The sweet smell of music

Wild Yak Records brings back crisp and crackly Narayan Gopal in vinyl

In a time when everything from medicine to marriage has shifted into a digital medium, there is something almost spiritual about a vinyl record: the weight of the thing, the way it sits in both hands, the ample real estate on the cardboard cover for actual artwork, lyrics, and the occasional essay.

The music sounds crisp and crackled, so warm and wholesome that any imperfections or skips only add to the authenticity of the experience. The thing about old records is that they actually smell good: that sweet, lost, analogue smell of dust and time and all of the hands that have held it before.

Vinyl pushes one into hyperbole, and modern collectors of old records tend to be privileged enough to entertain deliberate and impractical passions, to be hopeless connoisseurs of the senses – which, in this age of digital hyper-convenience, can be a beautiful thing.

This is a story about three fellow dreamers, three dedicated friends who have never actually all met in person, three successful entrepreneurs and professionals who, inexplicably, decided to start a vinyl record company targeting a country where you still cannot buy a record player.

In researching this article, I struggled to understand whose idea it was to start a record label in the first place. So I will start with Sushil Koirala, a public health expert who advises international policymakers on pandemics from a small room stacked floor to ceiling with vintage stereo equipment in Bangkok.

When not fighting HIV/AIDS across Asia, Sushil was spending his late-night hours on the internet, searching for antique Nepali records. During an ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of a rare Japanese pressing of a Narayan Gopal record, he met Neeraj Gorkhaly.

Neeraj, in keeping with our story, is a public policy expert who advises the US Government on physics and astronomy. Based in Washington DC, he describes his 15 years with the National Academies of Sciences as a means to an end. And that end is collecting records and philanthropy. He received the aforementioned Narayan Gopal record as a wedding present, and said he will “carry it with me to my grave”.

Kiran Byanjankar rounds out the trio. Kiran’s introduction to vinyl was listening to his ठुलो दाइ play Pink Floyd and Deep Purple on an ancient wind-up gramophone at their home in the Chyasal neighbourhood of Patan. He first met Neeraj at a cassette shop in New Road where Neeraj worked, dubbing bootleg mixtapes and manning the counter.

Tibetan music in Nepal’s sacred valley, Sewa Bhattarai

By this point, Kiran had found punk and heavy metal, and was in pursuit of Megadeth. After an unsuccessful attempt to fail his interview for a study visa to America, Kiran reluctantly ended up in Chicago. He completed his computer engineering degree and promptly started up a series of successful Nepali restaurants. As his businesses grew, Kiran started collecting vinyl records and taking his employees out to heavy metal concerts as an annual bonus.

And this is how Wild Yak Records started: three friends, spread across the globe, spend countless hours chatting about records on the internet and decide to start a strictly-vinyl Nepali record label. There was never a question about where to begin.

Saving the sound of music, Sebastian Wellingbat

“There is no other singer who is as beloved in Nepal as Narayan Gopal,” says Sushil. Narayan Gopal – the स्वर सम्राट himself – in many ways helped invent Nepali popular music. His voice, smooth as scotch, silky as the Queen’s sari, was on heavy rotation across Nepal and Darjeeling for nearly four decades, and came to define the fundamentals of Nepali film soundtracks and pop.

There are few Nepalis in popular culture, and even fewer outside of the monarchy or the Maoists, that achieve a level of fame and ubiquity that allows them to shed their last name.

Narayan Gopal Gurucharya, born to a Newa family in the very heart of old Kathmandu, was one. His art was also inseparable from his legend, which invited plentiful speculation and rumour: the prodigious drinking and smoking, the whispered affections for (and from) Queen Aishwarya, partnerships with poets and writers that all somehow crumbled – and cumulating in an early death in 1990 from his excesses at 51.

It was as if this life could not keep him around, and his songs about love and loss were real, lived experiences. He tapped into the sublime melancholy of the soul -- the kind of thing that led his contemporaries in the American South to coin the blues.

