Once upon a time, there lived a Newar Prince. He spent his days on the peak of the sky-kissing, white capped Himalayas and played bansuri (flute) to the Clouds. On a sun-bathing day of the year, the Princess of the Clouds heard the Prince playing his murali (a type of bansuri). The music was so flawless, so pure that she could almost feel her soul uplifting into the Heavens. She asked the Clouds who was it that played such celestial tune on Earth. They whispered stories about the Prince to her ears, and she fell in love. Love so sacred, she waited every day to hear him play. She wept in joy to the pitch, laughed in sorrow to the harmony and breathed every note into her being. Without his music, she felt lifeless and the more she listened, the more she wanted.
The story of the Princess from the Clouds and the Newar Prince from the Himalayas may be an imaginative one, but the music is not. The unflawed beauty of the bansuri, in combination with the arabajo and dha is indeed a symphony that can uplift any mortal soul into the heavens. It is music of a kind that you want to hold your breath onto, afraid of letting it go lest the music may stop. And this is how you feel when you listen to Kutumba.
Kutumba is a Nepali folk ensemble that concentrates on playing folk instrumentals. It comprises of six ‘guys’ (professionals) from Kathmandu who each feel for the preservation of their local music and art, and hope to spread the joy and strength of Nepali folk music to the rest of the world. The term ‘Kutumba’ means ‘family’ and holds its very special essence in the Nepali language and culture. It stands for the unique bond amongst community members. The ensemble was founded in 2004 and has now reached out to the masses with its unique vision and creation of local beats and strings.
When I met the group in late January this year at Chobi Mela V, I honestly was not prepared for the magic of Kutumba. Arun Manandhar (tungna and arbajo), Kiran Nepali (sarangi), Pavit Maharjan (percussion), Raju Maharjan (percussion), Rubin Kumar Shrestha (flute) and Siddhartha Maharjan (effects) appeared to be very regular guys with an enormous amount of friendliness and humility that affected everyone. However, when we started talking at the Drik Studio interiors, I realized that they each had a story to tell in the becoming of Kutumba. The ensemble was born when the gang met at Pavit’s shop and started discussing how they wanted to bring back the melodies of traditional folk instruments to new generations. In 2004, they played live at their debut performance and released their first self-titled album. Over the years, the ensemble has grown and has released three albums to date titled Forever Nepali Folk Instrumental (2004), Folk Roots (2005) and Naulo Bihani (2006) respectively.
The music of Kutumba is, as I’ve described earlier, of another world. The simplicity of each composition is such that it easily grasps your attention and engulfs your soul. The combination of the various unheard folk instruments to improvise traditional, local numbers is a work of art, and if you haven’t witnessed the ensemble playing live, you wouldn’t be able to comprehend how effortlessly these musicians paint a breathtaking picture with their music. The harmony of each beat with the next chord, of each stroke with the next rhythm of the heart and the captivating essence of it all is what makes Kutumba’s compositions a delightful enchantment. A purely folk instrumental presentation with a twist of humour and a shot of modernity is a rare treat for most Bangladeshis (and perhaps, many other parts of the world) and is something that one rewinds and replays in one’s soul for many times even after the song is over.
Even so, the magic of Kutumba does not wholesomely move you unless you’ve heard the stories behind each of their compositions. Many of the songs have been written and composed years before, and improvised by the ensemble for the new audience. The instruments, which are on the verge of becoming extinct, are collected from obscure regions in Nepal and brought together to recreate an unique combination of ethnic and modern music.
“We travel to various parts of Nepal and spend time with the locals to learn how to play the instruments,” said Pavit. “Often, it becomes very difficult to retrieve an instrument that was used extensively in earlier times, but we have never given up on our efforts.”
“Each of us take time out of schedules to learn how to play these instruments,” added Kiran. “Frequently, there are additions to the number of instruments we use in our compositions. To date, we have revitalized the use of over 50 traditional instruments through our music.”
Indeed, the drive to preserve their roots is applaudable. Each number has an unequalled past or cause, which is why each of them is very special to the troop. ‘Jalna’, a track from Naulo Bihani was originally composed 50 years back by Bishnu Jalmi for a street theatre in Harisiddhi, small village situated at the south of Kathmandu. Similarly, a number from Folk Roots titled ‘Sinduli Gadhi’ is a famous folk song named after a war fort, and is a love call where the singer is expressing his feelings for his mistress. The modern rendition of the song combines beats from another folk number and incorporates new-instrumentation to create an upbeat from the classics.
Kutumba’s strength lies in its determination to bring back indigenous Nepali music to the mod audience. Their dedication is reflected through each of the carefully recomposed singles. How each song paints a picture, narrates a story and only uses the words of handed-down instruments is an incomparable experience for any listener. I have been addicted to their songs ever since the day my senses were blessed by it and the joyful memory of the ensemble’s performance lingers in my heart. Yet, I feel unfed and unsatisfied like many others who have felt the music, as my soul wants more. Kutumba is one of a kind of a tout ensemble whose beauty lies within each note of its creations, and I hope it clings onto its venture to bring such soulful music to its audience for many times to come.
For more information, visit www.kutumba.com.np
For a peek into Kutumba’s music, visit www.dizab.com
By: Sabhanaz Rashid Diya
Photos: Sabhanaz Rashid Diya
Location Courtesy: Drik Studio