Nepalis rock in the desertTwo workers from Nepal quit their jobs in Qatar to perform professionally in a rock band
When Nepalis in the Gulf make it into conversation, the last thing that comes up may be about a pair of head-banging rock artists. Nepalis are better known for being hardworking construction workers, long-distance lorry drivers, or serving as security guards in the Gulf nation.
But in Qatar’s underground rock and metal scene, you will find Ameet Kunwar rocking the drums and Satish Thapa Magar grooving the crowd with his bass and vocals, defying the stereotype of a Nepali in the Arabian desert.
Winterburn, a hard rock band fronted by Gibson-endorsed guitarist and singer Naser Mestarihi, and the two Nepali musicians is the first and only rock band performing original music in Qatar.
Having received much acclaim and international play for their singles, the trio has been labeled as the pioneers of the rock scene in the country by Musivv digital platform, Vents Magazine, and Fox Sports.
Back home in Nepal, Satish was a digital marketing officer by day and performed music gigs by night. Yet, it was not enough to support his family. Three years ago, he left to work as an accountant in a bar in Qatar. Ameet migrated 14 months ago for similar reasons.
“I missed the music I was really passionate about. I have been playing since I was 17,” says Satish, now 27. “So when I was introduced to the music circle here, I took the risk to quit my job and pursue music professionally.”
The duo plays in three bands in Qatar: Kathmandu Musical Band for the Nepali diaspora audience, Afterlife, a rock-cover band for the expatriate community here and Winterburn, an ambitious original rock music project.
“The pay difference between Qatar and Nepal is huge, just two to three gigs a week can give us a good income,”adds Satish. “Even the entire band is not paid this much in Nepal.”
However, being an independent rock musician in an expensive city like Qatar is not as glamorous as it sounds. Audiences prefer cover music and DJs compared to live, original music.
But the band members are committed to keeping the spirit of real rock alive, even at the cost of losing lucrative performance offers. This means that more often than not, it is Naser’s local friends who make up most of the crowd. But it is hard to get the recognition the band deserves in Qatar. While Winterburn is gaining popularity, the music scene is still very challenging.
“Since we are an original band, it is hard to earn money given we can’t perform original music every day,” says Ameet who has balanced his passion to supporting his family back home in Nepal.
Satish and Ameet have been approached by multiple bars to sign contracts for a monthly income, which they have refused. The contract binds them to a single bar where the musical expectation is specific and leaves little room for self-expression and experimentation.
Moreover, the market is saturated with Filipino bands, who often play covers for lower pay. And as a Nepali band, many here expect them to perform Bollywood hits.
“It is especially hard being Nepali, and by extension South Asian, here. The music scene is perhaps the only place where we don’t have to worry about racism,” says Ameet.
Nepalis are often branded as low-paid menial workers. People fail to recognise the Nepali identity beyond KFC counters and Talabat rides. When Satish and Ameet climb on stage, most are surprised they are Nepali.
However, some sign them on just for the novelty of having a Nepali rock band. And it is the very rebellion in their musical expression that has given Satish and Ameet their identity as strugglers against stereotypes and racism.
“When I am up there on stage, it doesn’t matter if I am a Nepali. It is cathartic to see music erase boundaries and pre-concepts,” adds Ameet.
Despite facing some uncomfortable situations off the stage, the music community in Qatar at large respects the band for its talent. Satish and Ameet have come across many who have been amazed by the diversity of Nepali music, and that includes their lead Naser.
“One thing about Nepalis is that they know their music,” says Naser who is fascinated with Nepali performers like Sabin Rai, Albatross, and other bands. “My bandmates are some of the best musicians in the world who come from Nepal’s rich musical scene. They deserve much more recognition.”
At the end of the day, Winterburn just wants to make music and take its originals to as many people as possible. Members are working on their second album, II, to be released globally and a regional tour of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and eventually Nepal in the coming months.
Adds frontman Naser Mestarihi: “I want to play where people understand and appreciate our music, and Nepal seems to be the best place for that.”