Revolution in South Asia

An Internationalist Info Project

Nepal – Politics and Punk at the Top of the World

Posted by hetty7 on August 23, 2011

Photo credit: Eric Ribellarsi

This article is from Winter Has Its End.

Politics and Punk at the Top of the World

by Jim Weill

A flyer for reggae-ska-punk band Naya Faya described their politics as “anti-patriarchy, anti-hierarchical, pro-feminist, pro-women’s self-defense.” I was intrigued. How would this music be received in Nepal? How would these politics resonate in an atmosphere where revolutionary communism was already vying for power?

The 1905 restaurant was a weird place for a punk show. The venue’s website ways it was once a “fine social establishment for the elite and influential. ” Queen Elizabeth II showed her face there, and even a king was coronated at 1905 back in the 60’s. Slightly less prestigious now, the place is still a palatial complex hidden from the noise and polite chaos of Kathmandu’s streets. To reach the space where the show was happening I had to walk over a quaint wooden bridge , crossing over lavish gardens and ponds with white geese.  The cover charge was 200 rupees (about US $2.50) which is a steep price for the average Nepali. Outside the walls. mothers and their children beg for change. Inside, the caste and money-privileged go bowling and drink liquor. Such is the situation in this unsettled revolution.

Activist Musicians

After running through their sound check, the members of the band emerged. They appeared to be on their mid-20’s or older, a little scruffy and not the least bit bourgeois. This was a good sign. As it turned out, the band was very aware that playing 1905 wasn’t so punk. A little embarrassed, they assured me they didn’t hang out at places like this. For them, playing to wealthier audiences is a political sacrifice, a way to help earn a living and reach new people. And they informed me, Kathmandu doesn’t exactly have many squat houses, punk clubs or other independent venues. Cover bands are ubiquitous here, and solid infrastructure for original bands barely exists.

The band doesn’t make sacrifices about publicity. During the interview, a reporter from the Himalayan Times, a mainstream Nepalese newspaper with dubious ties to India, showed up. Naya Faya refused to talk to them. “What would we say?” guitarist -vocalist Sareena asked me. “Your newspaper sucks.”

Soon, our conversation turned to politics. Given the highly politicized atmosphere in Nepal, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Olivier, the drummer, and a French expat, pulled no punches in his description of the city. “Kathmandu  is such an island full of bastard capitalists. It’s full of those expats and NGO’s who have created a middle class and who side with the fascists. ” Guitarist-vocalist Maki told us, “I really believe that you have to do, you can’t just sit there and think. If the revolution is just in your head, it’s not a revolution. ” And to varying degrees, all of the members of the band take this seriously, involving themselves in political work.

Sareena and Olivier also play as a hardcore punk duo call Rai ko Ris, which means “anger of the Rai” (the Rai are one of Nepal’s many ethnic groups). Rai ko  Ris is even more openly political, plays at less prestigious venues and charges a lower cover. The band is over a decade old and has toured in Malaysia, Singapore and Europe. They find a lot of inspiration in the  DIY (do-it-yourself) scene, even with all its shortcomings, they add. For example, they note that in some cities in Europe, drug and alcohol use sometimes overshadows radical politics.

Much like in the US, many young people in Nepal are attracted to punk for its attitude, but ignore its legacy of egalitarian politics. Naya Faya told me that many young kids in the punk scene are “stubbornly apolitical.” A few even appropriate the trappings of anarchism , putting up anarchist banners and use anarchist symbols, but don’t know much abouit the ideology, Sareena explained. Locally, the members of Naya Faya find more common ground with lower-caste Nepal musicians who sing songs condemning the rich landlords and money-lenders.

Inspiration from the villages

Maki is particularly attuned to the needs and culture of Nepalese village life. He himself is from a village in rural central Nepal and had undertaken a number of projects to improve conditions there. Maki comes off as quiet and reserved, but when he talks politics he’s fiery and direct. “I’ve been trying to set up a pig farm where low-caste  Nepalis  in the village work with non-Dalits from the Gurung tribe.”  “Gurungs don’t eat pigs,”  he explains. Upper- caste  Gurungs use this difference to discriminate against low-caste people, who do eat pigs. In this way he’s able to tackle issues of food security  and caste discrimination simultaneously.

Maki  has also started a food cooperative  with the goal of “trying to fuck the landlord who loans money to farmers.” Sareena jumped in, mentioning that his endeavors have gone a long way to empower villagers. “Its not only about empowerment,” Maki responded, “but about trying to fuck the  feudal shop owner – how we’re doing it is by trying to fuck  his business.”

