The wedding march

By Paavan Mathema

30 October 2017

For many employed in wedding bands in Nepal, the job is a quiet resignation to the lack of opportunities.
Photo: Flickr / Wen-Yan King

Photo: Flickr / Wen-Yan King

The stars decide the working days in this job. When astrologers sit down with two families, to look at the cheena – astrological charts – and identify the auspicious date for nuptial ties, the band baja walas (wedding bands) are equally interested in the dates. This group of strangers are somehow integral to the big fat (and loud) Southasian wedding.

Dressed in shiny shoes and red uniforms, often with golden epaulettes and caps comparable to military finery, the raucous wedding band is responsible for telling the neighbourhood that the house they play for is celebrating the wedding of a son in the family. Hindu weddings in urban Nepali families seem incomplete without an ensemble of brass band musicians playing high octave music in front of their houses, bejewelled in lights and flowers, to the joy, as well as annoyance of the neighbourhood.

The air vibrates as the trumpets and trombones blow and the drummers start pounding, adding to the chaos, as family members ready themselves for the janti – the traditional wedding procession that travels from the groom’s house to that of the bride. Amidst the clanging and the banging, the blinged-out relatives shout their namastes and ‘how do you dos’. And leading the modern Nepali janti, while the groom himself is cooped up in his ornately decorated car, is the band. As the emsemble works on one hit number after another, boozed-up aunts, uncles, cousins and friends swing their hips to the cacophony.

“I have a deep love and respect for this job. The day we are invited to a house, it is decorated grandly, like no other day; everyone is dressed up, good food is cooked. It is a joyous and auspicious occasion; how much more fortunate can we be?” says Ram Bahadur Pariyar, who runs a wedding band business in Kathmandu, a business his father started over half a century ago.

While traditionally, a janti would travel on foot to the bride’s house, urbanisation and expansion of the city, means that more often than not, the band baja and the procession squeeze into buses to get there. As they get closer to their destination, the bus stops to unpack the colourfully dressed throng and the accompanying ensemble. With their clarinets raised high and drums hung around their necks, they all start towards the bride’s home. The revelry signals the arrival of the groom; with a band so loud no one else can be the centre of attention.

Pariyar tells me that the logic behind playing music goes beyond building the environment for celebration. “The loud music cancels any bad sound. You don’t want to hear anyone crying, or fighting, or screaming, or any other inauspicious sounds on your wedding day.”

The idea of a janti can be traced to Hindu scriptures where even the gods follow traditions. Mythology recounts that when Lord Shiva arrived at the doorstep of Parvati, on their wedding day, he is said to have been followed by an army of his fantastic attendants. To this day, thousands of devotees descend from Ram’s fabled kingdom at Ayodhya to Sita’s home in Janakpur as part of Ram’s Barat (Ram’s wedding procession) on the anniversary of their wedding, known as ‘Bibaha Panchami’, singing and dancing to devotional songs.

Thankfully for us mortals, the choice of songs to be played is diverse and ranges from the devotional to the raunchy. These choices are crucial. Every stage of the wedding demands a different celebratory music, and so a band’s playlist is a collection of the latest Bollywood and Nepali songs, peppered with a few popular folk tunes. The walk to the bride’s house is accompanied by a boisterous string of flirty songs for the janti to dance to – with Hindi songs like “Bachhna ae haseeno” (Beware O ladies!) or the Nepali “Timro suhaudo jwai aayo motor ma” (Your suitable son-in-law has arrived in a motorcar) being predictably popular.

As the ceremony begins, the mood becomes more solemn and the band switches to play the notes of the Mangal dhun, a traditional Nepali tune played on all auspicious occasions. But work doesn’t end there. The journey back to the groom’s home with the bride needs a generous helping of celebratory songs as well, to tell the neighbourhood, “we’ve brought the bride home!”

Nepali Wedding Music

VIDEO: A marching band playing the Mangal dhun at a Kathmandu wedding. Credit: Stefan Kellner / Flickr

Beyond Panchai baja 

Nepali Hindu weddings were not always complemented by fancy bands and their shiny brass instruments. Long before the trumpets, there was the curved narsighma. Before the drums, there was nagada. Nonetheless, weddings have always been a musical affair, with diverse cultural practices in different ethnic communities. Earlier, Panchai baaja, an ensemble of five instruments and Naumati baaja, using nine instruments, used to take centre-stage in weddings and other important events. Dressed in daura suruwal, the musicians entertained the guests with popular folk music, seasonal songs and ritualistic tunes.

Historically, the people of the Damai caste held a near-monopoly,  in being masters of these instruments. While Nepal has several musical castes, including the Gandharvas (or Gaine), and Kusle (or Jogi), it was the Damais, a community of musicians and tailors, who dispersed across the Himalayan hills from western Nepal, who through their musical talent, graced the kingly courts and sacred temples. The community achieved this, despite being considered low caste and untouchable within Nepal’s once rigid caste system.

