The funkification of Kathmandu, led by What The Funk

7 min read
10 Oct 2017
7 min read
1304 words
From the Archive (Jul, 2016): Nirakar Yakthumba, and his band members from What The Funk, has recently been turning heads with one of the less-explored genres of music in Nepal—funk
Funk is slowly taking over Kathmandu, with What the Funk spearheading the funkification

“But today people are opening up to and playing newer styles of music,” says Nirakar Yakthumba, who heads a passion project What the Funk.
Known mostly as a part of the rock band 1974 AD, Nirakar has recently been turning heads with one of the less-explored genres of music in Nepal—funk. For the last four years, Nirakar has been getting funky with five other musicians who make up What the Funk, and as the band have started performing more and more, funk has been catching on among other Nepali musicians too.

Although there have been a number of bands who have dabbled in the genre, What the Funk are the first band to come out as a group entirely dedicated to funk. The band derive inspiration from the old-school funk of the 60s and the 70s to create super-tight, unrelentingly upbeat, danceable music. They also represent a moving away from the four-piece band model (where you have a drummer, a couple of guitars and a vocalist) to incorporate keyboards and a horn section—to create a richer, distinct sound for the listeners.

The sound of the band is also a product of the versatility of their members. Most of them play multiple instruments and are active in other bands of different genres as well, including 1974 AD, The Mad Jazz Quartet and The Midnight Riders, among others. But when the members come together in What the Funk, they do so to play something they love and to create the sweetest of jams. For them, What the Funk is all about having fun. For that’s the heart of funk: the fun factor.

“Funk is not sad,” says What the Funk’s vocalist and keyboard player Prajwal Mukhiya. “It doesn’t talk about heartbreaks or about the meaning of life. It’s all about having a good time.” That levity, that feeling, that ‘groove’ in the music seems to make funk more approachable for any audience, anywhere—Nepalis included.

The essence of funk lies in the groove. Defining ‘groove’ is a difficult proposition, but you can think of it as the feeling, the vibe that makes the audience’s foot tap and heads bob, that pulls them to the dancefloor. You don’t have to understand the words to feel the groove and get funky. Funk has an ineffable essence to it that taps into the almost-subconscious, innate rhythm that all humans possess. Perhaps that is why funk makes for such great live music.
As easy it is for listeners to feel the groove of funk, it is as difficult for the musicians to find that groove when they start out playing
For audiences listening to a funk band live, the band usually don’t need to coerce them to get up from their seats, move towards the stage and dance and connect with the music. Most What the Funk shows feature jams that rope in the audience into the jam-sphere in which every improvised wrinkle ups the groove factor that much more. Thus every What the Funk performance is slightly different. Sometimes the band play a song for five minutes. At other times, they play the same song for more than fifteen minutes. It depends on the crowd response. “When the crowd go crazy, their energy gets transferred to the band,” says Jacko Wacko (trumpets). The more the crowd gets into the music, the more the band gets into the performance as well—everything gets reciprocated and amplified.

Such audience responses generated during What the Funk shows have spurred quite a few live bands in Kathmandu to pick up on funk too. Nowadays, James Brown songs have started to become a mainstay in Thamel, and funk seems to be gaining aficionados every weekend.

But why didn’t funk make its way into the country much earlier? The long-delayed advent of funk can be attributed to the limited exposure the genre has had here. Not many people sought out funk music earlier, and radio stations didn’t seem to promote the genre as much as other music either. For most of the members of What the Funk as well, their introduction to funk came much later in life. To be sure, Nirakar and Hemraj ‘Hemu’ Chhetri (drums) have been playing funk for decades, but when they first met Dev Lama (guitars), jacko wacko, Pratik Baniya (Trombone) and Prajwal Mukhiya— who were students at Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory (KJC) then—these younger musicians were unaware of the genre. As part of the curriculum at KJC, they had to learn Motown songs, of Mickey Stevenson and the Funk Brothers, and that opened up the gateway to their getting immersed in the world of funk.

Another reason, perhaps, is the difficulty in getting into the genre as a musician. As fun and as easy as funk looks, the style needs a high degree of music chops. “Funk has its own intelligence— anyone can play it, but to play it well, you need to work hard,” says Nirakar. As easy it is for listeners to feel the groove of funk, it is as difficult for the musicians to find that groove when they start out. Even for an experienced guitarist like Dev, just getting one simple exercise to groove, to feel right the first time took hours of practice.
What The Funk are not just winning fans over,
but critics too
But when you do finally connect with funk’s groove, everything just falls into place. When What the Funk decided to record their self-titled debut EP recently, with five songs of originals and funkified covers of classics, they did so in a matter of days. On one song, the band took the adhunik song ‘Sajha Ko Jun Sangai’ and sped it up with rolling basslines and scat singing. For their original ‘Funky Daju’, the band infused Latin funk into a song with cheeky lyrics about a party-loving Nepali guy, who, the band says, is an extreme caricature of Nirakar.

The funky dajus at What the Funk are not just winning fans over but critics too. The band were nominated for four awards in this year’s Hits FM Music Awards and took home the awards for the Best Performance by a Group and the Best Rock Vocal Performance, for their song ‘Gai Jatra’.

What the Funk have blazed a trail, and an increasing number of young musicians are getting inspired by the band’s music and getting funky too. The band members, who are also all instructors at the KJC, have been seeing more students at the institute forming bands and playing funk. “At this pace, in five year’s time we will see more than half a dozen new funk bands,” says Jacko. When that happens Kathmandu will surely, finally turn into funky town.