Inside buses on their daily commute Nepalis are used to listening to familiar-sounding songs that feature alternating female and male voices, responding to one another, often cheekily.
Called lok dohori (people’s duet) this genre originated with the Gurung community and its tradition of the rodi ghar dance halls. After a hard day of harvests on the terrace farms, young men and women challenged each other with duets in which the musical repartee had to come within 30 seconds.
“The rodi tradition had gone by the time we grew up in Gorkha, but our elders still sang the duets and we learnt it from them. We sang about love, happiness and sadness,” recalls noted folk singer Harimaya Gurung. “But the songs have changed a lot. These days it is not as emotional as before.”
Cultural historians agree that the commercialisation of the entertainment industry and the advent of YouTube and Facebook have cost Nepali folk songs their cultural value. Still, every Tij festival folk singers come up with new numbers in which the lyrics delve into contemporary issues like migration, patriarchy or even corruption in government.
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“We must change as the trend develops,” notes folk singer Chandra Sharma of the National Folk and Duet Song Academy. “They may be commercial hits, but they have mostly added to the continued appeal of the lok dohori genre.”
However, there are complaints about folk songs being too explicit or provocative, even obscene. Sharma admits there are some extreme examples, but his Academy has set standards and criteria for song lyrics.
The folk songs are changing in other ways, too. The popular and controversial song by Pashupati Sharma, Lutna sake lut (Loot all you can) was a satirical critique of rampant corruption, and became an anthem for frustrated Nepalis, especially when it was censored after the singer received threats from ruling party youth.
“These voices have brought positive changes. There are many songs about corruption, freedom for women, against caste discrimination and songs about the state of the country. That means folk duets are relevant and playing a constructive role in society,” hit folk singer Badri Pangeni told Nepali Times.
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