As the band gathers for rehearsal in Old Baneshwor after a gap of almost five months, there is little enthusiasm among its members. The members of The Midnight Riders (TMR)—who have never missed a show on Nepali New Year’s Eve for the past 10 years, since the band was formed—haven’t played a gig since February 14, missing all important occasions in between and not earning a dime.
The rehearsal is meant to give continuity to their momentum and not lose their touch as a band playing together, but with no sign of the Covid-19 disappearing soon, or gigs and concerts resuming in Nepal, the effort is half-hearted. Pessimism pervades the group, more than it did when some of its members had quit or been laid off. Years of investment in music—both financial and emotional—seem like a waste for now. This is true not only for TMR, but for most of the musicians who survived by playing live music.
Shree 3, a relatively new band that had been touring all over Nepal before the pandemic, also practices at the same rehearsal space. Having spent months at home without playing with one another, the band just wants to create some fresh music to forget their woes. In fact, they are writing enough material to cut out an EP soon.
“We, as a band, have been idle for too long. So we decided we’ll start rehearsing at least three times a week and compose some new songs,” says Sarad Shrestha, the vocalist/guitarist of Shree 3. “There’s been so much going on in the past few months that we lost our concentration. Now it’s time we get back to doing what we are supposed to.” But despite his shot at positivity, the unanswered question of when they will finally be able to perform on stage casts a long shadow.
More than money
For many musicians, performing live is not only about the money. Although stage performances are the major income source for most, there is also a sense of personal satisfaction, feeling of accomplishment and validation of one’s own music when performing live. Devoid of the stage, the toll on the musician’s financial and mental health is enormous. And while musicians and artists in developed countries have already started announcing tour dates for 2021, with Nepal’s failing response to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, the musicians here are more morose.
Guitarist Ameet Rocker (stage name), a regular performer in the pubs and bars of Lakeside, Pokhara, is currently unemployed and bitter about his situation. “Even earlier, we didn’t earn much but we still made enough to survive,” he says. “I was also planning to move to Kathmandu to play music, but now everything is ruined.” Ameet played with his band The Wave five days a week, making just enough to continue playing music as his sole profession. Now, with the pandemic still spreading, he sees no hope of re-employment but also has nothing else to do or fall back on.
“Most of my band members are also unemployed right now,” says Deepak Gurung, bass player for Pariwartan, one of the most popular bands that initially emerged from the pub scene in Thamel and went national with their music. Deepak is also a school teacher, allowing him to still make an income, while his band members are totally dependent on playing music for their livelihood. “Each month, we used to make around 55,000-60,000 rupees per person, playing up to six days a week,” he says. “Now we’re all unemployed and not sure if we will ever get back to being as busy playing music.” But on a positive side, the band finally managed to get time to make their own music during the lockdown. Pariwartan has released a couple of singles already and is planning an album soon.
Not a priority
Also starting her career from the Thamel scene and then going on to perform in China and India is singer Preety Manandhar. Preety was performing as a house musician at a popular 5-star hotel in New Delhi, India, when the pandemic hit the ensuing lockdown made her return home. “I was there with my band and we were doing pretty well,” she says. “Now we’re all out of work and dependent on our families for survival.” Like most musicians, Preety is also working on original music while she waits for the pandemic to be over so that she can get back on stage with her band.
For Nepali musicians, playing live music at different venues in Kathmandu and all over Nepal, was also a show of financial independence. Young musicians had left their families and homes to create a space for themselves in the world with music as their tool. But the Covid-19 pandemic has affected almost all trades and industries; music seems to have been hit hard and will probably be the last to recover. During hard times, arts and entertainment fall to the very bottom of priorities, as is the consensus among Nepali musicians.
Shiva Mukhiyaa, the frontman of the Axe Band, also sees bleak days ahead. Shiva had already been fighting over copyright issues with music companies when the lockdown began and all of the Axe Band’s shows were cancelled. Now he is not sure when the next show will happen and is in no mood to talk about it. “We complete 28 years this August 13, and this will be the first time ever that we have not played a show in five months,” he says. “We are trying to create some new music but honestly, it has been really difficult. It’s like our minds have shut down too.”
These are only a few examples of Nepali musicians we talk to on an everyday basis. Their feelings and emotions now can be generalized. Everyone misses the stage as much as they miss the income generated by a profession that is as demanding as any other, and perhaps more emotionally draining than most. As musicians wait with no hope of a respite, their mental health might suffer too.