The Changing Face Of Electronic Music In Nepal

Image Credit: Prasiit Sthapit / Sine Valley Festival 2016: Rajan Shrestha (Phatcowlee), Daniel Arthur Panjwaneey (Alien Panda Jury), Ranzen, Chandresha Pandey, Pranav N Manandhar and Irina Giri (Flekke), sitting – Manal(Autonomotor)

“It seems like every time there is a momentum here in Nepal, we are struck by some sort of calamity”, Prasidha Yonzon almost laughs it off, reflecting on the unfortunate obstacles that have hindered the growth of audiences and infrastructure around electronic music in Nepal – the latest of which has been the COVID-19 crisis. Prior to that was the disastrous earthquake in 2015. A little more than half a decade before that, the nightlife industry had to lobby and protest against an 11pm curfew imposed by a Maoist-led government that cited clubs as spaces harbouring illegal activities. 

Between these events of larger consequences, a small community of producers, DJs and promoters have cultivated a scene for electronic music featuring genres like techno, bass, drum and bass, jungle, dubstep and house to join the country’s cultural pockets of heavy metal, rock, folk, trance and ‘Nep-hop’. Yonzon, as his moniker YNZN.P, is a product of that gradual struggle, one of the early examples of a second generation of artists propagating the cause of alternative electronica in close association with the individuals that introduced it to the country. 

“Sometimes it feels nice to be playing music which is like a new thing for Nepal but sometimes it has its downsides,” he says. “But sometimes I wish I was in a position where a market was already established, so I could just do my thing. At the same time, it’s very exciting to be starting something new in Nepal.” 

Though these fresh strands of electronica took hold in the country only around ten years ago, dance and electronic music in their psychedelic forms preceded them by about two decades.

The Psychedelic Past

In the 70s, Kathmandu, with its spiritual and natural draw became a hub for backpackers during the heydays of the hippie trail. As the Indian end of the trail in Goa cultivated electronic forms of psychedelic music, the culture pollinated with its community to Nepal – allegedly at a Mahasivratri celebration, which still continues to serve as an occasion of psytrance outings. Even as political unrest killed the footfall of backpackers and deported the hippies, the seed of dance music continued to germinate, beginning to form the first semblance of a dance music-focused scene at the hands of DJs like DJ Kranti, Ankytrixx, DJ Nishan and DJ Vibe during the 2000s. Eventually, Nepal started to see its scatterings of dance music festivals like Earthdance Festival, Universal Religion or Mountain Madness and Shakti Peak.

As the government started to find its footing after a decade-long civil war in 2006, nightlife was met with a hostile outlook from the administration. Beginning with declaring discos and clubs as places ripe with criminal activity and imposing an 11pm curfew, the enforcements regularly busted parties, withholding basic permits and falsely arresting organisers – a hurdle that the country’s nightlife continued to face for years. 

“Because of legal problems, people stopped showing up. Everyone was scared that this party would get busted and so, first and foremost, the local people didn’t get into that”, chimed in Spandan Moktan, who became one of the first promoters in the country to make space for alternative arts with his company Eleven11. After being closely associated with psychedelic parties including Mountain Madness, Moktan started throwing events that brought some of the most recognised electronic acts from India like Midival Punditz, Dualist Inquiry, Sandunes and Kohra to Nepal. “That’s how we started: by collaborating and meeting friends in India. For us to bring artists from anywhere in the world, the first thing we had to do was to look at the nearest country we can bring one from, because we could not just fly in anyone from anywhere. We didn’t have that kind of market here,” he continues. “People here wouldn’t pay 1000 rupees even for a festival, to be very honest, and sponsorship was almost zero.” 

The Early Trailblazers

After throwing scattered gigs and joining forces with other like-minded promoters for bigger multi-day events like Dance Valley Festival and Dancemandu, both in 2014, Mocktan found the best step forward to solidify the growing market was to counter the dearth of a regular club, which he tried to do by helping start Club 25 Hours. “At my club, I used to promote one international artist every week and give chance to local artists even if they were playing at small bars and pubs,” says Mocktan, underlining the ethos that helped blossom local selectors like DJ Finzok and DJ BPM.