In 1961, under the tutelage of King Mahendra, His Majesty’s Government founded Ratna Recording Sansthan, which paired with Radio Nepal to press records of Nepali national music. Most of the recording was done in Nepal or India on old reel-to-reel tapes, then shipped off to Calcutta or Japan for pressing onto vinyl. (There are rumours of records made in the former Soviet Union but these remain as elusive as the yeti.)

These records all made their way back to Nepal and were played on the radio or listened to on the scratchy gramophones that now gather dust in the attics, or hold cocktail glasses in the well-appointed living rooms of Kathmandu’s gentry. This lasted for about two decades, until it was thoroughly and permanently made irrelevant with the introduction of affordable cassette tapes in the mid-1980s.

Narayan Gopal would have been 81 this year. Nobody really knows how many recordings of his songs actually exist. His legend, now amplified on the internet, claims something in the neighbourhood of 500, but all estimates point to something closer to 130-150 recordings.

As Ratna Recording shut down, the original tapes were moved to Nepal Television. After that, it’s murky. But thankfully, Music Nepal has carefully saved copies of the analogue recordings of many of the original recordings from that era.

In 2018, Sushil tracked down the original recordings at Music Nepal and had them copied directly onto vintage reel-to-reel tapes, imported from France. It was clear to everyone at Wild Yak that this would be a completely analogue process from start to finish. The master copies were then sent to Ohio where they were painstakingly remastered.

“We made every attempt to keep the old sound intact,” recalls Sushil. “In some cases, this even meant sacrificing cleanness or quality, but we wanted the records to sound like they originally did.” Before long, 300 copies of Swor Samrat Narayan Gopal – Golden Collection were pressed into metallic gold vinyl records, and began their slow journey to eager collectors across the Planet.

Songs of our past, Amar Gurung

Was the effort worth it? It seems so. Kiran told me: “The record left me spellbound.” Sushil adds: “When I first listened to it I could make out Narayan Gopal’s Newa accent.”

Kashish Das Shrestha, a former radio DJ and editor of Wave magazine, spent a few of his own more productive years searching fruitlessly for Narayan Gopal’s original recordings. He was thrilled to receive his copy of the new record: “It’s phenomenal. Something I’ve wanted for over a decade.”

Of the 300 records, only 50 remain available for purchase. With these strong, albeit modest, sales of the Narayan Gopal collection, I couldn’t help but ask again: Was all this effort worth it? 

“This was never started to be a profitable business,” Neeraj replied. “We roll all of our income into paying for the next project.”

With this in mind, Wild Yak has nearly completed its next album. With the hope of tapping into a younger generation of enthusiasts, a Hanuman-esque bright orange pressing of Bipul Chhetri’s Sketches of Darjeeling will be ready for distribution in January.

“Bipul is like the new Narayan Gopal. Everyone loves him,” says Kiran.

Eastern melodies in Kathmandu, Sewa Bhattarai

After this, the label has plans for compilations of Kumar Basnet, Aruna Lama, and a selection of popular Nepali rock and roll from the ’70s and 80s – bringing back bands like The Influence, Cross Roads, and 1974 AD.

But first, they need to locate the original tapes.

When I first received my own copy of Swar Samrat in September, I had just returned to the United States. Awash in the Covid sterility of America, I was quickly nostalgic for Kathmandu. As I pulled the record out of the dust jacket, I was struck by the gold colour, shining like a storefront on New Road during the week before Dasain.

I put the record carefully on the turntable and set the needle. Out of my speakers crept a flute and loping bass, lightly dusted with reverb. A few seconds in, The Emperor’s voice emerged crisp and rich, sweet as जेरी and चिया, I was transported.

मेरो गीत भन्ने अधिकार छैन,

गीत को पो म हुं

मेरो गीत हैन।

I have no right to call this my song,

The song doesn’t belong to me, I belong to the song.

Ex-refugee takes refuge in music, Gopal Gartoula

Ben Ayers is a humanitarian, documentary filmmaker, and National Geographic Explorer based in Kathmandu.

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