Moving songs from the boys next door

Given the vibrant art and literature scene in Nepal, we tend to forget that there is a whole Nepali-speaking world out there. At least 5 million Nepalis live beyond the country’s borders, performing songs and plays, writing books and making films.

In golden age of Nepali culture, artists from Darjeeling and Sikkim dominated the music, art and literature scene in Kathmandu. Indeed, northeast India continues to nurture rich artistic output.

One of the new treasures is Gauley Bhai, a recent band of four musicians. Veecheet Dhakal, 31, his brother Anudwatt Dhakal, 28, and Siddhant Chettri, 27 are from Kalimpong, and Joe Panicker, 36, is from Kerala.

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A filmmaker, a sound engineer, an engineer, and a drummer by trade, the four were jamming together in Bangalore when they realised that they and the sounds they produced gelled well. They began playing at festivals, and three years ago formed Gauley Bhai which now has a cult following for its eclectic compositions that cannot be traced to any one geographical location.

“We like all world music, including African, Japanese, Korean, and western,” says vocalist Veecheet Dhakal. “Maybe our strongest influence is African music, but each of us has unique preferences.”

The band also likes Nepali music by Cadenza Collective, Axe, Mukti and Revival, and Bipul Chhetri from their hometown of Kalimpong. Gauley Bhai’s songs cannot be slotted in any particular genre, ranging from loud to mellow, folk to modern.

If the band’s sound is not placeable, the lyrics are distinctly Nepali. The verses  weave wispy images into a gossamer thread, leaving listeners longing for love and nature.

The song Sim Rayo describes picking wild vegetables in the wetlands, chasing hares that disappear into burrows, and longing for maichyang’s flowered beauty. It is about desires one cannot have, wanting things that are fleeting. 

Many of Gauley Bhai’s lyrics are shaped by the collective experience of India’s Nepali disapora, and deal with migration and belonging. Nepali ko Rela is one of them, born from the impact of the Gorkhaland movements in the Darjeeling Hills.

Life is cheap,
Easily forgotten.
It can be burnt off and erased
Where humans eat humans
And drunkenly wash worries away.

“These songs are about a home. But a home may mean so any different things. A home may not be permanent. It may be about missing a person or a place. It may be a state of in-betweenness, or even an encounter with death. At the end of the day, home might be never feeling at home,” says Dhakal.

I place a stone on my heart,
As I cross these mountains to a foreign land.
How are we going to row
This ship we call life?
I place your photograph
In the pocket of my heart…

“Our songs represent the urban reality of migration, and who may or may not have roots. India has seen waves of migration, but the question of who belongs and who does not has become politicised lately,” says Dhakal.

Ten of these songs were released in the 2019 album Joro (fever) where the numbers speak of a time when youth are maddened by the alcohol in a funeral feast, and become intimate in a daze. The song explores their haste, but also their indecision. Will they regret it? Joro seems an apt metaphor for our age, a feverish, intoxicated time without a destination.

Hope in my mind, I could not find.
A shadow stared back at me in the mirror.
The blue youth of the sky is covered,
By a dark grey cloud.
Surrounded, I sulk.

Says Dhakal: “Where we are from gets caught up every ten years in political movements. There is little support for the arts. Every ten years things are destroyed and we have to start all over again. Nepalis in India live a fragile, fragmented reality. But somehow, despite the lack of stability and physical infrastructure, we keep the spirit of the arts alive.”

Gauley Bhai stands out for its intense, angst-ridden compositions. But like their songs of migration, the four band members are also wanderers. That is why their audiences are also mixed: people speaking difference language united by a love for music. But it is always extra special when they perform at home.

“It is magical playing to Nepali audiences. Elsewhere, people enjoy our performances, but only a Nepali audience sings along,” says Dhakal, who plans to bring the band to Nepal soon.

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For now, the band continues to perform and to work on its second album, taking creative breaks when it can.

We took shelter
at the chance of rain,
But the sun smiled
and shone instead.
Before the distant horizon of sorrow,
We ask for a night of rest.