Still, the servings of dubstep, drum and bass, techno and house came mostly as selections of foreign tracks – that is, until the unofficial godfather of Nepali electronic music, Ranzen Jha, stepped onto the scene. “Dubstep and drum ‘n’ bass were still new to people when I started playing in Kathmandu regularly around 2012, so obviously there wasn’t a significant interest around it,” says the producer and DJ who burst onto the scene by merging samples from local popular culture and the cultural subconscious with frenzied breaks. “Live electronic music scene is still very small and non-recognisable as it requires a lot of hard work and money. The easier way out is therefore to play DJ sets as it saves costs and is also convenient to play in venues. Hip-hop is doing relatively better but it is also mostly limited to streaming services rather than live performances,” he continues, remarking how it takes a persistent belief in one’s music to stick it out long enough until an audience develops for it. 

Nearly a decade strong into his musical career, Ranzen has enjoyed supporting the likes of Paul Oakenfold at the base of Mount Everest and legendary drummer Jojo Mayer’s group NERVE. He continues to aim for a broader crossover with under-the-works collaboration with some of the country’s most recognised artists like the rock band Albatross. “Opening for big acts was a great opportunity to play my kind of music to a larger audience who would be naturally interested in the big names. It allowed for a greater acceptance of the music that I prided in, and in my opinion, helped foster the interest of a bigger crowd,” he adds.

Documentary film detailing Paul Oakenfold and Ranzen’s performance at Mount Everest

Treading close behind, Rajan Shrestha aka Phatcowlee, who at the time was part of the post-rock band Jindabaad, started dabbling in leftfield electronic music production, going on to release his EP ‘Cinema’ via Bangalore-based label Consolidate in 2017 to notable acclaim. As other artists like The Author, Flekke and Zeromile incorporated leftfield sounds into their craft, empowered by the examples of people wielding the force of DAWs around them, Nepal produced a festival dedicated to alternative music. 

Phatcowlee was approached by Pakistani producer Daniel Arthur Panjwaneey aka Alien Panda Jury (who would go on to become a BMR resident alongside Phatcowlee in 2017 and 2018 respectively) and Maldives’ M. Manal aka Autonomotor to execute the first Sine Valley Festival. Panjwaneey, who was impressed by the talent of Nepal when he came to the country during his stint with Coke Studio, found his sentiment was shared by Manal when the pair met at SoundCamp Karachi in 2015 and turned it into an idea for a multi-day festival when they met again at a Karachi Files concert in Berlin. 

With Panjwaneey and Manaal fleshing out the plan and Phatcowlee along with his friends, including Mocktan, Ranzen and his brother and industry-head Rishi Jha, bringing the ideas to execution, Sine Valley Festival was born. In 2016 and 2017, the multi-day event not only gave a platform to the local DIY talent but showed the region’s potency as a neutral ground that can facilitate the coming together of talent from the politically hostile nations of India and Pakistan – bringing the likes of Pakistan’s cultural polymath Natasha Noorani and Indian synth-specialist Aditya Nandwana aka Sawhorse alongside Italy’s Marta Del Grandi and France’s She’s Drunk. Alongside an international lineup, the festival introduced the residency format to the mix, hosting artists for jam sessions and workshops to foster the spirit of collaboration. 

However, after two editions, Sine Valley Festival too joined the ranks of other larger events of Nepal that disappeared despite seeming to maintain an upward trajectory with each edition. “It’s kind of hard to do such festivals, culturally and politically. The main organisers being from different countries, we realised, that communication gets difficult. Also, finance!” contributes Shrestha. “I’m also associated with a grassroots folk festival named Echoes In The Valley and the challenge again has been with finding grants, funds and such.”

