Constructing our own electric universe

6 min read
10 Nov 2017
6 min read
3336 words
Nepal is seeing perhaps its first major wave of electronic music producers whose works span the spectrum from DnB and ambient to trip-hop and future bass

To talk about the Nepali electronic music scene of the early 2000s (when electronica started to make its way into Kathmandu) is to evoke memories of DJs presenting to crowds pre-recorded sounds, applying preset sound effects and upping or lowering the BPM of their pre-selected tracks. And the music that these DJs played in Nepal’s clubs, has for the longest time, defined what electronic music meant for Nepalis. 

But over the past few years, a handful of Nepali music producers have been creating—almost from scratch—tracks, EPs and albums that are starting to redefine what it means to be a true electronica artist in today’s brave new Nepali music sphere. 

Rohit Shakya (The Author)

Genres: Future bass, Electronica infused with Hip-hop, RnB and Soul

Rohit Shakya, under the alias The Author, creates chill, summery beats that usually feature pitch-altered vocal chops laid over hard basslines. He borrows elements from tropical house and future bass to come up with songs perfect for swaying to.     

Rohit Shakya (Photo courtesy: Sine Valley)

Rohit Shakya wears many hats. For some, he’s the frontman of Jindabaad. For others, he’s the man behind the multimedia company Fuzz Factory Productions. As of late, however, he’s increasingly gaining reputation as an electronic music producer who creates music under the moniker The Author. It’s been around two years that Shakya actively started producing electronic music, and within that time span, he has built quite the portfolio. He has extremely active SoundCloud and YouTube accounts, onto which he intermittently uploads electronic bangers that garner thousands of views and listens. The foundation of his music lies in his years of listening to electronica (ambient, dubstep, trip-hop, future bass, among others) as well as electronica-infused rock. And because Shakya has soaked up many different styles over his more-than-a-decade-long music career, it’s only natural for his music to range across the many sub-genres under electronica.  

Shakya’s Evening Session series on YouTube features him playing his Maschine (a beat-production workstation with built‑in drum sequencing, sampling and loop-slicing capabilities) in various locations. “I chose to name it ‘Evening Session’ because the music I produce in that series, I think, has a sundown, chill feel to it—perfect for evenings as opposed to mornings or afternoons,” says Shakya. “Moreover, the videos that accompany the songs in my Evening Sessions, I’ve been told, are spectacles to behold on their own, owing to the golden hour during the evenings.” Shakya’s Evening Session No 1 (date-stamped April 18, 2017 on YouTube) begins with an establishing shot of the evening sky with clouds painted a tinge of orange by the sinking sun. 

The camera pans down to reveal Shakya positioned on a rooftop with his Maschine, surrounded by brick and concrete houses inside which lights are slowly turning on as dusk falls. In this setting, Shakya plays soft, synthy beats laid over slow-paced kickdrums which go perfectly with the laidback vespery atmosphere. “Evening Session is an effort to do multiple things,” he says. “First, it’s my way of introducing world music to urban Nepal. There are many interesting sub-genres under electronica that I think the people should be checking out and getting inspired by. Second, announcing to the world that Evening Session is a series forces me to be consistent with practising my craft and putting my music out there.” 

Rohit Shakya (Photo courtesy: Sine Valley)

Shakya doesn’t just push his own sound. He frequently collaborates with both established artists (Astha Tamang Maskey, Uniq Poet, Laure, among others) as well as budding and aspiring artists, for whom Shakya has released the Evening Session: Beat Files series. The first track of the beat files is a mellow track with four beats, over which Shakya has invited rappers, singers and poets to spit verses and sing songs. This is Shakya’s way of encouraging not just cross-genre, but also cross-artform collaboration. 