“Nepal has a rich musical history. It is an oral tradition, passed down from one generation to the next. A young child grew up learning music at his home like he learned any other life skill,” says Lochan Rijal, a singer and a scholar of ethnomusicology of Nepal.

Over time, however, the tradition of passing down these skills in the families of indigenous musical communities has diminished. The youth are now rejecting the family trade to seek better paid and more respected work. Rijal says this has endangered indigenous instruments as well, since they were often carved by the musicians themselves or made locally by linking the skills of one caste with that of the other, such as the Kamis, the blacksmiths.

While there is no specific evidence, brass bands are said to owe their entry into Nepal to the fascination the Rana rulers had with the British Empire. While Nepal was never colonised, the Ranas, who ruled the country for over a century until 1950, had close ties with the British and often emulated their clothes, architecture, and lifestyle.

The British used the grandeur of their military bands to impress their subjects, and soon the drums, trombones, French horns and bugles found their way into the hands of the members Nepal’s army band and the music became a staple at official ceremonies. By the time the British left India, brass wedding bands had largely replaced the indigenious instruments during formal and informal ceremonies. The western instruments appealed to the sensibilities of Kathmandu elites, and the traditional instruments played at weddings were traded for the shiny drums and trumpets, while pants and ornate coats replaced the plain old daura suruwals. Having a band at a wedding was perceived as a status symbol, and everyone wanted them.

The band’s attractiveness was fuelled by Bollywood films, which are popular among Nepalis. Regardless of whether weddings in a Bollywood film showcase happiness or tragedy, the brass bands are there to add appropriate tunes. Sister getting married? The clarinets step in with their shrill sad melodies as the hero tears up watching her leave. Hero marrying the heroine after defeating the villain? In come the brass bands with dance tunes at the end of the film. Brass band based songs such as Emotional Atyachar (Emotional brutality) become the rage the year they are released. Bollywood’s influence, which has replaced traditional instruments with brass bands in Kathmandu weddings, has been instrumental in popularising other traditions as well such as wearing mehendi, dancing in sangeet ceremonies and stealing the groom’s shoes.

The Panchai baja is now a rare sighting. “It is both about demand and cost,” says Rabi Khadgi, whose father, an ex-army man, decided to use his experience in the army band to open up a wedding band company in Kathmandu. Khadgi took over his father’s business a decade ago. Khadgi’s company used to maintain a traditional band for weddings, but decided to let it go. “It was hard to source the musicians and most of our clients wanted brass bands. We have to respond to the market to keep our business running,” says Khadgi.

However, in the last few years, there has been a slow revival of interest in the Panchai baja, say a number of wedding band owners who this writer talked to. This is an attempt by the urban-class to add ‘a Nepali touch’ to the weddings, just as the grooms are reverting from suits to daura suruwal. However, the brass bands still dominate.

Musicians of the Damai (Tailor) caste in Lamjung playing the traditional conical-bore horn called a 'narsinga' at a wedding in a Lamjung District town in 1964. Photo: Don Messerschmidt / PC Nepal Photo Project 1962-1975

Musicians of the Damai (tailor) caste playing the traditional conical-bore horn called a ‘narsinga’ at a wedding in a town in Lamjung in 1964. Photo: Don Messerschmidt / PC Nepal Photo Project 1962-1975

Hand me downs
The tradition of playing Panchai baja at weddings may have declined, but the band baja trade has inherited a few features of from them. A significant number of Kathmandu’s wedding bands continue to be owned and run by Damai musicians, who have been in the trade for generations, roping in their brothers, nephews and cousins as staff. Youngsters are trained in music by their families. “You see, people from other castes are not eager to join this profession,” says Pariyar, whose own team of 32 people, comes together to work, as well as for an annual family reunion, during the wedding season.

Pariyar recalls a time when his patrons would look down on musicians. Everyone enjoyed the music, but the faces of its creators, the musicians behind the instruments, remained anonymous. “The way they spoke to us was different. We were kept separately, fed separately. It was humiliating, but we were there to do a job,” says Pariyar. Commenting on the stratified structure of Nepali society that treated people with surnames like his as “low caste”, Pariyar adds:

Unfortunately, in our society, people who have skills and talents have always been kept in the background and discriminated against…whether you talk of farmers or artists or musicians like us.

Such behaviour has toned down over the years, say Pariyar and his band members. “People are more cultured now, especially young people. They understand that we are here to do a job, that this is a business like any other,” says Sanjay Nepali, the drummer in Pariyar’s entourage.

