(On the occasion of its 1 year anniversary, Jerusha Rai reviewed “Ani Ukali, Sangai Orali”. Many thanks to her for this write-up)
Ani Ukali Sangai Orali will go down in history as an important turning point in Nepali music, for bringing us closer than ever before to a satisfying definition of what Nepali music is or can be. The pivotal album that took 8 years in the making is a culmination of Night’s journey throughout the country, listening, really listening, not only for sounds but for stories.
Going against the apolitical, “easy-listening” trend in world music, Night’s debut album has addressed, in very direct terms, the plight of migrant workers, the poverty and rural-urban divide that the Nepali people face today. Night further challenged us sonically, with forest soundscapes in ‘Suseli’, atonal melodies in ‘Bhaktapur’ and the technical prowess required to play indigenous instruments like paluwa (leaf flute) or the fretless tungna.
Since the release of Ani Ukali Sangai Orali, Night has taken Nepali music beyond borders performing at the Uzbekistan International Music Festival and touring the UK where they conducted workshops on Nepali instruments, played at the Shambala Festival and got reviewed by the most popular world music magazine, Songlines. The band also collaborated with the legendary Indian composer, A.R. Rahman on the International Day of Peace track for the peace-building charity International Alert.
But what is more impressive than these accolades is their continued dedication to the preservation of indigenous instruments and folk culture. They have pressed on with their “Know Your Instruments” series, lately featuring the Paluwa, much to the fascination of urban audiences who were largely unaware of rural leaf flute players. Most recently, amidst the negative portrayal of Madheshi protestors by the Kathmandu-centred media, the series shed light on forgotten Tharu instruments and this community’s contribution to Nepali arts.
Night have yet to reach a mass mainstream audience, but their music has been featured on national radio stations and the album is seeing steady sales. There is a definite commercial versus artistic conflict of interest still prevalent in the Nepali music scene. Night has been reluctant to endorse sponsorship from alcohol companies, and have tried to focus less on marketable entertainment, and more on their social message.
However, their following in numbers is far surpassed by the powerful impression Night’s music has had on a new generation of artists, musicologists and listeners. Bijay Pokharel, the illustrator who created the widely loved album cover, talks about his initial struggle to come up with satisfactory design ideas. “When I finally got the CD and listened to the album though, I was very moved. The beautifully crafted instrumentation and emotional depth of each song was a jolting reminder of my heritage. I think the album is a very poignant and honest portrayal of the present state of our nation. With that, the research and training taken up by the band members on rural instruments included in the album, is staggeringly impressive. Night is a band with a unique artistic vision, which I hope inspires many other artistic entities in our nation”, said Pokharel.
Pranav Manandhar, from the young folk trio Baaja, shares his impression of Ani Ukali Sangai Orali. “I find their music to be very organic, there’s a sense of natural growth in every successive song. I like the fact that they don’t really have a “standout” instrument or member, everything flows so naturally”.
Due credit must also go to their sound engineer, Bishwo Shahi for this seamless mixing of old, acoustic instruments. Decades worth of experience behind him, Shahi finds fresh excitement in the musical vision of Night. “I still listen to the album in the car, it never gets boring. I think it is the best representative of Nepali music, something that can be proudly presented to the rest of the world”, says Shahi who has been involved in the world music scene in London for many years.
It is the reaction of listeners beyond Kathmandu, however, that the band members most cherish. “Hami lai ta aafnai gaun ghumai dinu bhayo”, said a caller from a radio station in Karnali upon hearing the album, showing that appreciation for their music, is by no means, limited to elite artistic circles. The band assess their authenticity based on the feedback from listeners around the country. This is the ideal; closing the vast rural-urban gap in every arena of Nepali society, including the art establishments.
This brings us to what perhaps should be the most appropriate reaction of anybody who listens to Night’s music: respect and better treatment towards those thousands of unnamed, obscure folk musicians who grace our everyday cultural rituals, who have continued folk music traditions despite the low income and too often the caste discrimination that the occupation entails. To recognize the high aesthetic and technical sensibilities of our own folk art, rather than the blind admiration for foreign products that almost brought Nepali musical innovation to a halt. Night’s beautiful, seamless mixture of folk musics from different parts of Nepal should be a reminder that highlighting ethnic minority issues and wealth inequality should not be seen as divisive or anti-nation, but the very foundations on which a unified national identity must be built.