The Spirit of Jazz in Kathmandu

Features Issue 20 Aug, 2010

Navin Chhettri seems a quiet, unassuming man, wearing his stocking cap, soft goatee, and wide-eyed but laid-back expression. But talking about jazz lights a fire in his eyes, and he could go on all night. This burning passion shows in his work. Navin is not only the sole remaining founding member of Kathmandu’s premier jazz ensemble Cadenza; he is also one of the main moving forces behind Jazzmandu, the yearly festival that has put Kathmandu on the jazz map of the world.

Navin and his bhai, fellow Cadenza member Prabin Chhettri, came from a very musical family. Their father was a singer and played harmonium, and the boys were brought up with Nepali and Indian classical music. Navin learned to play tabla at an early age. Vidhea Shrestha, local jazz vocalist and longtime Cadenza collaborator (who first started listening to jazz at the tender age of five), says that being in an atmosphere of classical music “really means your mind is open to all music.” Certainly, this seems to be true of these Chhettri boys from Darjeeling.

Navin and several friends began Cadenza as a school rock band at their alma mater, Mount Herman School of Darjeeling. They started with classic rock: the Beatles, etc, but quickly started experimenting, moving into Motown, funk, and reggae styles. In 1992, while its members were still in college, the band began playing in and winning rock competitions throughout India. When their performances caught the attention of the management of the Annapurna Casino in Kathmandu, they were invited to accept their first regular gig at the casino. The arrangement with Annupurna ended after a year, but Navin says, “After that, we just kept staying.” They played in the tourist spots of Thamel, doing a concert tour of India in 1995, going to Delhi, Bombay, and Calcutta. It was at this point that Navin’s brother Prabin joined the band.

When they came back to Nepal, Cadenza recorded their first album, ‘Don’t Mind If We Do’ at Sam Chapin’s Kathmandu studio, where they first met Vidhea Shrestha. According to Vidhea, they were really influenced by the funk sounds of Sam’s now defunct band, Bongjibbha.

All this time they were gradually making their way into jazz. Navin notes, “Even when we were doing straight rock, we were always into improvisation.” After their shows, visitors would come up to talk music, and sometimes arrange a jam session. Ricky, a sax player from New Zealand, hung around Thamel for two months and jammed with the band, introducing them to John Coltrane. Other visitors brought CDs and even videos of classic vocal jazz that captivated the young musicians: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and the inimitable sweet gravelly voice and talking trumpet of Louis Armstrong.

 After a few more years in Kathmandu, the band had an opportunity to play an extended gig in Bombay. Navin explains “Bombay is the biggest jazz scene in India. We played at this great bar called ‘Jazz by the Bay’ and got to meet a lot of other jazz musicians.” Since all of the musicians in Cadenza are self taught and up to this point they had relied mostly on CDs and a few stray jazz compadres passing through Kathmandu, having this time of mutual inspiration from other accomplished musicians was a great boost for their music. For each of the next several years, the band spent a few months in Bombay.

Navin explains Cadenza’s success, “We really have the spirit to play jazz; you can’t just play it if you don’t particularly like it; you have to have a passion for it. Whenever we met anybody who was a little into jazz, we’d just have fun with them. We never had any instructors, but that’s okay, ‘cause we have our own sound, and in a way its more original.” He also notes that Cadenza’s approach really appealed to the younger generation. “Its easier to get into jazz if you go through acid jazz,” or through fusion, or world music as Cadenza has done, because each gives listeners a base of something they already know so they can appreciate the new sounds of jazz.

Vidhea underscores these sentiments. “I feel like Cadenza’s jazz is really living, evolving. They have an eclectic mix, and take these staples like ‘Take 5’ and turn them around, add some humor, and its really amazing.” She adds that all her twenty-year-old son’s friends come to hear Cadenza. “Cadenza is almost their hero, my son is even starting to learn jazz chords on his guitar.”

Vidhea also waxes eloquent about jazz in general. “Jazz is one of the most important arts of this century; it has this ability to be fluid and absorb all kinds of music. People are beginning to understand that its not this stodgy, closed-in music; it has a big heart.”   

Cadenza’s popularity took another leap when they played a sold-out concert at the Patan Museum in the fall of 2001. Navin’s remarkable blend of classical and jazz style tabla and scat singing were a special standout of the concert. Cadenza recorded their second CD, ‘Jazz at Patan’ here. They also made a big impression on Suman Sachdev, who runs the Gokarna Golf Resort and invited the band to play there. Vidhea recalls, “Suman loved their music; he came almost every Saturday to hear them at the Upstairs.”

At this point several elements came together. “We thought, the Upstairs is really happening, the Patan concert had been a huge success, and there has to be something more here,” says Navin. They had the experience of traveling to different festivals and concerts, and suggested to Suman that they invite other bands to join them at Gokarna, get some sponsors, and have a jazz festival. Suman heartily agreed: “Let’s do it big, get some international stars.” The idea was then put forward to Chhedup and Susan, who were all excited, and a team of three people (Cheddup, Susan, and Navin) was formed to run the festival under ‘Upstairs Ideas’, Chhedup’s event management company.

At this point a critical mass began to build. Prabin Pandey of the Shangri-la Hotel caught wind of the idea of a jazz festival, thought it a great concept, and offered his help, including putting up the visiting musicians in the hotel. Vidhea also came on board to help and advise. Singapore Airlines offered to fly the musicians to Kathmandu for free. The Nepal Tourism Board also agreed to co-promote the festival.

The other acts came together quickly. The team immediately invited Afro Dizzi Act and Don Burrows to come from Australia. They expected their old friends from Afro Dizzi Act to take them up on the proposition, but were surprised that Don Burrows, because of his high stature and busy schedule, was willing to come. “He’s really a legend, on clarinet and flute,” comments Navin, “but right away he said ‘OK, no problem’”. When Navin mentioned the festival to his friend Bernie Holden from London, Bernie immediately responded, “I can get a band there,” and arranged for his own band and Natalie Williams to come and perform. Suman knew a band from Dubai who accepted his invitation. The Bombay friends of Cadenza ,Groove Suppa, the local Gandharba folk musicians, and the clasical ensemble Prastar were also invited, and voila! They had a full line-up for five concerts in Kathmandu and Pokhara.

When the publicity for the festival came out in February of 2002, the tickets sold out a week in advance, and the response to the concerts was exuberant.

Building on their remarkable success, Jazzmandu organizers expanded the festival to twenty concerts this spring, including more international acts like Trilok Gurtu and the Jamie Baum Quartet. (Vidhea remembers, “It was a bit crazy to take on so much in so short a time.”) Again, the same sponsors pitched in, and this time they got support from some of the Embassies, particularly the Norwegian Embassy, the Dutch Consulate, and the American Center, for funding and assistance in making arrangements with the various jazz groups. Navin reflects, “It was kind of a cultural exchange program.” The PATA Hotel Association also lent a hand. “It’s become kind of a national thing,” Navin observes.

Part of the reason for the broad base of support for the festival is its ability to attract people to Nepal during this dry spell in the tourism trade. This year, many tourists came specifically for Jazzmandu. “The message was its okay to be here”, notes Navin. “Besides trekking and rafting, Kathmandu is going to be a jazz destination.” And of course, the musicians had a fantastic time here, mingling with other jazz artists from around the world and enjoying the wonders of Nepal.

Jazzmandu has a symbiotic relationship with Cadenza. For the musicians who come to the festival, its important to have local musicians they can relate to and an already established jazz audience. “We’re preparing people for the jazz festival, educating them about different types of jazz”, asserts Navin. For Cadenza, having the exposure to other artists and sharing ideas helps them develop their own music.