Eleven songs that decode Nepal’s capital city.
In Kathmandu, the chaos of unregulated traffic and dusty roads sit comfortably with the dreams of the many people who call it their home. It looms large in the Nepali imagination, not just because it’s the capital, but also because the city has been central to Nepali identity. It’s a city of many cultures, shaped by the indigenous Newars as much as by the hippies, with the sounds of electric-guitar riffs as common as madal beats. No city’s complexities can be captured in one playlist, but this is an attempt to encapsulate what Kathmandu means for those who live here.
‘Rajamati Kumati,” Folk Song, 1995
Kathmandu, along with the cities of Patan and Bhaktapur, was built by the Newars, and their sophisticated art and culture can be seen in the three Durbar Squares—community centers of sorts, where people of all ages come to take a break, chat, discuss politics, smoke, and at times, conduct furtive affairs away from the glances of disapproving parents. The unnamed man in this old Nepal Bhasa (the Newar language) song is bolder. The song begins with a plea to his father to arrange his marriage to Rajamati, a Newar girl from Kathmandu. If he cannot marry her, he says, he shall renounce the world and leave for Kashi (Varanasi, India). The most popular rendition of Rajamati Kumati is from a 1995 film in Nepal Bhasa. The song was played in London in 1850, during Rana prime minister Jung Bahadur’s state visit to Europe, and it was one of the first songs from Nepal to be recorded on a gramophone, in 1908. The film rendition popularized the song, but it was widely known for a long time before that. Ask anyone about Newari songs, and this one will probably be the first they think of.
[How to spend a perfect day exploring Newari heritage and cuisine in Patan]
“Gairi Khet Ko,” Asha Bhosle, Prem Pinda, 1995
Rana prime minister (and effectively the ruler of Nepal) Jung Bahadur’s 1850 Europe visit was the first time a Hindu head of state crossed the high seas—in ancient Hindu beliefs, crossing the Kala Pani, or dark seas, to travel to foreign lands, led to the decay of character and culture. Jung Bahadur had no such concerns. He returned with a handful of ideas and a love for the ways of the European nobility. The Greco-Roman palaces around Kathmandu are a testament to the aesthetically rich Rana era culture, which combined Hindu culture, Mughal (and Awadhi) splendor, and European sensibilities.
“Gairi Khet ko Sirai Hanyo” from Prem Pinda is a Nepali film song that recalls the opulence and grandeur of Kathmandu’s nobility. Prem Pinda is an adaptation of a Nepali play in which a Rana general’s handmaid falls in love with a servant-boy. This is essentially a ‘nautch’ song: Nautch is an eastern dance tradition of professional female dancers performing for the aristocracy.
Nepal’s romance with the Ranas is long over, but Kathmandu today has several ‘dance restaurants’—not dance bars in Bangkok’s Khao San Road tradition, but places where the nobility’s erstwhile affinity for nautch girls has been transformed into a tourist experience. Women and men, clad in traditional attire, dance to popular songs like this one, which continues to be a highlight 20 years after its release.
[Explore: The Rana-era garden in the heart of Kathmandu]
“Dum Maaro Dum,” Asha Bhosle, Hare Rama Hare Krishna, 1971
Bob Seger and Cat Stevens both sang about “Katmandu” when cheap travel, even cheaper hashish, and the ‘discovery’ of a spiritual Nepal brought thousands to the city. Thamel, modern Kathmandu’s tourist district, hadn’t yet been born: the first hippies made their base Freak Street, a narrow lane off of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, where a hashish lemon tea cost one rupee and a hashish chocolate cost a rupee and a half. Neither Seger nor Stevens actually came to Kathmandu, but if their songs urged people to go to Kathmandu, “Dum Maaro Dum” asked you to light up (the song literally means “just toke it”).
The Bollywood song has been covered by several artists from all over the world since, including some of Kathmandu’s own: Nepali rock legend Robin Tamang turned it into an anthem that’s more Hendrix than Hare Rama. Today, the hippies are long gone. Stringent anti-narcotics rules made the city turn instead towards trekkers, mountaineers, and adventure-sport lovers. Thamel was born from the ashes of Freak Street, but the hippie vibe never truly left Kathmandu, and “Dum Maro Dum” remains the ultimate ballad to the free love movement.
[Explore: Take a tour of the streets and alleys of Thamel]
“Kanchi lai Ghumaune Kathmandu Sahara,” Danny Denzongpa, circa 1970s/80s
In 2007, Prashant Tamang, an Indian singer of Nepali origin, won Indian Idol by popular vote through SMS text messaging, thanks to a massive public outreach campaign and support from Nepal, where fans bought Indian SIM cards to vote for him. Two decades earlier, another Indian singer would make waves in Nepal.
