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Behind the Curtain: Recording Musicians in Kathmandu for the Waterbone Project (Part 2)

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And now, the sequel to Part 1 of Steve Rosen’s Behind the Curtain story of his trip to Kathmandu for the Waterbone music project …

Prologue: So, if you tuned in last issue, you know I was air bound to Kathmandu, Nepal, with two friends and a National Geographic photographer to document their exploits as they recorded indigenous musicians. That’s the short of it. Following is the long of it …

After gathering up our bags, our little troupe made its way to the Hotel Manislu, accommodations our world-wizened photographer Gordon Wiltsie knew about from his previous visit to the city. The place was empty. Visiting Nepal in August doesn’t come with the highest recommendations — it is hot as hell and also the tail end of the monsoon season — and so we had the entire hotel to ourselves or just about. The rooms were clean if a bit Spartan — $23 per night — and the people who worked there were extraordinarily friendly. The receptionist in the lobby was a girl named Debaki who was so beautiful, I could barely breathe whenever walking by her.

There was construction going on next door to the hotel and when we arrived, the road leading into the hotel, which was set back at least several hundred yards from the main thoroughfare, was a virtual muddy quagmire. It was a bit nightmarish and proved a harrowing experience every time you wanted to go out.

We all settled in and then the next day set out to begin recording. As it turned out, virtually three minutes out the door we encountered two monks chanting in a courtyard. They played percussion and drums and were in the throes of some ancient melody. We approached them and Gordon, in broken Nepali, asked if it would be OK to record and photograph them. They said yes, and Jimmy and Donnie broke out the recording gear — a DAT player and a couple of microphones — and set up. When the monks were done, we tipped and thanked him. Tipping, we found out, or what the monks described as “giving a donation,” was a necessity every time any recording was completed.

Every day was an adventure, and how many times in your life can you make that statement? On one corner, a little old man was thumping on an orange brick set in a hole in the ground. Not trying to destroy it, but rather to redesign it. Turn it into something else. A boy carried a huge desk on his desk. The monstrous piece of furniture was tied up around his forehead and he walked with this thing, which must have weighed twice as much as he did. Cars spewed smoke and noxious fumes and you had to wear a kerchief around your mouth or suffer headaches and nausea.

Steve Rosen in Kathmandu

Recording studios, per se, didn’t really exist. There were little converted rooms appointed with a bit of gear but that was about it. We sniffed out — and remember that word sniff — one of these makeshift facilities and set up a session to record some Nepali girl singers.

What we came upon was a scene that makes me gag to this day. Imagine the worst gas station bathroom you’ve ever been in and multiply that by about a thousand and you will have some idea of the hideousness of this place. The room reeked of urine. Your eyes watered and your skin burned and every little voice in your head screamed, “Get out of that place now. Take a steaming hot shower and scrub yourself to within an inch of your life.” It was horrible.

There was urine on the floor of the bathroom — little more than a hole in the ground (they don’t use western-style toilets) — and because you had to take your shoes off upon entering any Nepali establishment, your socks were soaked in it.

So, you’re sitting there with your socks wet with pee, but that was only the beginning. Because there was no sound-proofing or baffles, the windows had to be closed while recording. There was no air conditioning, and consequently the room was stiflingly hot. It felt like a room where they grew exotic flowers. A hot house. It was so fucking hot, my glasses steamed up and I could see heat rising from my urine-saturated socks as they dried. These Nepali girls were so battered by the heat because they were singing and expending all that energy, they nearly passed out. We had to take multiple breaks and make sure they stayed hydrated with water and Coke.

The electric was so bad that when the DAT player was plugged in, the hum was louder than the music being recorded. Jimmy asked the studio owner if the place was grounded and he didn’t have a clue what that meant.

We recorded monks in monasteries — there were lot of them — virtually every day. They were very friendly and outgoing and welcomed our presence, but they made it clear that not a single note of music would be performed without a donation. We made very liberal donations each time we recorded and at the end of the day, we never took it personally that they asked for money. Poverty is rampant there. Beggars are everywhere and the monks live a life devoid of any real luxuries or accouterments outside of basic necessities: food, lodging and simple clothing.

There was one big monastery where we spent a lot of time. Initially we had to get permission from the head monk who was a running buddy with the Dali Lama. According to local legend, this Nepali monk had been reincarnated. We brought these special white silk scarves to present to him, which were both signs of respect and a means of introduction. If he blessed them and placed them around our shoulders, it meant we could record there. If he didn’t then we had to skedaddle out of there in hasty fashion. He did bless them, thankfully.

If we could have donated money to the sky or sent prayers upwards to ward off the rain, we would have done so, but still nothing was going to keep the torrential rainfall from coming down. Though it was the tail-end of the monsoon season, the rain that pummeled us was as fierce and frenzied and wet as any precipitation I’d ever been in. The drops slapped you across the face. A single drop was enough to drench you. We took those moments when the skies were unleashed to actually record the falling rain and later when the music was being assembled, those sounds were added as ambiance and atmosphere.

Interlude: How do you go to Nepal and not smoke Nepali hash? You don’t. We were hanging around musicians all day and who better to know where to score, right? Didn’t Steve Marriott so rightly sing, “Black Nepalese/It’s got you weak in your knees”? He knew of what he sang. I was sent out to make the purchase — I guess the guys thought if I was nailed, I was expendable — and came back with this little chunk of dough-like hash for which I paid around $20. We didn’t have a pipe so we did it old school: Lit a small piece of hash, put it under a glass, waited until the glass filled up with accumulated smoke and then sucked it into our lungs for all it was worth.

We had congregated in Donnie’s room to perform the ritual and he was ultra-paranoid that the police were going to knock down the door at any second and haul us all off to Kathmandu prison. Admittedly, it was a dark and scary looking house of pain but the chances of any of us ever seeing the inside of that place was pretty fucking remote.

Everybody took a hit and I went last. I inhaled the thick smoke and within seconds I was flying. I mean my body raised up off the floor. I was airborne. I was that dancing dandelion spore and that broken guitar string. The sensation was exquisite and a bit frightening and an adventure. I wanted to return to my room, which happened to be next to Donnie’s, and I was walking down the short hallway, I almost got lost. I couldn’t remember which room I was in. I did manage to locate the door and immediately flopped down on the bed. I had brought a cassette player along and several tapes. I put on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of the Moon and as I rested there on the bed and heard them sing about “the lunatic in my head” I remember thinking, “This is a special moment. You will never forget this one.” I haven’t. Whenever I hear Dark Side … I am immediately transported to that afternoon in Kathmandu with a head full of hash and a future full of possibility.

We ended up staying an extra week because there was so much more music to be captured. Every day was full of joy and wonder and I even entertained unlikely ideas such as moving back there and living. A lot of American ex-pats lived there and for $400 a month, you could rent an amazing house and live like a king.

I met the editor for The Rising Nepal, one of the local newspapers, and actually ended up writing a short piece for them called “Miracles Happen In Nepal Everyday.” He told me he couldn’t afford to pay me and I didn’t want money anyway. I’m looking at that little story as I write this and smiling.

I saw a lot more and did a lot more but hopefully you have some idea of what that trip was like. I was touched profoundly. My friend Jimmy Waldo remembers it this way: “We originally went to Kathmandu with an American journalist,” Jimmy reported. “The last I heard he was working for the Kathmandu paper, and married a Tibetan girl. He still lives there to this day, smoking hash and writing articles for the paper.”

If only…

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