TSERING DOLKER GURUNG
It is Friday night at Jackson Heights in Queens, and the Himalayan Yak Restaurant is filled to capacity. Nepali diners craving a taste of home are scattered all over the restaurant’s two floors. The regulars at the bar are starting to drink the night away. It is busy and it is loud.
Drowning in all the noise is the voice of Phiroj Shyangden, former lead singer of Nepal’s most popular rock band, 1974 AD. He is singing ‘Parelima’, the song that helped catapult the band from relative obscurity to a dominant force on Nepal’s airwaves in 1998.
When the song ends, faint applause follows. Few eyes glance over at the stage where Shyangden and company are set up. Had this been Nepal the crowd would have been singing along, word for word. This was a band that once sold over 40,000 concert tickets, a record at the time.
“It doesn’t affect me,” Shyangden says. “I have got used to the apathy and anonymity. It’s my job and I do it.”
A few sips of beer later, he is more honest. “Of course, I feel bad at times. Sometimes I just stop playing to make the crowd realise they have spoiled the atmosphere.”
Shyangden’s words carry no resentment: they are soft and composed. He has none of the airs of a celebrity. He politely ignores two drunks who say to him, “Hey, bro, you performing today?”
Shyangden was 22 when he started 1974 AD with bassist Nirakar Yakthumba and drummer Bhanu A in 1994. The three met while working at a school owned by Yakthumba’s mother in Kathmandu. All shared a passion for Western music, especially of the ’70s, and were inspired by Western bands like Deep Purple and the Eagles.
“Back then we were total amateurs, we thought we were great because we could play covers of Western songs,” recalls Shyangden, now 44. All that changed with the release of their first album Time Out. Fans loved it and the pop-rock ballad Mayalule became an anthem of sorts for young Nepali men in love.
“He changed the course of the Nepali music scene for good,” says Prajwal Mukhiya, the 26-year-old singer who took over as 1974 AD’s lead singer after Adrian Pradhan’s departure in 2015. “He influenced me and many other musicians who are active today.”
Seven more albums followed from 1998-2007, each more successful than the last. But success and fame in the Nepali music industry doesn’t necessarily equate with financial prosperity.
“It’s hard to survive as a musician in Nepal,” says Shyangden. “Even though our band was selling out stadiums, it was the organisers who were making money, not us.”
But fans didn’t know that. So, when news surfaced in 2009 that Shyangden had left the band to move to America, many were distraught. “The main reason was financial,” Shyangden admits. “I wasn’t financially stable and needed to make the move to be able to support my family.”
His father still lives on the tea estate in Darjeeling where Shyangden grew up, and his wife is based in Kathmandu. Shyangden’s daughter joined him in New York last year and is currently studying music at LaGuardia College.
Besides performing at Himalayan Yak, a restaurant owned by a trio of Nepali businessmen, three nights a week, he also teaches guitar privately, mainly to children of Tibetan and Nepali immigrants.
Shyangden has no regrets. Although he is no longer part of 1974 AD, he is still close to its members. He wrote two songs for the band’s new album and joined them on stage during their US tour last summer. He also released two solo albums post 1974 AD, the latest titled Zindagi Asal Cha.
Says Shyangden: “Life’s good here but I miss my family and friends and especially the food back home.”
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