Even by the wacky standards of the music business, it was a surreal moment – an Indian blues band were ripping into Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love, roared on by an audience of several hundred stoked-up Nepalese.
Nepal is known for many things – the Himalayas, Gurkhas and a fondness for Joanna Lumley among them – but who knew that the country nurtured a mad passion for a form of music that grew up on the Mississippi Delta a century ago? A Kathmandu Blues Festival? On the roof of the world?
Yes, there certainly is such an event, and it will always baffle me how my bandmates and I found ourselves playing to Nepalese blues lovers on stages set in the gardens of Royal palaces and breathtaking rooftop bars.
I must confess that our band, Blues Business, isn’t really used to performing at such venues. Indeed, the back room of the White Horse pub or the Stand-Up Inn is more our forte, with the occasional wedding reception at a village hall an added bonus.
However, after answering an email from students at the Nepal Music Centre, who must have stumbled upon us on the internet, we found ourselves en route to Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport.
We were greeted by an entourage of uniformed guards and splendidly dressed Nepalese servants who appeared even more overawed by us than we were by them.
A chauffeured limo, accompanied by motorcycle outriders, raced us through some of the wildest traffic in the world and delivered us wide-eyed and agog to the five-star Dwarikas Hotel – a place I can only describe as Nirvana itself.
Bearing in mind that we were expecting to rough it in student digs, we soon became accustomed instead to ordering champagne, Havana cigars and exquisite cuisine.
The fabulous hospitality was provided by Rajiv, a dedicated blues fan who runs the hotel. His family, we learned later, are direct descendants of the last Nepalese dynasty, which partly explained the reverential treatment that we, as his guests, received wherever we ventured.
The Dwarikas is where Joanna Lumley stayed after spearheading a campaign to allow Gurkha veterans to settle in Britain. Also among the signatories in the hotel’s visitors’ book is Prince Charles.
Our band was soon rocking at the hotel’s Fusion Bar, the walls of which are covered with signed photographs of B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton – and now a handsome portrait of Blues Business.
The Kathmandu Blues Festival is a five-day event and musicians from all over the world are invited to perform. Local bands consider such visitors the ‘real deal’ (I didn’t try to correct them).
It was certainly a surreal feeling as I cranked up the amplifiers at the Garden of Dreams, a venue set among awesome temples and waterfalls. I thought there could not be a more stunning setting for a blues concert – but I was wrong.
Later during the festival, we played our own version of the Rumble In The Jungle. Club 1905 Blues Bar – set in a jungle clearing – attracted an eclectic audience on a steamy night, and even the monkeys were jiving to up-tempo songs made famous by artists such as Jelly Roll Morton and Cab Calloway.
The crowd went berserk when Australian Jimi Hocking ‘duck walked’ the stage while belting out Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee and played his guitar behind his head.
And I doubt that many people have witnessed a Brigadier General of the Nepalese Army playing an alto sax while strutting his stuff on stage. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘let the good times roll’ – well, the General certainly did that.
He was a hard act to follow and as I hit the first riff of our song Not Fade Away, I was relieved the audience did not do just that. In fact we rocked until daybreak.
In between gigs, we were determined to see what Kathmandu had to offer. For visitors eager to spend some money, there are pashminas, wacky clothing, (with any designer label soon sewn on), glorious carpets and ‘made-to-order antiques’ waiting to be snapped up. And don’t forget to haggle – the shopkeepers would be offended if you didn’t at least try.
Another must is to visit the mind-blowing 3rd Century Temple of Pashupatinath, which is dedicated to Hindu God Lord Shiva and is situated on the banks of the Bagmati River.
Here you can spin the giant prayer wheels and, if lucky, be blessed, as I was, by Chief Lama Sangye Dorje, who is the coolest guy I have ever met. As he and I lit a candle for world peace on top of the Temple, with Mount Everest visible in the distance, I was moved by the spirituality of Kathmandu and its humble people.
There are thirty-three-and-a-half million gods in Nepal, one-and-a-half for every person, and I certainly thought I needed at least one-and-a-half deities to look after me as I crossed the road in Kathmandu.
Tuk-tuks and other vehicles, which look uncannily like chariots powered by rotavators, continually jostle for position as they take passengers to their destinations.
On one occasion, while trying to cross the road, it felt as if I was taking my life in my own hands as I darted in and out of traffic before making it to the Nepal Music Centre.
And it is not only foolhardy pedestrians such as me that drivers have to avoid – sacred cows wander the streets and will lie down in the road or anywhere else they please, thus adding to the traffic chaos.
Amazingly, such incidents draw only benevolent smiles from inconvenienced drivers. The band had been invited to lecture the centre’s students on blues. After our amateurish tutorial, students joined us on stage for a jam session – judging by the expressions on their faces, they looked as if they had just met Jimi Hendrix.
The Nepalese are delightfully shy people and the students were overwhelmed when the band presented the school with a brand new guitar made by a Chinese guitar manufacturer.
This guitar will be awarded to the most improved student at the end of term.
Members of Blues Business also signed one of my guitars which we presented to the students. And if that wasn’t enough, the head of the Music Centre – none other than the sax-playing Brigadier himself, awarded us honorary degrees.
Old hippies never die, they just end up in Kathmandu. In particular you will find them in the Tamas district of the city, playing the blues and sipping a beer in the rooftop bars.
Kathmandu, known as the Land of Dreams, is a very special place.
From its spectacular location at the foothills of the Himalayas to its incredible architecture and self-effacing people, it will enchant you and even change your life.
I was sad to leave and as we climbed into our limousine for the trip back to the airport, a guard carrying a Second World War Lee-Enfield .303 rifle gave us a farewell salute. Whether you love the blues or not, you will find that Kathmandu rocks.