Danny Denzongpa, who’d go on to become a star in the Indian film industry, even acted in a few Nepali films. Few remember his films today, but everyone remembers his songs. This song, which promises to take his beloved on a tour of Kathmandu, remains his most popular.
Kathmandu has always been at the center of the Nepali imagination. It is where everything in Nepal seems to converge. Even today, everyone has to go to Kathmandu for something or the other: it has the best schools, the best hospitals, the best shops, even the most significant temples—and, most importantly, the only international airport.
Danny’s haunting voice, accompanied by a traditional Nepali orchestra and to the tune of an accordion, renders the promise of love with deep emotion, along with the allure of modernity and wealth that Kathmandu represented.
It’s fitting that that later, Tamang would cover this very song after being crowned Indian Idol. His cover has a swagger suitable to the era, but the original has a romance to it that’s hard to beat.
“Kathmandu Nautalle Dharahara,” Udit Narayan and Deepa Jha, Gorkhali, 1997
Of Kathmandu’s many sights, there was none as imposing as the 62-meter (203-foot) tall Dharahara tower, which dominated the Kathmandu skyline until April 2015, when a massive earthquake ripped through the city. The white lime-mortar tower, first built in 1832, collapsed that day and has since remained in the rubble.
The reconstruction of Dharahara has posed questions about heritage conservation in Kathmandu, as authorities debate who should be in charge of rebuilding the historic monument. But for now, despite its absence, the tower’s legend lives on. Rana ruler Jung Bahadur was supposed to have jumped off the tower with nothing but an umbrella as a parachute—he didn’t, but the myth remains. It resembled an Islamic minaret, but it was very much Nepali, and no one really knows why Nepali prime minister Bhimsen Thapa decided to build it. But in the aftermath of the quake, it became a rallying symbol for all of Kathmandu’s lost heritage.
This song from an old Nepali film, Gorkhali, is a throwback to the years before the earthquake. Much like Bollywood, the Nepali film industry features an ensemble of song and dance routines amid an overarching narrative of romance, action, and drama. In recent years, the stories have matured, and in several new films—Pashupati Prasad and Loot among them—Kathmandu is itself a character, a portrait of a city that suddenly realized it was a metropolis. But the overarching theme of romance, in which the boy longs for a girl to return his love, continues.
“Saili,” Hemanta Rana, 2017
When the 2022 Football World Cup starts in Qatar, the glitz and glamor inside the new steel-and-chrome stadiums will obscure the fact that more than 400,000 Nepalis—and many other migrants from several countries—built these stadiums. Nearly 1,600 young men and women fly out of Kathmandu airport every day, mostly to Malaysia and the Gulf countries, sent abroad by hundreds of recruiting companies. With the unemployment rate at 40 percent back home, they don’t have much of a choice.
Like Nepal’s other human export, the Gurkha soldiers, these migrations have left an imprint on Nepal’s collective psyche. While the Lahure—as Gurkha soldiers are known—is feted in popular culture, ordinary migrant songs like “Saili” and “Saudi Gaye Qatar Gaye” come tinged with viraha—the pain of separation. The unnamed migrant in this song is already in Qatar, while his wife waits for him back home. It’s a heart-wrenching song, and its popularity can be guessed by the many millions of views its videos have on YouTube.
The song is for hundreds of thousands of Nepalis who leave from the airport in Kathmandu every day—and for those they leave behind.
“Sambodhan,” 1974 AD, 2001
At one time, commentators liked to say Nepal was known for three Ms: mountains, Maoists, and the monarchy. Then came the night in June 2001, when the country’s crown prince killed his entire family, before shooting himself. The shock of losing a king who represented the Nepali ideal was unparalleled. Nepal had always taken pride in being the only Hindu kingdom in the world. The royal family’s deaths sent the country into a spiral of despair. Ordinary people shaved their heads in mourning, and the crowds that turned out for the royal family’s funeral would only be matched when the people decided the monarchy finally needed to go. (That’s a story for another time.)
Nepal’s popular music scene has seen some legendary rock bands, influenced as much by Led Zeppelin as by Linkin Park. Two among them—Nepathya and 1974 AD—are giants among the rest. Sambodhan, by the latter, was originally a tribute to the band’s vocalist, Adrian Pradhan’s late music teacher, but it became an anthem to the royal family after the massacre. Accompanied by a piano, it’s a simple track whose slow rise to a crescendo of drums and the electric guitar recalls Scorpion’s Winds of Change. But while Winds of Change looked at the future and saw hope, Sambodhan looked at the past and held memories of a time gone by, a more innocent period. In many ways, the song also came to represent our many misfortunes in the years after 2001. The 2015 earthquake that razed Kathmandu felt like the final act of an era in which nothing seemed to be going right for Nepal.
“Sajha Bus Ma Jo Pani,” Hari Bansha Acharya, Filim, circa 1990s
Nepalis have a quirky sense of humor; we laugh at the ironies of life as much as at comedy. So we aren’t surprised if a song about something as banal as a bus ride becomes an anthem, especially when it presented the ironic slices of a Nepali life in a melodious folk tune.
