How two dreams dreamt a world apart is helping reinvigorate Nepali folk music.
The Music House in Kirtipur isn’t exactly an easy building to spot. Located in the outskirts of the now bustling Kirtipur, the unsuspecting house is wedged between open farmlands and a sunny, idling village that looks like it sprung out of an old archived photograph. Here a unique space has been built where young aspiring musicians and artists converge to share their budding aspirations and boundless energies. Spaces like these come few and far in between. If only it were conveniently pinned on Google Maps!
We spend a good hour trying to locate the building. Despite getting lost several times in unmarked gallies and getting vague directions from locals, our goal of spending the afternoon with the young and vibrant Manda Band eggs us on, and for good measure. This folk fusion ensemble is such a refreshing and novel act that any travails spent in seeking out their music pays its worth back in gold.
As we enter the Music House, where the band rendezvous for practice, we are mildly befuddled to find them huddled around an iPhone jamming to Disconnect, the latest single by the metal outfit Underside. Not exactly the music you’d expect a folk band to be listening to!
“We listen to all sorts of music;” Merit Maharjan says. “We are fascinated whenever musicians are able to make their audience forget everything else. And Underside are masters at that. Someday we dream of making people groove to our music like the audience in that video.”
Sitting atop the quiet Swayambhu hill, Thomas Bertschi saw a dream; it was a vision that would guide his life for decades to come.
In the summer of 1967 revolution was in the air. At the height of the restless flower generation in the West, the Vietnam War blazed on, there were troubles in Tibet and Israel, while students in Europe and the US were out on the streets, discontent and protesting. It was a time of great awakening and exchange of love and energy even with the world in chaos.
It was in this back drop that a 22-year-old Bertschi would be working on a second hand Volkswagen in Basel with an epic overland journey in mind. The journey would lead him across the Sahara, the African Continent, Australia, East Asia before finally culminating in Kathmandu, as it did for so many seeking souls of the day.
It was in Nepal that Bertschi found a land that had forgotten all about time. At the crossroads of the convergence of hippies from all across the world, the inexplicable paradoxes he found here would bring him back again and again. Amid the heartwarming people, hashish cakes and the soulful Ragas in a traditional Newari home, Bertschi knew that he had found a home away from home.
It was during this visit, sitting near the holy shrine, that his restless spirit found calm and a home within himself. Watching thousands of prayer flags connect trees, the earth and man-made shrines, he had a vision of living a life connected with nature. He saw an old farm with abundant plants and animals, a studio and a community sharing resources, energies and love.
Sitting under a Linden tree at a farmhouse in Switzerland, Raman Maharjan, had a dream as well.
When Bertschi returned from Asia to his native Switzerland, he along with his first wife Christine and friend Pieri, bought a farm in Sandacker to fulfill their dreams of living independently, entwined with nature. In time, their community would grow and people from other parts of Switzerland and the world would come to the farm to visit, to live, to work and to exchange ideas and share experiences and knowledge.
Bertschi who would continue to visit Nepal over the next decades and work on significant projects such as the Swayambhu Partnership to help Tibetan Nepali students with education, and musical projects like Imagine Rainbow in Kathmandu.
It was during the latter collaboration that Bertschi and Maharjan worked together and the partnership culminated with Maharjan and his folk band, Rudra, travelling to Switzerland on a tour. They were hosted at the farm Bertschi had visualized in Kathmandu.
Inspired by the contagious, vibrant and free-flowing energy of Sandacker, Maharjan, an acclaimed flutist in the capital, dreamt of building a similar space in his native Kirtipur, where artists — be it aspiring or accomplished — could converge and share their passions and visions, just the way they were doing at Bertschi’s farm.
Raman Maharjan still describes himself as a farmer. One evening as a kid, after a long day of toil at this father’s fields, Maharjan was drawn by the soft wail of a flute. He followed the sound which led him to the house of a friend trying to play the instrument. Maharjan was so enraptured by the sound that he borrowed the flute and began taking classes in Kathmandu; he went through many travails to get to Naxal from Kirtipur at six in the morning every day.
Decades later, on tour in Switzerland with his band, Maharjan dreamt of creating a haven where musicians and artists could rendezvous to continue collaborating and creating music and art in a safe, vibrant and welcoming space.
Three years later is now; as I sit at the Music House in Kirtipur entranced by Manda Band’s folk fusion songs.
Dreams do come true!
These six, young musicians are charting a meteoric course for themselves and they have the Music House; two dreams dreamt a world apart are to thank. At the Music House, built by partners Bertschi and Maharjan, Manda Band has not only found invaluable guidance and training for their music but also a place where they can share their contagious energies with the world.
Already, they have played in over 70 gigs in an around the capital, and won both local and international competitions. They are currently working on their first album.
“Our dream,” says Swarnim Maharjan, the flutist (and Raman’s son), “is to continue taking our roots and traditional music and fusing it with modern and western influences of today to produce sounds that bridge old and the new, east and the west together. Pairing sarangis and guitars, zhyalis and banjos we want to play our part in helping folk music evolve with a changing Nepal.”
Manda Band— remember the name! You are bound to hear it again. They are dreamers born from the seeds of two dreams dreamt a world apart.
Thomas Bertschi in collaboration with Salil Subedi authored a book entitled Dreamseeds (October 2014), which lucidly charts the Bertschi’s journey through the decades and across continents via striking photographs, inspiring quotes and fluid prose. The book is available upon request at the Music House, Kirtipur.