Shakya comes from an audio engineering background and has much experience with scoring movies as well. “My audio engineering course at SAE, Thailand, didn’t transform me as a musician, but the things I picked up there have definitely helped systematise my production process. There’s a difference between producing music out of passion alone, and combining that passion with a system. And my experiences with movie scoring too carry over to both my music and my production processes.” Shakya has created scores for big movies such as Dui Rupaiya, Kabaddi and Loot, among others. He says that these experiences give him insight into what works and what doesn’t in mainstream music—as movie scores should be as accessible to the public as possible. Shakya’s clients trust his musical instincts and even allow him to experiment with the scores. This practice sustains his personal music production and, as with his Evening Sessions, fortifies his chops.   

Shakya’s creative process is not set in stone. He often finds himself building a beat and layering other elements on top of it. Other times, he builds the song around a catchy hook. He owns a wide-ranging arsenal of production gear, some of which include his Maschine, the Novation Launchpad, the Korg Minilogue Analogue Synthesiser, among other hardware, all of whose signal outputs he processes using digital audio workstations on his MacBook Pro.

Rajan Shrestha (Phatcowlee)

Genres: Post-Adhunik

Rajan Shrestha, under the alias Phatcowlee, creates melancholy-inducing sounds by manipulating live audio samples and laying them over deep, slow bass lines accompanied by soft synths and glitch to produce a soundscape that washes listeners over with nostalgia.

Rajan Shrestha (Photo courtesy: Prasiit Sthapit)

Rajan Shrestha—known as the bassist of the popular outfit Jindabaad—creates electronic music under the moniker Phatcowlee, a name that Shrestha came up with when he playfully superimposed a picture of a ‘big cauliflower’ onto a picture a fat cow. That’s as deep as you can go in a conversation about his alias, but when it comes to the music he has produced under it, there’s a lot more room for conversation. In 2016, he collaborated with Pakistan-based electronic music producer Alien Panda Jury to produce an EP called Mandal. He then went on to release his debut EP, Cinema. The EP comprises four tracks, the first of which is a track called ‘Insomnia’, which features Shrestha singing in a baritone voice over soft synth sounds that become noise by the end of the song. The track serves as the overture to what’s to come in the rest of the EP, and it also represents the many nights of insomnia Shrestha suffered through—it was during those sleepless nights that Shrestha created Cinema. The three remaining songs open with audio samples of intros of classic Nepali songs—such as ‘Kusume Rumal’ and ‘Mayalu’—as the overarching motif. “The inspiration for Cinema came about when I was randomly flipping through some TV channels and came across this channel called TV Filmy, which was airing songs from old Nepali movies,” says Shrestha. “A wave of nostalgia washed over me, and Cinema is a manifestation of that nostalgia melded with my personal musical influences.” 

The songs, therefore, begin with unedited clips of Nepali songs, but half a minute into the songs and you can already hear Shrestha looping the samples and incorporating glitchy elements. In creating Cinema, Shrestha has drawn inspiration from Los Angeles beat-scene artists like Flying Lotus and Shlohmo—artists whose music don’t exactly figure (if at  all) in the Nepal subconscious, at least not to the extent that the works of artists like Marshmello and Diplo have. As a result, the tracks in Cinema aren’t the most accessible even to Nepalis. “Cinema is a project that I created without the audience in mind. For example, in one of my recent productions with Fuzz Factory for its Fuzzscape series, called ‘Jhijhiya’, I deliberately incorporated sounds and beats that the layman listener could relate to—because there’s no point in creating complex music that no one can resonate with. With Cinema, however, I have veered into weird spaces and soundscapes to come up with music that accurately expresses my nostalgia, but yes, it isn’t very accessible to everyone.”

Rajan Shrestha (Photo courtesy: Prasiit Staphit)

To create the Phatcowlee sound, Shrestha has worked with a range of audio equipment, both digital and analogue. He uses the digital workstation Ableton Live 9, and as for hardware, Shrestha uses a range of audio equipment. “I use a KORG Nano series MIDI keyboard, which belongs to Rizu Tuladhar of Kanta Dab Dab fame. I also use a LaunchPad Mini and an Evolution MK-461C MIDI keyboard. Additionally, I use a toy Casio SA-47 alongside the usual guitar, ukulele, bass guitar and a few wind and percussion instruments I have collected over the years. Most of those instruments have cheap, flimsy, toy-like sound qualities to them. I love that,” says Shrestha. 

