30 Dec 2016
10 min read
1771 words
Listening to Lochan Rijal sing makes for a cerebral experience. His unconventional approach to music has given him something that he was not too keen on garnering when he started out—popularity
What are some of your fondest childhood memories?

Some of my earlier memories have to do with my dad, who was usually busy with various social work related activities when he was not keeping himself busy at the farm and trying out new farming methods like grafting apples and lemons, among other things. My mother was a loving homemaker, and I grew up with eight other siblings. Growing up in a big family meant that we always had something or the other happening at home.

Your dad seems to have had a lasting influence on you.

We never saw my father get angry, and that left a lasting impression on those he came in contact with. He had an open mind—the caste system, for example, was something he detested. His temperament has really affected how I try to deal with my own problems. He was a simple man who kept himself busy with agricultural work or by helping out at the local school. And just as he found solace in farming, I find mine in music.

You seem to be very close to nature.

My whole life has been geared towards travelling. My father always wanted to send me to a boarding school, so on my fourth birthday, they sent me to Ravi, Panchthar. I think everyone goes through similar experiences when they are adapting to a new place, and something that I consciously noticed, even at that age, were the sounds of Rai musicians. I had grown up with the traditional music of the Damais and the Limbus, and I found this new sound fascinating.

It seems like music spoke to you from a tender age.

Not just music, but also different cultures and people. Usually, travelling to Damak is difficult and entails a three-day trek that includes crossing 22 rivers. Sometimes on these trips, you had no option but to follow the river, which would snake past caves, but I absolutely relished those arduous journeys. I have fond memories of encountering the many shrines left behind by the mighty Kiratis who ruled the territory some 1,300 years ago.

Were you upset with your parents for sending you away?

If I had not been sent away from home, I don’t think I would have met my friends, who are from diverse backgrounds, and who have been instrumental in shaping my interests—from sports to music. Although I did occasionally feel lonely and homesick, looking back, I can say that being sent away was the catalyst that helped me become who I am. I think I would have been a music fan, instead of a musician, if I hadn’t been sent away.

When did your love affair with music start?

I got into music during my schooldays. I invested my savings, of around Rs 150, to get an unused guitar from a friend’s uncle and Ram Thapa’s Guitar Guide. I think self-education is a rewarding journey of discovery and learning; and that’s how my foray into music started. Also, it's difficult to feel lonely when you occupy your time with the things that feel enriching, creative and exciting.

Did you always aspire to be a musician?

I had a sudden desire to get into songwriting when I was in school, and I remember penning eight songs at one go. I also stumbled across a Japanese tape  recorder, which soon became my favourite toy, and I would tinker with this machine all the time—this tiny instrument helped me immensely in my journey as a musician.

When did you first enter a professional recording studio?

When I was studying in the 10th grade, some of my friends and I started looking for a recording studio to visit. That search was fuelled by my friend Sandeep Krishna Shrestha’s account of his visit to Sanjay Shrestha’s recording studio. Luckily, we found one in Dharan that would charge Rs 800 per recording. And I did my first studio recording, ‘Dherai Dherai Samjhana Cha Timilai’, in 1994. The song was heavily influenced by some of the Nepali pop stars of that time, like Harish Mathema and Nabin K Bhattarai.

How did you get into the Nepali music scene?

My friend happened to be Pranil Timilsina, a rapper’s brother; through Pranil, I got to perform at a gig where I got to meet one of my inspirations—Nabin K Bhattarai. In fact, it was Nabin dai who brought me to Kathmandu University’s Department of Music, and I fell in love right away. I immediately decided to pursue music academically, even though, deep inside, I knew that the path was not going to be easy.

Tell us how you got through the rough phases of your life.

I was studying Science at Tri Chandra College and was also pursuing music at KU, so my first challenge was to earn enough money to pay my college fees. My first job was as a marketing and sales representative for a software and web page services. My first salary was Rs 3,000, which meant that I barely had enough left for my other expenses, after paying Rs 2,000 for my college fees. After graduating from KU, I started teaching music at schools—it was then that I met a lot of people from that sector, and slowly, my music aspirations started taking a professional shape.

Were you prepared for the media attention?

My first album, Udveg, didn’t fare well, so I was very cautious with my second album, Coma. To my surprise, it garnered several prestigious awards, and my name started popping up everywhere. I had to decide then whether I wanted to invest my time being popular or use my energy producing content that would help me evolve as a musician. I think this dilemma pushed me to reassess my musical ambitions and helped me appreciate music for what it could be. I wanted to pursue music academically, and that later paved the way for my research and documentation on Nepal’s ethnicity and culture.

How did you find the love of your life—the almost extinct, arbajo?

This was one instrument that had eluded me for years. It was finally in that I discovered the arbajo, which was on the brink of extinction. The arbajo is regarded as the male counterpart to the sarangi. I also got to document the activities of the late Mohan Gandharva, who used to sing tunes from Chandra Sahmsher’s period, and it was under his guidance that we constructed the arbajo. After 21 days of the project’s start, I was finally able to hold the instrument and experience its almost extinct sound. Had I not done a PhD research, I wouldn’t have discovered the arbajo. My organology background helped me deepen my knowledge about the instrument’s various aspects, and my being an ethnomusicologist helped me to envision incorporating its sound in contemporary music.

What would make the scholar in you happy?

Definitely being able to produce other scholars who are able to theorise and document our vast multi-ethnic music resources. Imagine the wealth of knowledge we would be able to document if every student did a thesis related to the musical diversity of different ethnic groups. These theses could later be used as study material, and music education could be formalised in Nepal’s school-curriculum.

How pedantic are you when it comes to your music?

I can be a studio recordist’s nightmare. I remember recording ‘Sukha Dukha’ more than 50 times when I was trying to incorporate the sound of the arbajo. The fact that it was a very simple song, with just my voice and a few instruments, made it tougher than usual; simplicity is the most difficult to achieve and isn't valued enough. When you record and release a song, it becomes a part of your identity, and you’re contributing to the world of music, so I’m very particular about the quality—I keep tinkering with the sounds until the combinations sound right, and if need be, I don’t hesitate to discard anything that doesn’t sound right to me.

When can we hear the evolved sounds of Lochan Rijal?

It’s been a long time since my last album came out, but I’m happy to say that another one is just a few months away. It’s titled Kacho Awaaj and should resonate with those who have struggled to find their voices. This album is very close to my heart as it features instruments that I literally had to construct from scratch. I would like to think that this album chronicles my struggles and portrays my evolution as a musician.