The “Sajha Bus” mentioned in the song is a cooperative public transport system, as identifiably Nepali as the khukuri, Everest, or the Buddha, transcending class, caste and creed. Before the bus service ran aground in 2001, Sajha buses were identifiable by their blue color, dozens of which were donated by the Japanese government in the 1980s. Long before Kathmandu became the traffic mess it is today, it had the fleet of Sajha bus, an electric trolley bus system, and new sleek sedans as taxis.
Today, the taxis are decrepit, the trolley bus is no more, and the Sajha bus, which re-launched two years ago, competes with the “Micro,” a minivan that regularly stuffs 12, sometimes 14 people. This song continues to blare on all of them. Sung by one of Nepal’s most popular comedians, Hari Bansha Acharya, the music video features him sitting on the engine next to the driver, just as many of our folk singers still do, and crooning the song in his trademark nasal twang accompanied by the sarangi, one of Nepal’s most popular folk instruments.
“Radio Nepal ID (Shankhdhoni) – Ranzen Mix,” Ranzen, 2012
The electronic scene in Nepal is buzzing. There are a few techno festivals now in Kathmandu and outside, and every weekend a DJ spins out the latest in deep house, dubstep, or psychedelic across town. Sine Valley, an electronic collective featuring artists from Pakistan, Maldives and Nepal, organised a 10-day-long festival last year.
This track by Ranzen is a remix of the Radio Nepal signature greeting played out every morning before the first transmission. It’s a throwback to a time before cable television came to our homes in the mid-90s, when Nepal Television restricted its programming to the evenings and a brown leather-wrapped Panasonic transistor was a permanent feature in all homes. Radio Nepal remains for many the first source of news, updates about the day, and astrological forecasts (including the correct times to conduct pujas during festivals) with its nationwide coverage. This remix blends the nostalgia of those days with the synthesised sounds of dubstep—a perfect mix of the old and the new.
“Kathmandu,” Def’ Mind, Upesh Gurung and Shef, 2014
An anger permeates Nepali society, thanks to mass unemployment, an overall lack of development, pervasive corruption, and the meager opportunities available to the average citizen. Kathmandu can boil over at times. Enough, the youth seem to say, like in this ‘Nep-hop’, or Nepali hip-hop, collaboration.
The first Nepali rappers—groups such as GP (Girish Khatiwada and Pranil Timilsina) and Nepsydaz, or solo artists such as Nirnaya da’ NSK (Naughty Soul Kid) and Aroz—were more Usher than Wu-Tang Clan. This changed when Yama Buddha arrived on Nepali hip-hop scene. The rapper, whose suicide at 29 shocked the nascent industry, has been a tremendous influence on the new generation of Nep-hop artists. Today, Nep-hop is about expression—fierce, brutal, and honest.
Nep-hop has spawned a whole new subculture across the city. Raw Barz (Yama Buddha was one of the co-founders) organizes rap battles that have gone viral. The rappers are mostly male, and the battles sometimes a roast that veers into masculinity and dehumanizing the opponent, but the genre is now popular in places as far as Chitwan. The YouTube channel Hip-Hop Diaries speaks to rappers, including one who raps his food order at a restaurant. Then there’s CarTune Network, a show modeled on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, where rappers freestyle or sing while being driven around Kathmandu. In the U.S., the Nepali diaspora has fuelled its own Nep-hop that is more aligned to American rap, with drugs, fast cars, dollar bills and girls as common motifs.
“Momo Funk,” Cadenza Collective, 2014
Nepal’s jazz story began in one of the best, and yet the unlikeliest, jazz bars in this part of the world. You won’t find a piano in Jazz Upstairs, or the smoky atmosphere of an American whisky bar. Instead, its walls are scrawled with doodles. Sting played here in 2003—an impromptu rendition of Down So Long. It’s one of the city’s cultural centers, responsible for the birth of Jazzmandu, the city’s annual Jazz festival, whose last iteration in 2017 drew artists from as far as from Mali, Cuba, Senegal, and Thailand.
No story about jazz in Nepal can avoid Cadenza Collective, which started out as the house band at Jazz Upstairs (and played with Sting). Despite the many global influences on their music, it remains identifiably Nepali—as in this track, where the upbeat guitar riff is accompanied by a sharp saxophone note, with vocalist and drummer Navin Chhetri grooving to a funk beat in a love letter to Nepal’s favorite dumplings: momos.
The roll of the drums demands that you finish off your plate of momos as quickly as possible—it’s cold outside, and a hot plate of momos is sometimes the best way to heat yourself up. This is what winters in Kathmandu are like: good music, a hot plate of momos with spicy chutney shared with friends, and whisky.