Ranzen Jha 

Genres: Drum and Bass, Dubstep, Breakbeat

Ranzen is offering Nepali club-goers new music to throw shapes to. His music features a union of unedited live-audio samples melded with drum-and-bass and dubstep elements.

Ranzen Jha and Chandresha Pandey (Photo courtesy: Pwajwan Shrestha)

Ranzen Jha is a Kathmandu-based electronic music producer primarily influenced by Chicago footwork, Drum and Bass, breakbeat music and their close derivatives. Ranzen deftly blends sound elements shaped by the aforementioned styles of music with found-sound audio samples—be it the sound of crickets he collects from an evening walk, or snippets of a conversation between two farmers working under the sun—recorded through his recorder (the Zoom H6n) to produce a sound of his own: electronica built over audio samples from all over Nepal. He hasn’t officially released music of his own, but he intermittently puts up his works on SoundCloud, through which he has managed to reel in a pretty decent audience base. You can find, say, dubstep-infused music layered over audio samples of people talking in Nepali, with Sarangi sounds weaving in and out through the mix, creating electronic music that has at its core Nepali elements. “I am currently focusing on creating DnB- and breakbeat-infused music, with Nepali clubs in mind. It’s usually the chartbusters that the Nepalis move to. With my upcoming EP, however, I want to create something new, something that Nepalis can jive to,” he says. 

Ranzen’s studio is claustrophobic—or maybe it’s the amount of audio equipment crammed in the room (because of which there’s hardly any space for movement) that makes it seem so. On the right half of the room are musical instruments—a classical guitar and an electric guitar—and as you sweep your glance towards the right, the equipment get more and more complex, more and more electronic; you can see an M-Audio MIDI keyboard, a Maschine studio, three synthesisers, a mixer, a Yamaha studio monitor, a computer monitor, and a MacBook inside which are his digital workstations (DAW)—Ableton Live 9 and Presonus Studio One 3. Ranzen’s creative and production process usually involves his starting off with a sample and building and adding electronic elements using the aforementioned equipments. “I really believe in not tampering with an audio sample, which is why some of my songs have unconventional BMPs, as the sounds I build around it needs to match the pace of the sample. Other times, I usually come up with a catchy hook as a starting point, around which I build the rest of the song and add intros and outros.”

Ranzen is also one half of Zero Mile, for which he has collaborated with Chandresha Pandey. Zero Mile was formed in 2012 and draws influence from artists such as Tabla Beat Science’s Karsh Kale, who fuses Indian classical and folk with electronica, rock, pop and ambient music. For Zero Mile tunes, Ranzen lays down the electronic layers, over which Chandresha Pandey lays her plaintive vocals. Pandey is trained in Indian classical vocals from Delhi University and Gandharva Mahavidyala, Delhi. The duo, too, haven’t officially released their music, but their works can be found on their SoundCloud account. 

Sine Valley: Day 1 (Photo courtesy: Genius Loci)

Ranzen also signs the occasional deal with various clients for whom he creates music and jingles. Some of his commercial projects include the theme song for Color Republic 2017 (for which he collaborated with Italian singer-songwriter Marta del Grandi), the NMB bank jingle, and music used for promotion videos of Commencal bikes. “There’s a difference in approach when I have to produce music commercially,” says Ranzen. “My clients show me examples of the type of music I need to make. And the music being demanded is sometimes not my forte and I have to do things that I wouldn’t normally do with my own stuff. But I don’t see that as a negative, as it gives me an idea of what works in the mainstream, although I don’t necessarily see myself incorporating what I learn in my commercial endeavours into my own music. And of course, working on commercial projects always teaches me a lot about discipline and refines and quickens my overall production process.”

