Ahead of International Women’s Day, Fr!day notes the up-and-coming female voices in the hotspot of Thamel, or the lack thereof.
You know the scene: it’s Friday night in Thamel, and as you make your way down the streets crowded with people, cars, bikes and rickshaws, you can hear the music everywhere. It’s coming from the bars and pubs, from two and three and four stories up. Even after police efforts to keep Thamel quieter after 10 PM, the music remains. Kathmandu – and especially Thamel – is a town full of nightly gigs and live shows, but with International Women’s Day upon us, you may find yourself asking: where are the female musicians?
Well, they’re around … but, at least for now, they might be hard to find.
Any initial inquiry into women musicians in Kathmandu invariably leads to Abhaya Subba and Sareena Rai. Subba, the lead vocalist of Abhaya and the Steam Injuns, is arguably Nepal’s most successful mainstream female rock musician, while Rai, of feminist punk group Rai Ko Ris, has had a tremendous impact on Kathmandu’s punk community. The link between punk music and feminism is a natural one, according to musician and filmmaker Uzair Sawal, who is currently making a documentary on subcultures in Kathmandu. “Most people in punk are outcasts, so they know how it feels to be rejected by society,” says Sawal. “The best they can do is support and lend a hand to another outcast. It could be a minority, it could be a gay person … just anyone who is marginalized.”
But despite the success and impact of these two women, the voices of female musicians in Kathmandu are still relatively few in number – especially compared to men. Tenzin Hyolmo, the lead vocalist of Elektrix, who plays at least four shows in Thamel every week, was not able to name more than a handful of female musicians and vocalists performing regularly in Kathmandu. Hyolmo states that girls interested in music often face challenges at home. “It’s difficult for women today,” she says, “because of the expectations placed on them to work and then stay home.”
Hyolmo, whose parents support her singing in Thamel, believes that family support is crucial in getting more girls and women to front local bands. “Without our families being supportive of us, we can’t do anything,” she says. “If they don’t let us out of the house, we can’t sing … we can’t do anything to pursue our passion.”
However, according to Hyolmo, the culture is changing slowly – and she feels like a part of the change. “When you see a female performing you are encouraging other girls that they can do the same thing.”
One of Elektrix’s weekly gigs is at the famed Lhasa Bar, one of the oldest music pubs in Thamel – and one of the only places owned and managed by a woman. Sharmila Neupan, 26, is a former air hostess who bought Lhasa Bar four years ago after deciding to combine her love of music with her bachelor’s degree in business.
Neupan, like Hyolmo, believes that pressures from family and society are the main reasons why Thamel has so few female musicians. She, however, wants to try to change things. “I need more women singers!” states Neupan. “I am a female, and I know the limits females face. Your family might not allow you to work at night in Thamel because they may think it’s a bad job.” Neupan, of course, doesn’t agree: “Every girl has a good mind, or a good brain, or some talent.” In addition to actively seeking out female musicians, Neupan wants to hire female waiters, a move, she believes, will increase their work opportunities in the future.
In Neupan’s opinion, the fact that she is a woman in a male-dominated field actually gives her a business advantage. “Women are strong from our hearts, strong from our brains. We don’t need to be taller, or bigger, or more powerful – that’s the best part of being a girl, you can be powerful with your mind!”
She also looks forward to International Women’s Day every year. “We are proud to be women. We are always pushed to the side, but on this day, popular educated women go to rallies, they feel powerful. We are free on this occasion, and it reminds [society] to encourage women every day.”
Another female voice often heard in Thamel is Sima Tamang, who takes a more acoustic, singer-songwriter approach to her music. Like Hyolmo, Tamang has the support of her family. She is a former student of Sareena Rai who, she says, encouraged her to write her own songs and create her own music. But, unlike Rai, Tamang takes a different approach to feminism in music. “Feminism is about breaking free,” she says. “You don’t have to shout.”
Whether the women are singing quietly or loudly, at a gig or owning a bar, the presence of women in music is growing stronger in Kathmandu. In connection with International Women’s Day, the Voices of Women concert will be held in Basantapur Durbar Square in Kathmandu on 8 March 2014. The same day, UNICEF will also present the Nirbhaya Foundation’s Women In Concert in Lainchour. !