Maki is open about self-identifying as a communist. He is a member of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal  (Maoist) though “he has some differences” with the party. Nils didn’t describe his politics in detail though he agreed with the  band on most issues. Sareena and Olivier, describe themselves as anarchists. Olivier clarified, saying, “we are not too comfortable with the labels – punk, anarchist, communist – it matters what you do.” Part of Sareena’s work involves organizing low-caste women to protect themselves from gendered violence. “I think the priority here in Nepal is male/female discrimination and caste discrimination, she told me. “I found women in the village who wanted to learn self-defense,” Girls also come from the village to Sareena and Olivier’s house/infoshop  to have a practice space, and to hang out – “otherwise it is difficult for them to get out of their village.”

“if I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”

Oh, and the members of Naya Faya also play  music. And they’re pretty damn good at it.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the band. Ska and reggae-influenced punk is an easy thing to get wrong. Dozens of US bands from the late 90’s  ska-punk revival are unlistenable to me now. But Naya Faya draw much more from the early 80’s  than the late 90’s , channeling the second wave  of British ska like the Specials, and post-punk legends like the Slits and Gang of Four. Sareena’s one-note guitar lines echo those of Fugazi and Sleater-Kinney.  Sometimes the old- school reggae influence came to the forefront when Sareena played a melodic over Nil’s dubby baselines. Augustus Pablo would have been proud.

With all of these influences, the band could’ve been a mess.  But it wasn’t. Despite the mash-up of various styles, most of the  songs had a recognizable biting edge and minor-key melodies . Sareena’s vocals, which range from a growl to a Corin Tucker-like warble kept things consistent.   Overall, there was a sense of urgency and honesty  one can’t describe  with standard musical terminology.

An odd crowd trickled in .  Tourists, NGO types, and Nepalis joined one another  on the dance floor. Up at the front of the room, a  tall white woman with dreadlocks kicked it up next to an old British man and a mixed gender group of Nepali students. Even a couple Maoist YCL (Young Communist League) showed up to enjoy the show, saluting Naya Faya  with a “lal salaam”  (red salute) which the Naya Faya members returned. Even though the band’s veteran  members called themselves anarchists, they seemed to have nonsectarian attitudes  and suppport for Maoist comrades.

Though the atmosphere was a typical Friday night celebration, Naya Faya wouldn’t let the audience  forget that this was a third world country  – posh atmosphere be damned. During a break between songs Sareena used the space to call out the IMP and Bill Clinton. Later she encouraged women to come to the front , and called out a young man who was dancing too violently. Whether she took such ethics from Ian MacKaye I don’t know, but she told me she did see Fugazi play once  – on a badminton court in a community center in Singapore. I was a little jealous.

Viewing the empire from without

After the show Olivier and Maki were eager to  continue talking politics. “You have a shit situation in the US,” Olivier told me. “It’s pure capitalism over there.” We talked about the US health care system, the culture of consumerism, of government surveillance, and he shook his head in disbelief. To many people in Nepal, no matter where they come from, the ideas of  US individualism and ‘personal responsibility’ are absolutely alien.

Olivier had Maki and I sit down. He wanted to relate something he’s heard  from a human rights organization he works with, a story that would “blow your minds” he said. He told us about a group of refugees from Bhutan, a country to the east, separated from the borders of Nepal by a thin strip of Indian territory. The Nepalese government had nowhere for these refugees to go, so the the US International Organization of Migration (IOM) agreed to take them. There was a catch. Once the refugees arrived in the US, Olivier told us, they were expected to pay back their plane tickets, their lodging costs and all transportation fees they incurred in Nepal – even bus fare. Not having jobs, and probably not speaking English, they were already in debt. They went from political refugees to indentured servants.

Olivier was livid after retelling the story. Maki was visibly upset. He became extremely quiet, sitting for minutes in silence. I, on the other hand, was disturbed but not shocked or surprised. This is exactly the sort of thing the US government  does day in and day out. And it’s far from the worst that happens. I wished at that moment I was desensitized. In a country where there is hope for a radical future, news events, social interactions, and even music take on a different character.

In the US punk and DIY counterculture, with all its limitations, allows people some escape from the numbing effects of capitalist society.  People use it to nurture marginalized, egalitarian  political ideas and practices. But in a country like Nepal, where a majority of people have adopted revolutionary ideas, the kind of society Naya Faya wants seems much closer to the mainstream.  At the moment, political punk seems to be a small and vibrant part of a living movement. 

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