However, a degree of isolation persists. They may be served on the same dinnerware as guests and invited to sit on the same chairs, but the wedding bands are still told to stand outside the house to perform and are rarely allowed into the house. Offhand rude comments are still thrown at the men playing in the hired band.

Another band tradition that stays strong in the band baja trade is the absence of female musicians. The doors are open only for the fathers and their sons, never for the daughters. “Our working hours are never fixed and sometimes we work late at night,” another band owner, Mangal Narayan Manandhar, rationalises. “It is difficult for a girl to keep such a schedule.”

“Besides,” he adds, “You never know what kind of people we might meet at the parties. What if men get drunk and misbehave with girls employed in the band? It is better not to risk such confrontations with our clients.”

Behind the scenes
Twenty-one-year-old Sujan Pariyar first touched the drums when he was only seven. By the time he was in his early teens, he knew he would be following his father’s footsteps, adding his beats to the tunes played at weddings. “I had seen my father play and was always interested in music,” says Sujan. “I am happy with what I do.”

Like most musicians in wedding bands, Sujan cannot read musical notations, but give him a song and he will easily replicate the rhythm after he has heard it a few times. “I keep the songs we have to play in my mobile and play it with my earphones on. It is easier to catch the song like that.”

Most musicians in wedding bands begin learning their instruments early, in their pre-teens. “If you want to play well, you have to train when you are young, when your hands and mouths are soft,” explains a band member. “It isn’t easy for a grown-up with  hardened hands to navigate an instrument.” Indeed, how much a musician makes often depends on their skill and experience. Payments range from NPR 800 (USD 8) to NPR 2500 (USD 25) per person for playing at a single wedding. And since working in a wedding band is a seasonal job, total earnings also depend on how many weddings the band plays at.

During the off-season, Sujan works as a tailor. His friends in the band maintain other occupations too. But once it is wedding season, he leaves his needle and thread and heads to his office in Kathmandu, where other musicians like him gather to practice.

Different companies have different policies, but most foot the costs of travel, accommodation and meals of their employees during the practice period, typically a month, and also the wedding season.

The bands have a list of regular songs that they play. And when a new song catches the public’s fancy, the band leader, usually a clarinet or a trumpet player practises the song. Once he has perfected it, other members follow his lead.

While the open street serves as the stage for the band musicians, they often learn the tunes in small, dimly-lit back rooms of the band’s office. There are rarely any music sheets or stands stationed in such training rooms – the practice rooms are bare save for a bunch of chairs, trunks and boxes with instruments and a notebook here and there. Band members learn by hearing each other play. Working together to play a new song can typically take one to four days. Most companies maintain a sound-proof room for such sessions, lest the neighbours complain and kick them out.

The business of bands
“A wedding must have a band… we have to dance!” says Rashmila Shrestha, with a bright smile, right after booking one for her brother’s wedding, an important item in her to-do list. Choosing a band can be a tedious process. In Kathmandu alone, there are over a hundred bands in the market, competing alongside services offered by the police and the army bands.

“You cannot pick just any band. Of course they need to play good music, but also, they have to be well mannered and presentable,” says Shrestha. In a year when there are fewer auspicious dates for weddings, booking a band has to be done early to avoid disappointment. The rates vary, but on an average, a good band can cost about NPR 25,000 (USD250) and above.

A typical band ensemble has clarinets, trumpets, euphoniums and drums among other instruments, and there are usually 11 to 20 people marching in the team. “We have to arrange team back-ups as well. The clarinet player might become short of breath or the drums might burst; we cannot risk stopping the music,” says Pariyar.

When they are booked for the day, the band members are expected to arrive early at work, to dress up and ready their instruments. The work day can extend from eight to 12 hours, depending on the distance from the groom’s place to the bride’s house and the time of the wedding. Often among the first to reach the groom’s house, the band plays to welcome the guests and remind everyone else – it is time to get ready!

Some consider bands a nuisance, and prefer DJs. But for most, nothing announces a wedding better than the sound of a brass band echoing through the neighbourhood, turning the personal ceremony of the family into a public event. Passersby stop and stare and curious onlookers stretch their necks out from their windows to take a look at the glittery procession. Some want a glimpse of the bride and groom, while others simply ogle at the janti’s finery. Not everyone is welcoming of them. More often than not, angry commuters look on in annoyance as the janti with their slow-paced walk cause a traffic jam.

When the long day finally ends, the band travels back to shed the shiny uniforms and musical instruments in their small, dimly-lit offices.

“Rahar matra ho…. ani kaar,”  Rabi Khadgi sums up his work: “It is only a hobby, a desire. And a necessity.”

~ Paavan Mathema is a journalist, currently working as a correspondent with the Kathmandu bureau of Agence France-Presse.

~This reportage was first published in December 2015.

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