Rooted tunesKhagendra Kumar Limbu, who hails from Nepal’s east, has made it his personal mission to bring the traditional sounds of his home region to the fore
Limbu was born to a middle-class farming family in Taplejung, the second of five siblings. His childhood was fairly idyllic, he recalls, spent roaming about the village, swimming in the local river with friends and taking his family’s sheep and cattle to graze in the forests nearby. Among the things he loved doing back then was to play the flute, something he was already doing well by the time he was 10. “I had a cousin from Jhapa who had come to stay in our village,” Limbu says. “He was a fine flute player and he taught me.” As adept as young Khagendra soon grew at the flute, singing was a different ballgame altogether. “I loved going to cultural shows and dances that were held occasionally in the village, but I was always an observer,” he says. The highlight of the year would be when participants for the Birendra Shield would be picked out, a national level competition wherein a troupe from the village would take part to showcase the Limbu culture. Limbu grew up watching the Yeba Long, a form of dance, Ke Long, a dance ritual conducted during weddings, and Dhool Naach—and of course listening to the music that played as these were performed. As he grew older, he felt a strong pull towards these traditional tunes, particularly the songs played during the Dhaan Naach and Palam, and even learned the dances alongside.
After he’d taken his SLC exams, Limbu headed off to Dharan for his further studies, where he impressed quite a few classmates with his flute-playing skills, until one day he was asked if he’d like to join a band. The group, which called itself The Trial Run, comprised four others—Arun Rai, Purna Tamang, Bikash Rai, and Sanjeev Limbu. The band was fairly active, and even toured nearby districts, and for Limbu, these gigs represented his first exposure to playing for a live audience.
It was in fact that very tour that changed Limbu’s perspective. During one of their performances, in Khadbari, he had been about to sing an English number for the crowd, and was dressed “like a rock star”, he says. But he suddenly couldn’t remember the song anymore, and had to stop, with his band finishing up the session as best they could without the vocalist. “I learned something important that day,” Limbu says. “I realised that it’s important not to pretend to be something you’re not…I decided then and there that anything I did from that point on would be true to myself.” It’s a lesson he never wants to forget, he adds.
Limbu came to the Capital in 1997 for his higher education—namely, a master’s degree at the Tribhuvan University. While he pursued his course in the English faculty, he also recorded his first album, titled Dhulo Lagchha Ki, a collection of eastern folk songs. Once he’d gotten his master’s, he wanted to return to his village and work on expanding educational facilities therein, but with the country deep in the grips of the Maoist insurgency at the time, conditions for such a venture were deemed ‘unfavourable’. So he continued working on his music, the only thing that he says gave him total solace.
In 2002, Limbu managed to establish a recording studio, the Yuba Cassette Centre. Financial support for the undertaking came from his brothers in the British Army, who would occasionally send him money. The studio’s existence meant it was now easy for him to record his later albums, spaced out with a couple of years between them. He also began performing more, the most memorable of which, he says, was the three-day concert he held in his village in 2007. “People could relate to everything I was singing about…it was very satisfying,” he says. The trip proved a hit in more ways than one, allowing as it did Limbu the time to document aspects of local culture on video and audio for future use as well.
After more than two decades of playing and composing tunes representative of his cultural identity, Limbu says he feels it was time well spent on doing something he truly believes in. He wishes more young people around the country would take an interest in promoting and preserving the melodies specific to their regions. “We often forget the kind of rich musical traditions we have in this country—we either take it for granted or aspire to learn more modern, more western techniques,” he says. “If only we learned to look inwards and explore our own musical history, we would find that there is much to be proud of.”