The very first tastes of international influences I had early in Kathmandu were through the various “cultural” centers in town. There was the stiff and correct British Council of Romanesque facade on Kanti Path. Then there was the French Cultural Centre, later renamed Alliance Francaise, inside a lane at Bag Bazaar.
This was a new experience for me, something I did not encounter even in Francophone Calcutta. The most memorable experiences we young men had at the AF were to watch full-length and uncensored French movies and simultaneously learn about French liberalism in fine arts.
There was also an Indo-Nepal outfit at the mouth of Freak Street, later relocated in the fabled RNAC Building and popularly christened Indian Library.
This place suggestively showed all the possible and surprising Indian influences in Nepal; uniquely there was also once a retired Vice Air Chief Marshal of the Indian Air Force masquerading as a Yoga expert under the aegis of the Nepal Bharat Maitri Sangh.
Readers themselves may draw their inferences from this “most sensitive” political-military appointment. There was an air of a Great Game in South Asia under various garbs.
By far the most popular address in Kathmandu for its avant-garde knowledge and information seekers was the United States Information Service (USIS), popularly known as the American Library.
It was the strongest and possibly the tallest reinforced concrete building in town, standing smack at the junction of New Road leading to Khicha Pokhari. It was here some of us croupiers of Casino Nepal gathered at dawn, while going home, to listen to Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s walk on the Moon.
The powerful shortwave radio crackled with noisy static in the library hall, but we heard the news and applauded. The next day again presented a mixed picture of America: Americans had landed on the Moon while their compatriots were also getting swamped in Vietnam’s mud, and its many citizens were dodging the Draft as Conscientious Objectors and fleeing to Kathmandu as Hippies.
The Cold War combatant that the United States of America had become by that time saw its multi-pronged campaigns propagating American literature, arts, music, thoughts and lifestyles in Nepal via Kathmandu.
While we listened to the LPs of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Allman Brothers Band and other idols in the backroom drug dens of The Hungry Eye or Don’t Pass Me By or The Cabin Restaurant of Freak Street, Maru Tole, Thahiti and Chhetrapati, there were also extra bonuses when the USIS brought in world-famous American musicians, writers and artists to Kathmandu.
Illustration: Sworup Nhasiju
The Charlie Byrd Trio
As a musician, a Masters student and a Blackjack croupier in his mid-20s, the first great event in this American “cultural exchange” that I remember is when Charlie Byrd and his trio visited Kathmandu in late 1968.
The American Jazz guitarist, greatly influenced by the European Gypsy Django Reinhardt, had lately taken to and made a great name for himself in Brazilian music, especially Bossa Nova. Already in the very early ’60s, he had collaborated with alto saxophonist Stan Getz on the album “Jazz Samba,” a seminal recording which brought Bossa Nova into the mainstream of North American music and then to the world.
It was a period when other Brazilians such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Laurindo Almeida also reigned supreme, and songs like “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” ruled the short waves.
To a guitarist like me, the most impressive fact was the style adopted by Byrd; he played what we called “fingerstyle” on a classical guitar.
The first performance took place one winter evening in the stadium at the end of the Tundikhel. It is now known as Dashrath Rangashala (a facility that took more than ten years to complete during the reigns of two kings, an example of the development works typical of Nepal to this day.)
Well, the football ground had a kind of a tableland on this side of the Royal Nepalese Army Headquarters, and it was an ideal platform from where The Charlie Byrd Trio played an open-air concert on a crispy dry starry night.
Out of ten in the audience, eight were Hippies, the entire surrounding shrouded in hashish and charas smoke and smells.
The entry fee was one Rupee, and the westerners were aghast at the gift of the US State Department. Of course, one Rupee could get us a nicely filling Newari khaja with a huge chicken leg swimming in gravy, half a mana of chiura and some onion-garlic-chilli side salad at Krishna Sahu’s restaurant inside Maha Boudha (we stopped going there when the rate was raised to one and a half Rupees or three mohar-s – an exorbitant increase in those days.)
But for the Hippies, having to pay just a single Rupee and to get to listen to Charlie Byrd in person just twenty feet away was a steal, a robbery, and they felt guilty as hell about it.
“What a freak-out this is, man!” One New Yorker shouted. “I paid thirty bucks in 1965 in the black market when I bought tickets to their show in town.” There was a barrage of expletives from others. “Right on, man!” It was the first live Bossa Nova night, and it was held in Kathmandu.
Two evenings later, the Trio played for the high and mighty Nepalis and expatriates of Kathmandu at the Mahendra Police Club, the only public hall in town then for high-end happenings. It was a black-tie night and the musical fares were formal and more serious in repertoire.
Charlie Byrd returned to Kathmandu twenty years later, in 1988. Sadly, I missed him this time, being out of Kathmandu when he revisited. I’m sure he hated the city that had gone uglier since the time he was last here.
Among the Americans visiting Kathmandu was a family of five folk musicians – three children and the father playing double bass, banjo, guitar, mandolin and singing – while the mother acting as manager, stagehand and the like.
Perhaps they were the first and the only Blue Grass band ever to visit Kathmandu in the mid-’70s.
Then there was an American troubadour called Arthur Hancock who came traveling to Kathmandu and was promptly booked by the American Library to share his talents with a specially invited audience.
Playing his lone six-string acoustic guitar, Hancock sang Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Paul Simon and other American composers and singers. In a hall with excellent acoustics, and without voice amplification system, his show was up close with one hundred attentive listeners.
All the above cited performers used acoustic instruments while in Kathmandu we were trying to replace our electric equipment with electronic sets. That the traditional ways were always effective was shown and proven by these musicians coming from the most technological nation on the Earth.
In Kathmandu itself, some Peace Corps Volunteers and teachers from the Lincoln School were excellent Rock, folk and fingerstyle guitarists and singers, and we enjoyed their American virtuosity and wide repertory during weekend evenings far from the Freak Street in quiet houses in Thapathali, Thahiti, Ravi Bhavan and Naxal.
To be continued in the next edition of The Week.
The writer is the copy chief at The Week and can be contacted at email@example.com