Amrit Gurung, unpluggedFor the lead vocalist of Nepathya, love for country means coming home
Over the generations, most people in the village of Mulpani have moved out. They have retired from foreign military service and live in Pokhara, Hong Kong or London. Younger people work in Qatar or Malaysia.
Amrit Gurung has done the opposite. Nepal’s most famous folk-rock musician has come home.
“They think I am crazy,” admits the 56-year-old Nepathya lead vocalist, just back from a gruelling month-long concert tour of Australia.
It has been 13 years since Gurung settled down in his ancestral village near Pokhara, surrounded by forests. He has set up his home in the family livestock shed below the village close to a perennial spring. There are no neighbours nearby.
Gurung grows everything he needs: rice, legumes, vegetables, even honey and poultry. The forest has grown back, and this means keeping wildlife away from crops. The monkeys are smarter, Gurung says, and arrive in force for breakfast on the dot every morning. In the evenings, the porcupines are regular dinner guests.
“The monkeys break off corn stalks and run off with one cob in each arm and one in the mouth,” says Gurung, doing a hilarious imitation. “I have to be constantly on guard, and have to bang on tin plates to chase them off.”
All this lends an intimacy to Gurung’s childhood memory of growing up close to the land. Inspiration flows freely, and he often ventures out into the stillness of the night with his guitar as deer rustle in the undergrowth. The animals have come to accept him as part of their ecosystem.
“I write most of my music like this, or on the go when I travel,” says Gurung. It helps that the Mulpani air is clean, the water clear, and nature exudes a sense of calm and contentment.
He does travel down to Kathmandu for rehearsals, but finds the city chaotic, dirty and polluted. “It is painful to see how we have made cities unliveable,” he says. “Perhaps we have forgotten to think about anyone but ourselves.”
Nevertheless, Gurung is anything but despondent, and gives expression to his attachment and hope for the country through his compositions.
Formed in the early 1990s, Nepathya is the most enduring Nepali band, and its early folk-rock ballads are still wildly popular.
No concert is complete without ‘स कर्णाली, ‘तालको पानी', or the eternal hit ‘रेशम' which marked a milestone in Nepali music video-making. During the conflict, Gurung crisscrossed Nepal on यल शान्तिको लागि शिक्षा peace concert tours.
“During the war, we would not see any young people in the villages, there were flowers everywhere but there was no one to wear them,” he recalls, adding, “and after all these years, they declared a People’s War Day to remind people of the suffering.”
During Nepathya’s concerts in Nepal or abroad Amrit Gurung’s core message is always peace and tolerance, either in the lyrics or his short exhortations between songs.
In December, Nepathya played across Nepal to raise funds and awareness for Manav Sewa Ashram, a charity that provides homes to the homeless. As part of its Music for Humanity tour, the band then spent a month in Australia with back-to-back concerts in Darwin, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart. Last month, a sold-out show in Sydney was attended by 6,000 people.
“Our message is always that we have to make ourselves and our country,” Gurung says. “The reaction from the audience is always positive. Many Nepalis in Australia want to return, and do what they can for their motherland. When we played ‘रातो र चन्द्र सुर्य' or ‘गाउँगाउँबाट उठ', I noticed many in the audience weeping openly.”
Increasingly, Gurung sees non-Nepalis at his concerts abroad, meaning that even if people do not understand the words, his music has universal appeal.
Former Australian diplomat Linda Trigg who attended the Canberra concert with her son found the energy of the performance and audience response remarkable.
Farmer and entrepreneur couple Joe and Zorica travelled 50km to watch Nepathya in Adelaide. Said Joe: “We couldn’t understand the lyrics, but watching the band play and the audience enjoying it made us feel connected too.”
Gurung feels that the real return from these concert tours cannot just be measured in monetary terms. “Even if only 100 of the thousands Nepalis who were there return to Nepal to make real change, that will be enough,” he says.
And Amrit Gurung has followed his own songline, charting a path across the land to return to his own beloved village below the Annapurnas.