Notes from a musician

Recollections of a conversation with a musician from across the hills

Self portrait by Smyrna Samten Sherpa.

“All of us write songs. All of us make music.”

I pause when I hear you say this. I want to say, I do not know anything about music. Instead, I say, tell me more.

You carry on: “Playing with thoughts is also emoting. It is not very different from writing a lyric or composing music. It is song-writing and melody-making. Voice is just an instrument after that.”

You describe songwriting as a form of storytelling, where one borrows from the conscious as well as the subconscious, like all storytelling.

Friends from nowhere

The first time I heard you sing was on Instagram. You were seated on the floor of your room, guitar cradled on your lap, your fringe forming an awning for your face as you sang. The floorboards stretched all the way behind you, racing towards the balcony. Above it, the hills rose, forming a fortress for your room in Gangtok, Sikkim. In my head you were a magician-- your voice, the deepest I had ever heard and your background, surreal.

The pandemic had just set in.

I think my head draws this image of you from a collage of images I have put together from your social media. Social media allows for that to happen-- you can re-live many moments vicariously. It is what I have done through your stories.

Now, sitting across me, you are somehow transported across time and space to a coffee table in a cafe in Kathmandu.

The homecoming

“If someone speaks two Nepali words or talks about Nepali music, it is like primal instinct, my body and mind react to it.” But you did not realise the real connection until you were in the land, “amongst its people”.

You mention JerushaBartika, Yugal, Bipul. I start to gather fragments of your thoughts on my phone in the form of notes, while my heart busts with questions.

In December, you posted a cover of Danny Denzongpa’s Chiso Chiso Hawa Ma, giving the song a life away from the original sound track. I ask what you think of how Nepali audience always want to lay a claim on Nepali artists from India.

“Kathmandu has always been that home to Nepali musicians all across the globe, especially the hills of Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Kuresong and Sikkim. People here have always received them, listened to them, allowing them to teach in schools and explore their creative side. So, it is okay for Nepali people to claim Danny. I think it comes from a place of love and acceptance,” you smile and I do, too. 

Art is indulgence but also struggle

Your parents are proud of you being Dr Smyrna Samten Sherpa. Your father, who placed a guitar in your arms when you were ten and prodded you on to the stage asking you to sing at church, still much prefers to introduce you as a medical professional.

So, there is a catch in your voice when we go into how lonely the journey of pursuing art can be, but laugh and say: “I will always have music with me no matter where I am in my life…My parents will always be my parents even if they don’t agree with all that I do-- music has been home too.”

Read also: Step by step for rural health care in Nepal, Aryan Sitaula

You have journeyed from singing in church to performing for a crowd, punctuating it with breaks to process the purpose and to write your own songs. And while music has brought you fame and new friends like myself, you say your real joy has come from being able to perform for children. You call it “the feeling of impartation”.

Music is the food to my soul 

Your grandmother is on the phone with you from Namchi, South Sikkim. She asks you why you want to leave.

You answer: “In pursuit of self discovery”.

You assure her by reminding her that you were taught to be like her-- dauntless. That she survived her time, you would too. And so you pack your bags and move to Delhi in search of a hospital job, in search of a life of music, bound to find you.

Slowing down can be a good thing

You explain your idea of being Nepali: “The thing about people in Nepal, the hills of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim is that they know how to slow down. We use the word ‘laid back’ a lot of times to describe the crowd in our part of the world.”

In contrast, you draw a picture of India, where musicians are expected to be perfect, where dinner table conversations revolve around people wanting to be something.

Read also: Moving songs from the boys next door, Sewa Bhattarai

“I am sure everyone strives for that balance but with the advent of the internet and with life in a metropolitan I’ve started appreciating the idea of disengaging, slowing down. I think it makes music more human. I see phatcowlee pause from time to time, he brings good music from his hiatuses.”

I miss being unguarded

I have never heard anyone speak of the migration of sound scapes before: “Music is not a genre, it is a feeling”, you explain your understanding of how music is a feeling intertwined with history. “They have a certain theme and they repeat and evolve in other parts of the world as time passes." You draw examples from the blues in the cotton fields and our bards with Sarangi who sang about Mughlan.

“Music migrates in that way but it is also a collective consciousness.”

Listening to you across the table on a December evening, some things come home to me. That, I am not alone in feeling like an outsider in my own land. And that even when we feel like we are citizens of the world, there is still an ache for home. And that that is why we have music.

Read also: The sweet smell of music, Ben Ayers

Right now, I hold on to your thoughts: “From teenage angst to something to age wisely with…that is why God has given us music-- to lean on so we age gracefully.

Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in Pratibha’s life.

Pratibha Tuladhar