because you can reach out to Nepalese living outside, is it that you can represent Nepal or is it like an opportunity to visit other countries?
Well, most of the times it’s the Nepali people over there who want us to perform there. But is it an opportunity? No, because Nepal is the most beautiful country in the world. I would not go anywhere else if I want to travel around.
I asked that because there’s a trend here among Nepali musicians – that when they go abroad to perform, they take other people with them and then those people or even the members themselves disappear in that country.
You won’t believe me but that has happened to us. In 1999, we went to Japan and some of the members disappeared after the show. It was really shameful and right after I came back; I decided I would not be in this music scene anymore. I was completely out of music for 2 years after that.
Then later several offers were made to me to come alone with tracks, which I rejected. Because this is a band after all. I will only perform with my band, not sing over some tracks. That’s the reason we have only been able to perform just 78 shows in these 15 years.
About representing Nepal, it’s a different issue. Normally, we or any other bands go out there to play among Nepali community, which is not a matter of representation. You have to be able to play in front of the foreign audience, but only the future holds the answer.
Nepathya played in Holland last year, how was their reaction?
I don’t know if they liked it or not but what I felt was we were different and we sounded like a Nepali band. We have to sound like a Nepali band, that’s one of the basic foundations of Nepathya. There are thousands of rock bands in the world. There’s no point if a band sounds like Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin. That’s what I always say to my band members – we have to sound like a Nepali band. There are numerous guitarists who can play like Hendrix but what’s the point.
How challenging is it, dai – whatever you are doing?
It has never been about challenge. I don’t feel any pressure because I am doing it because I like it. I am not doing it just because somebody wants me to do it.
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