From the sands of Rajasthan to the lakes of Pokhara and the bonfires of France, the recently concluded Nepal Gypsy Jazz Festival was a reminder that some musical ties run far deeper than we think.
A few months ago, on the banks of the Begnas Lake, a smiling middle-aged gentleman with a sarangi around his shoulder approached my group. “Sano geet sunauda huncha?” he asked. Despite telling him we were about to leave, he still sat down, imposing his company upon us. But then he started playing...and it was beautiful! He even sang along. After he was done, we gave him some money and he departed, still with a smile. Quietly, I wondered about the kind of life the man led.
Fast forward to the Delicace De France in Thamel and seated around a candlelit table are stalwarts of Gypsy jazz, including Hari Maharjan who is busy with the Nepal Gypsy Jazz Festival, which, it seems, was a long time coming. “The scene for jazz and Gypsy jazz in particular is growing, and the reaction to the festival has been fantastic so far,” says Maharjan with pride. Sitting across him is French Gypsy jazz master Daniel Givone, who has been playing music since the age of 10. Givone’s befriending of Maharjan back in 2000 was a pivotal juncture in the latter’s career. “It’s amazing how all this started in Rajasthan and, further back, in Egypt,” states the Frenchman, in his immaculate way.
This statement takes the conversation to a very nomadic place. Hari Maharjan passionately believes that the sarangi players are the Gypsy musicians of Nepal. How they leave home and spend their days wandering is similar to the Iberian caravans that travel in the Spanish countryside. “The two cultures surely have parallels. Some documentaries have cited the musicians from Rajasthan from some 600 years ago as one of the forefathers of Gypsy music,” he explains. The similarities are eerily apparent; the clappers in hand, women sporting heavy bangles deep down their arms, flashes of extravagance and color, and the sublime music emanating from the musicians certainly makes one wonder whether it is so.
The basis of Gypsy music is not based on notes and riffs but rather in a lifestyle. Givone points out that there are 6-7 year olds in France who have grown up in the Gypsy culture and can play the guitar as naturally as they drink water. “They are out of this world!” he exclaims. The actuality of art imitating life is quite clear and has existed in the Nepalese setting as well. Our streets have seen more that a few musicians who play the flute or sarangi surviving on nothing but music. The smiling man I met at Begnas is one. Their homes are never permanent and it is this unsettled way of life that has dispersed their music over the ages. It is a testament to their dedication and their rejection of what society considers a “normal living” that has brought into being a form of music that has spread across continents.
Another aspect that Givone stresses on is the fact that Gypsy musicians are bred into humility. “Their way of life instills in them a very down to earth and approachable aura. I have had opportunities to play with them for over 40 years now and even though some have gotten big and rich, they’ve always kept their hearts simple.” Givone attributes this as the principle reason why the Gypsy jazz lineage has continued all these years. According to him, it is because the stress is on music and educating the younger generation of their own heritage rather than on big bucks. “It is inspiring when musicians are successful. But it is so much more beautiful to see them keep their smile and candid self behind all the publicity,” states Givone, flicking that last cigarette.
As the two musicians take the stage and perform for the crowd, there’s only one word that can capture the music they play: Honest. It is a very open and hearty style of music that focuses on “feel,” that all encompassing term, and one that I don’t like throwing around. It is this same feel that has sustained Gypsy music over such a long period and into far flung pockets, ensuring that the next batch of musicians and fans hear the tales of the Gypsy for, hopefully, a few centuries more.