Adieu, Jazzmandu till next year

Photo: SHEILIN TEO

Played slowly and masterfully, the tabla makes a sound like plump water drops hitting a deep well. The lilting, devotional sound of Nepali tabla maestro Rabin Lal Shrestha was sorely missed this year. Having performed at the Surya Nepal Kathmandu Jazz Festival for the last 16 years, Shrestha passed away earlier this year.  

This year festival faithfuls and newbies at the Jazz Bazaar at Gokarna Forest Resort were introduced to his son, Bijay Shrestha, alongside an ensemble of his father's students, all seated in white, low on the stage floor sounding out melodious, plaintive repetitive chants. They played in unison, down to each tabla beat as though a single spirit engulfed them as they played. 

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Nepali bansuri flute and sarangi strings also feature in the music presented by Blue Fret. Jiri Blues is a walk down memory lane: a friendly toe-tapping tune with an undercurrent of nostalgia and longing. The airy whistle of the bansuri’s soft cadence lets the sarangi tease out strains of yearning.

Also performing was the German band RSxT, headed by keyboardist and electrosound manipulator Roman Shuler which gives a heady mix of music styles in seamless transition, and  each vibe layered over another, tickling at nostalgia one moment, setting the ground aroar with grooves the next, and somehow sounding jazzy to the bone.

Whilst the Jazz Bazaar saw out the final performance by RSxT (they also played at Thamel’s House of Music during the Village Jam sessions last Friday), for others headlining the festival this year the show goes on at various other venues. 

Dhokaima’s intimate courtyard was transformed into a sophisticated sound arena replete with Tihar lights and Latin Jazz aficionados milling about or sitting transfixed by the opening act of French songstress Faby Medina. Some in the audience were sufficiently transported to a  Caribbean ambience not just with her sound but by the heat and smell of grilled seafood being flambéed.

Medina’s style is trad cool, and her mellow mellifluous voice hits each emotion, wink and wince of her songs perfectly. She jazzes up the Beatles’ stalwart Blackbird with lilting poignance, sings the sweet, sad, cheeky souls of good time girls in jazz classic Love for Sale and a tune from her native Guadeloupe, Non Musieu. She is just as at ease playing with scatty transitions to her bandmates’ solos, to sounding witty, jazzy hoots and gasps, to working her lyrics with measured, precise and well-honed enunciation. And when she lets loose her native twangy French in a creole tune, it’s transportative, and her song takes you from a balmy Jazzmandu evening, to the balmy salt-scented islands of her birth.

Joining the soirée is Adrian Crookston, joined on stage by Cadenza Collective’s drummer Nabin Chhetri doubling as Forró vocalist, and Cadenza bandmate, guitarist Rajat Rai. Together, the trio drew eager waves of dancers toward the stage with their Palouse Forró Experience, infecting the crowd with frenetic, rousing pace of Brazilian street music, reminiscent of troubadours and wandering gypsy bands, sometimes winsome and far too easy to dance to.

Returning to Jazzmandu this year is Tropic Green from Singapore. There is a particular thrill to hear horns blow in unison across a movement, then to hear them split off individually for a moment, melting into the other strains being played, only to regroup again with synchronised gusto. The band is obviously well formed and well practiced. They know their parts and work beautifully together, and it is like listening in on a big friendly conversation.

Also returning was Paul Tynon with Jake Hanlon who lit the stage in Gokarna and the Finale with his solo take on Cadenza’s crowd-pleasing Baza Gaza anthem. Playing to a quieter crowd earlier on at the Yak and Yeti stage during the festival finale, Tynon’s muted trumpet and Hanlon’s unctuous guitar notes had aching humility and sheer beauty. This was the kind of music you could lock yourself away from the world with and escape into, sitting alone by a fire  whisky in hand.

In the week that brought the Valley’s jazz lovers together visiting musicians also held free masterclasses at the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory. Considering its long run since 2002, it’s no surprise that the events were well timed, well run, and world class. Through its 17 years, Jazzmandu has kept the festival fresh with talent and enthused audiences with quality music. Jazzmandu reminds us that we are one big mishmash of human improv.

Jazzmandu 2020 will take place from November 4 to November 11 next year. Details will be announced on their website.

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