Inconsistent But Indomitable

“In our scene, there are small festivals, but the problem is they are not consistent. You can’t be sure if they are going to be there next year. Sometimes that starts to feel stagnant,” says Yonzon, examining the causes holding back a scene that is already limited by both the local geography and economy. 

Though with a fast-growing economy, Nepal ranked 165 with regards to GDP per capita in 2019. Consequently, its nightlife, especially the part which dares to diverge from commercial sounds, is consolidated to the burgeoning middle-class in the capital city of Kathmandu – primarily around Thamel with the exception of the venue Base Camp: Outdoor Lifestyle, which is expanding the culture to the nearby town of Lalitpur. This leaves artists with very limited options for touring within the country. 

“Usually DJs organise events on their own which is supported by their own network of friends and acquaintances. There are multiple smaller venues for such types of music but the events are done on a very small scale, in terms of paying the artists and promoting the music,” says Ranzen, echoing Shrestha’s more optimistic observation that the audience is limited but “feels like they are really listening. Shows are seldom but the support is humbling.”

Phatcowlee by Prasiit Sthapit

According to Ranzen, success for an artist is generally measured in terms of getting gigs, both within the country and overseas among the Nepalese diaspora. There is a preference for live bands with folk-oriented lyrics while the taste for electronic music has started to gradually grow. “To make it big among the international audience is still a distant possibility because we are still not adequately connected to the larger world,” he continues. “The culture is yet to see progress in terms of more specialised larger spaces and consistency. More promoters, mentors and sponsors are needed for electronic music to make that major leap.”

The Positive Signs

Things however, haven’t been without improvement. There is a near-unanimous acknowledgement around a small but definite growth in venues and audiences for club music that’s not rooted in pop or psytrance over the past decade. “There are more venues now than ever. The owners are not afraid to hire new upcoming artists. It kind of feels professional and nice now when the organiser of an event asks you to send them your tech-rider and such. Also, Youtube is the scene now!” resounds Shrestha.

Both Ranzen and Yonzon proudly put forward Spektrum, the management, promoters and booking agency they are associated with, as an institution pushing the music they believe in with successful consistency. The collective of party-throwers and DJs, which also includes the likes of Enhancify (Rishavh Shrestha) and Dipsoman (Vinayak Tamang), have been regularly throwing events – save for the break put by the COVID-19 pandemic – which host artists from India and sometimes beyond, alongside local talent. Initially throwing parties every three months, Spektrum found it had to increase the frequency to match the demand. 

Yonzon recollects how initially there could be shows with only 20 people in the room but over time he is getting used to seeing a packed dance floor which seems to improve with each gig. “We really have an opportunity,” he exclaims. “Like what Spektrum is doing is that – it went into losses for the first year. In the second year, they were breaking even, and then they finally started making a profit. Respect to them that they went through that because they really believed in the music that we were doing. I wish there were more promoters like that!”

Image of YNZN.P courtesy of the artist

Following this thread of optimism, Yonzon also recollects being hosted for Nepal’s first entirely homegrown festival and residency with Seashells On The Mountain in 2019. Ranzen’s brother, Rishi Jha and his wife Marta, who run Sofar Sounds in Nepal and the event agency We All Should Play, used the proceeds from the tour of popular singer-songwriter Damien Rice that they had hosted in the country to organise the multi-day residency and festival in Pokhara. “That was quite refreshing! Because no one had done that before,” exclaims Yonzon. 

Mocktan agrees that it’s these efforts toward collaboration that are going to open more doors for Nepal’s music scene and create better integration with the local communities. Reiterating the nation’s potency as a place for pan-South Asia collaboration, its untapped talent and the need to put it on the international map for electronic music, he continues: “We have to move in a way that we don’t just bring international artists to make money. We have to create workshops and we have to engage them with the local community. They should know what our music is. That’s the next step I’m personally going to take for my company.”

