Art & Music

Ashesh Kulung Rai: THE YOUNG MAESTRO OUT OF THE NORM

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There are many upcoming musical prodigies in our country, and you can tell by listening to them that they have the potential to go a long way in the music industry. Then there is Ashesh Kulung Rai, who has set a benchmark of his own by delving into a genre which many nineteen year olds may not fancy: Classical music. Well, not entirely classical music.

Interestingly, he started off on the wrong foot by trying to “play” his grandfather’s unattended tabla with a hammer at a very young age. However, he found his bearings and started playing the tabla under the guidance of the very person who owned the tabla that Ashesh put a hole through with his hammer.

His musically inclined ancestry was evident when we were invited to his maternal uncle’s home (mama ghar) where a room was dedicated to practice music. Upon entering the room, you could see a wall decorated with awards his grandfather, maternal uncle and Ashesh himself had received. But our attention was drawn to the adjacent corner of the room where a platform was bedecked with various musical instruments including a polished sitar and a handmade ektara that is one amongst the only 4 ever made.

That was just the tip of the iceberg as Ashesh unraveled an assortment of exotic instruments around himself and was soon entrenched within them.

“See, percussionists are crazy. They’ve got so many instruments, it gets ridiculous at times”, explained Ashesh as he sat on the Cajon and placed himself between the Djembe and Darbouka and positioned a guitar on his lap.

TNM: How would you describe yourself as a person and as a musician?

Ashesh Kulung Rai: “Hmm, that’s tough to say, dynamic maybe? I guess having a free spirit dominates my persona. I love trying out different things and not being constricted within boundaries. I find myself practicing traditional classical music this hour and the next, i might be doing some spoken word poetry over a DnB (drum and bass) beat. I’m not done figuring out who I am. As Ramana Maharshi puts it, “if you know who you are, you’ve come to the end.”

Of course, I still am a long way from the end and it’s the same case with my music. Music is a huge part of who I am and it is difficult to think of it anything but a part of who I am. Music has an active role in every aspect o my life, in one way or the other.”

TNM: I understand that despite specializing in playing the tabla, you don’t confine yourself to the classical music genre (which is the norm with the instrument). Tell us about your take on your music.

AKR: I find it very suffocating to divide music into genres. Maybe the concept of genres is acceptable when you have ten thousand songs in your computer and you want to manage it, but during the performance art, music is music. It’s about building bridges, not barriers.

What it eventually comes down to are those 12 notes you step on. But yes, i have learned the value of my roots and have understood that once you are living with Indian classical music, it gives you a capability of playing music with anybody. And I’m doing just that: playing with people whom I meet because I feel that as much as you have, they too have their own story to tell through their music. Regardless of the “genre”, it’s music in the end. Why not be a part of many stories? That is how you learn isn’t it?

See, percussionists are crazy. They’ve got so many instruments, it gets ridiculous at times”, explained Ashesh as he sat on the Cajon and placed himself between the Djembe and Darbouka and positioned a guitar on his lap.

TNM: Who are your main influences? How did you start out?

AKR: The whole existence, that’s what influences me. From the utensils in the kitchen to the regular traffic noises, I find something to learn from everything. I’ve learned that when you open your ears to the unfolding environment around you, you’ll see the beauty of what it has to offer.

And my family is a great influence too, and my musical interest is admittedly thanks to my genes. Papa was an A grade mandolin player in Radio Nepal and also a multi-instrumentalist. On my maternal side: my grandfather is one of the senior-most figures in the classical music scene and has a repertoire that comes directly from top Indian ustaads. Finally, my knack for trying out different things comes from my mama(maternal uncle) who was the leader of “Trikaal”, which maybe the first fusion project in Nepal.

A significant event that really moved me was this recital I heard on the radio when i was a kid. It was some kind of music from a temple of India. And it made my hair stand on end.That was the time when I realized that I had to learn this music that was so powerful.

Apart from that Trilok Gurtu, Zakir Hussain, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, Eric Harland, Aaron Parks, Taylor Eigsti and other international musicians have a direct impact in shaping my music.

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TNM: What was the first instrument that you played? What do you play now?

AKR: The first instrument i played was the tabla, but I did it with a hammer on the skin causing it to break. Now, its a whole array of instruments. I’ve play guitar, violin, a little bit of the piano, electronic trigger kits, drums, instruments from the African tribes etc. But it’s the percussion department that I am obsessed with. I’ve always felt comfortable behind the hand drums (tabla, bongo, Cajon, congo, frame drums. etc). But, give me an alien instrument and I’ll find my way around to using it at my next gig. When you know your music, the instrument is secondary.

TNM: Who would you say is an underrated artist in the context of the Nepali music industry?

AKR: It is very ironic, but the artists who deserve recognition are the ones who live in secluded villages on the top of some hill and who’ve never entered a studio. If you get exposed to the general music industry too much, you get brainwashed and lose your authentic touch. But if you stay underground, you acquire no recognition at all. What I try to do is break out of that catch 22, balance life on the segmentation of mainstream and underground and try to get the best of both worlds.

So yes, the best of Nepal is still underground although there are exceptional cases. Considering the past, I felt that Gopal Yonjan deserves a lot more respect because he was the architect behind the Narayan Gopal era.

TNM: Was it always your aim to be a musician? Is it still your dream? If not what do you have in mind?

AKR: Yes, I should admit that the first time I banged my plate with the spoon, some part of me knew I would become a musician. It’s important to know how you make the best of what you have at the present moment, however I am so occupied with the present that I haven’t given a single thought to my future. It’s a stupid thing to be so rash about the future but then again… the future never comes. :P

TNM: What can we expect from you in the future? Do you have albums planned or anything of that sort?

AKR: I’m not completely certain about it. Maybe I’ll be in some trash percussion ensemble with the kids in the street teaching them music. Or maybe I’ll be hiking more to the unknown borders and discovering newer artists for collaboration. More presently though, I will be finishing my dream record “Faces in the Rain”.

It is very ironic, but the artists who deserve recognition are the ones who live in secluded villages on the top of some hill and who’ve never entered a studio.

TNM: If you had to describe the importance of music in your life, how would you put it?

AKR: Music. It’s my lord and my best friend at the same time. It lets me make my mistakes and learn from them. It teaches me all the dimensions of life from silent whispers to the thundering sky. It is a huge part of my life.

TNM: How can the general public gain access to your music and you as a person as well?

AKR: You can add me on facebook: Ashesh Kulung Rai or mail me at ashesh.taalamanam@gmail.com. Most of my originals are saved in my PC, but you can find a few songs I collaborated on in youtube. But if you want to have the experience of my music, I always will post my gig updates.

Photos: Niren Tuladhar

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Ankit Shakya

Ankit Shakya

Editor at Autolife and TNM Magazine

Ankit Shakya is a talented writer who generally focuses on the intricacies of pure storytelling in his writings. Besides, he loves eating, drinking and spending time with his loved ones.