Fortnightly(ish) Review: Hip-hop in Mali, Nepal, Springsteen and Uzbek Elite Pop

Mali: coup, secession, food crisis and hip-hop

Mali is in the midst of great political turmoil.  In March a military junta ousted the President, suspended the 1992 constitution and took control of the country, which had been due for Presidential elections in April.  The government’s mishandling of the Tuareg rebellion in the country’s north was cited as the motivating factor for the coup (I wrote about that rebellion in an earlier post).

Following the coup Tuareg rebels, namely the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), declared an independent Azawad covering a broad swathe of the country’s north, including Timbuktu.  To further compound matters Islamist group Ansar Dine has made a counter-claim to stewardship of Azawad, and central Mali is part of the Sahel, a region facing a severe food shortage.

So seemingly out of nowhere (although not to all), Mali has been transformed from a bastion of west African democratic consolidation into “the Afghanistan of West Africa”.  Well, at the very least it faces directionless military rule and possible bifurcation.  Some young Malians have expressed their frustration with their country’s politics, both pre- and post-coup, through hip-hop as detailed in this article on Bridges From Bamako.  The article makes the interesting observation that hip-hop crews in Mali are fulfilling the role traditionally ascribed to civil society, the latter having been co-opted by the political elite.  This is surely the case in a number of other countries too.

What is happening in Mali is compelling, particularly when you’re sitting in a country which is also 20-odd years into democratic rule and subject to endemic corruption, and is about to hold a parliamentary election.  Mali’s Presidential election, which was to have taken place in April, was initially postponed  to May.  It has now been put off until 2017, along with parliamentary elections which were originally scheduled for this July.

What’s a country like Nepal doing with politicians like these?

Just under a month ago Nepal’s protracted constitution writing process collapsed.  I wrote a fairly detailed article about it on South Asia Masala so I won’t harp on about it here.  All I will say is that things are not looking any rosier now than they did a month ago.  This week the hardline faction of the ruling Maoists finally made good on its threat to split from the party.  The newly formed Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (it has dropped the ‘Unified’ from the original Maoist party’s name) rejects parliamentarianism and will not rule out a people’s revolt or a return to all out war.  Meanwhile, as Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai toddled off to the UN’s environmental gab-fest in Brazil, his government was censured by the Electoral Commission for making changes to key police personnel despite its caretaker status, and accused of curbing press freedom for demoting a state TV executive for televising opposition protests.

Amrit Gurung, lead singer of Nepathaya, a band I blogged about when I was still living in Nepal, has added his voice to the debate in a couple of articles in the Nepali Times.  In the first, published a few days before the Constituent Assembly expired, he added his view to the debate over whether or not Nepal’s states should be defined on the basis of ethnicity.  Gurung made the case in favour of ethnic inclusiveness, stating he is Nepali before he is Gurung or any other identity.  He reiterated that position in his latest article published this week.

Who Da Boss?

In a recent article The Guardian argues that Bruce Springsteen is the last protest singer (at least in stadiums), taking a swing at Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Coldplay, U2 and Glastonbury in the process.  The author also sort of has a go at Neil Young and Bob Dylan.  I think.  And Jarvis Cocker and Sting, he says, have chosen the wrong issues to protest.  Personally I don’t think all musicians need to foist their politics on their fans.  In fact most time I think it’s preferable they don’t.

The article’s survey of stadium rockers is far from exhaustive: why mention Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, but not Pearl Jam for example?  Another politically engaged musician is Ry Cooder, who is preparing to release a uber-political album in the lead-up to America’s November Presidential elections.  The video below contains some of one song from the album, the excellent ‘Mutt Romney Blues’, about Mitt Romney strapping his dog to the roof of his car on a 12 hour drive.


Central Asia has a new pop princess: GooGoosha, aka Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimova.  Unsurprisingly, the music is terrible.


Rock in Nepal

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Katha’ by Newaz and ‘Jogale Huncha Bheta’ by Nepathya.

I have now been living in Nepal for just over six months.  During this time I have seen only one gig.  But I have seen it many, many times.  You see Nepali bands (at least those that play in Thamel and Lakeside, the tourist areas of Kathmandu and Pokhara) stick pretty strictly to covers.  And they tend to be the same covers: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bon Jovi, Jimi Hendrix, early Bryan Adams, Guns N’ Roses and – absolutely mandatory – Hotel California by The Eagles.  It can be fun if you’re in the mood, and the players are often excellent, but it is not exactly what you would call a thriving music scene.

Rock in Pokhara

I finally got my first taste of original Nepali popular music at ‘Rock in Pokhara’ last November.  A one-day festival, the stage was shared by rock groups from Pokhara and Kathmandu.  There was some real excitement among punters over a few of the Kathmandu bands who are quite successful and had never before played in Pokhara (Nepal’s third largest city).

Headliners such as Mukti and Revival and Newaz (with an Australian alumni on vocals) are typical of the rare subcontinental band that is able to make a living from its music: they are hard.  In contrast to Southeast Asia, where the mainstream appetite favours saccharine pop, young South Asians generally like their music to be rock, and their rock to be hard.

Although the music at Rock in Pokhara was (mostly) original, it was still strongly influenced by western popular music.  The excellent weekly Nepali Times recently published an article on a new band trying to fight Nepali cultural cringe and create a fusion of traditional Nepali folk music and more contemporary sounds.  Yak Attack aren’t my cup of tea, but I do appreciate what they’re tying to do.

One of the pioneers of this sort of fusion is a band called Nepathya, formed in the early nineties.  Their song ‘Jogale Huncha Bheta’ (I have tried unsuccessfully to get the title translated; it seems to have something to do with serendipity) is without a doubt my highlight whenever it is played by the Lakeside cover bands.  It is clearly a highlight for Nepali music lovers too.

OK so I haven’t drawn out any political connections in this post.  But I have written on Nepali politics elsewhere.  So if you’re interested I suggest listening to the playlist above while reading this article I wrote last November, which endeavours to give a brief overview of the recent history of politics in Nepal, and this one from a couple of weeks ago, which provides an update and a bit of a critique of Nepal’s politicians.

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