Early this year, Ranzen also accompanied the renowned British DJ Paul Oakenfold on ‘Soundtrek’, an event for which Ranzen had to trek to Everest Base Camp, to play at the highest party in the world. He also played at an international fundraiser in New York for KTK-Belt, an initiative to build a vertical university in Eastern Nepal, and has performed in one of the biggest clubs in Singapore—Zouk. As a side gig, Ranzen intermittently plays at Kathmandu’s best clubs, including Club 25 Hours and Karma Bar and Lounge.

Sulk Station

Genres: Downtempo electronica, trip-hop, ambient

Sulk Station fuses Hindustani classical elements with slickly produced multi-layered minimalist electronic tracks that paint a greyish, melancholic world. 

Rahul Giri and Tanvi Rao (Photo courtesy: Sulk Station)

Sulk Station are widely regarded as one of the best sounds to ever come out of India. A Sulk Station track usually features Hindi or English lyrics sung by Tanvi Rao (an Indian national) over minimalist downtempo/electronica sounds—produced by Rahul Giri (a Nepali national). “Our music is inspired more by artists, as opposed to genres,” says Giri. “When we were starting off in late 2000, artists like Portishead, Massive Attack, Martina Topley-Bird, Burial, Radiohead, Fiona Apple, and Grouper, among many others, influenced our work for sure. We were also very much inspired by the captivating live performances of various artists featured on YouTube Channels such as KEXP and the NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts.”

The duo’s self-released debut LP Till You Appear (2012) has garnered accolades from listeners, musicians and critics. The creative and production process that went into the production of this sound is eclectic, to say the least. “Sulk Station didn’t really have a set process or formula for coming up with music,” says Giri. “Sulk Station isn’t really a jam band; we don’t sit together for hours and jam until we come up with stuff. We enjoy our individual spaces and make music on our own—Tanvi with her voice and her piano, and I on my audio equipment—till we come up with stuff that both of us like. Once both of us like a basic idea, we develop the track together and then try it live. The final outcome is a result of the time we spent in the studio and our live performances. And if we like it, we release it.”

The Sulk Station sound is so highly polished that most listeners might assume the tracks were produced in a hi-fi studio with expensive equipment, but that’s very far from the truth. “I made music for Sulk Station using very cheap headphones, 3.5-inch monitors and Ableton Live. And because I was going through a ‘I hate presets and plugins’ phase, I made from scratch a lot of the sounds you hear in our music. That methodology became almost a self-imposed rule that forced me to dig deep and come up with sounds I could call my own.”

Sulk Station are currently on a break, but Giri is still actively pursuing electronic music through his solo project _RHL.

Sine Valley

With so much electronic-music talent brewing in Nepal, it was only a matter of time before electronic-music-centred festivals would hit Kathmandu. One such festival was the recently concluded Sine Valley festival. 

Marta del Grandi (Photo courtesy: Sine Valley)

The festival—whose second edition was held from October 20 to October 29—aims to bring together and showcase diverse experimental subcultures from the subcontinent. Sine Valley was founded by Daniel Arthur Panjwaneey from Pakistan and M Manal from Maldives. The latest iteration of the festival was a ten-day affair, during which featured artists performed at multiple venues across Kathmandu—Moksh, Base Camp, House of Music, to name a few. “We chose Kathmandu because it’s a city that’s rapidly growing into a hub of new ideas, technology and creativity, due to its openness towards artistic collaboration,” says Panjwaneey. This year’s festival saw an incredibly talented lineup of artists from Nepal (The Author, Phatcowlee, Ranzen Jha, Flekke, Foeseal), Pakistan (Alien Panda Jury, Natasha Noorani), Maldives (Autonomotor, Voltiac), India (Chandresha Pandey, Sawhorse), Italy (Marta del Grandi) and France (She’s Drunk).

Flekke (Photo courtesy: Genius Loci)

The festival also saw panel discussions (on what goes into and what it takes to organise festivals like Sine Valley) and masterclasses (on sound synthesis, facilitated by Aditya Nandwana AKA Sawhorse), both of which were an attempt to collaborate and communicate with the local creative community.