While the tussle with legal bodies lingers, the music scene has come a long way in standing shoulder to shoulder with the local populace, which previously used to exhibit a hint of shock and surprise around the foreign and outlandish social conduct at dance music events. “There’s a new millennium crowd. There’s a lot of YouTubers coming to experience the music they hear at home. The parents are now coming to festivals with their kids, you know?! There’s a lot of good change too,” Mocktan exclaims. 

The COVID-19 Impact

The bridging of the gap continued even as the Coronavirus pandemic halted nightlife in the country and dealt a loss of life and livelihood in relatively equal measures to Nepal as most of the world. During the lockdowns, the artists more visibly gave back to the people around them – raising money for local causes, entertaining people through live streams and making their presence felt at the protests that engulfed the country’s streets. 

In the summer of 2020, the community around the clubbing scene, the celebrated rockstars from the 80s and 90s, the up-and-coming songwriters and a big chunk of Nepal’s various cultural pockets came together to join the country’s youth population in protesting the way the government was handling the pandemic. “Enough is enough”, was the phrase used as the main slogan for the movement, its hashtag and the name of the Facebook group that served to organise its various rallies. The protests demanded accountability from a government that at the time was working towards developments benefitting its members instead of curbing the pandemic or helping the lives affected by it. “A lot of artists came and sang. It was a very peaceful protest done in a nice way,” adds Mocktan.

His company Eleven11 was working to bring Prateek Kuhad to Nepal before the pandemic cancelled the shows. As the country begins to emerge from the pandemic with the help of vaccine rollouts, Mocktan feels he owes the country an event of a similar draw and impact, as he patiently watches the return of live events to figure out the most meaningful way to deliver on pre-pandemic promises or something equivalent. “There’s definitely some frustration when you think about the momentum we were building in early 2020,” echoes Yonzon. 

In early 2021 after the worst seemed to have passed, Yonzon, along with his collective mates, was one of the few artists to test the waters of live events. Spektrum had just begun to pick up the increasing demand for its parties with limited-capacity events before a deadlier second wave forced them and many other promoters to retract their steps. 

While a little more gradually than earlier in the year, people all over the world have begun to reopen nightlife yet again, and the harrowing impact of the pandemic has done little to hamper the resilience of Nepal’s dance music community.  “Maybe it’s because of the vaccine rollouts but there isn’t much of a difference in the mentality of people around nightlife and its resumption”, ponders Yonzon. “Our community remains active!”

The health protocols and caution among audience and organisers alike has kept the DJ sets early and prompted the promoters to explore day-time events. Recently, Spektrum in collaboration with Dipsoman-led agency Surge and Indian music management and promoters Third Culture hosted a 2-day open-air Grasslands Festival to pick up the ethos of cross-border and multi-art festivals that was growing pre-pandemic. Besides bringing together Indian artists like Zokhuma and Nepalese acts including Enhancify, Electrode, Finzok and Ranzen together, the event provided a platform for visual arts and Tharu craftsmanship (works by the namesake ethnic group of Southern Nepal).

“Our focus has changed into doing daytime gigs more than club nights. By doing so we’ve found a new audience and also explored pushing sounds different to club music,” reflects Yonzon. “So I guess it’s not been a complete loss in that sense.” 

While both government mandates and the lingering presence of COVID-19 continues to cast a shadow of uncertainty, the spirit of cultural expression that defined the successful multi-day event established that the proponents of Nepal’s new dance music scene have out lasted yet another hindrance. Their community has continued to grow at each breathing moment between civil wars, insurgencies, formation of entire government systems, legal pushbacks, earthquakes, and now, a pandemic. 

“It will take time to get back the same momentum. But I don’t think it should be something that worries us,” he says with the nonchalance of someone belonging to a group of people who have known building an audience nearly from scratch. “I mean, it can’t get any worse. Right?” 

Written by Amaan Khan

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of Border Movement and its partners.

NEWS - 19. January 2022  

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