When Jerusha Rai started writing music in 2011, the Nepali independent or underground music scene had very limited space.
“For many, underground music just meant music in the metal genre, where only boys could usually go to,” she remembers, “The scenario is changing gradually.”
Rai, 28, produces ambient soft rock music and electronic music with an ethnic flavour. This calm singer’s journey into the less-explored genre of Nepali music reflects the changes that the industry is embracing of later, in terms of creativity as well as inclusiveness.
A new level of creativity
Rai’s calmness and creativity can be felt in her songs released in two full-length albums, A Dark Place to Think (her debut album in 2016); and Sunsaan (2019); as well as her mix-tape, We all make mistapes (2015), all released on digital platforms.
Interestingly, Rai considers music as a hobby and pleasure rather than a career. “Music is a spiritual thing,” she says in a soothing voice and glowing eyes. “I think my way of creating music will be corrupted if I ever enter the mainstream industry.”
For her, music needs to be organic. “I like folk music from not only Nepal but also from elsewhere. I find them organic. Belonging to an indigenous community myself, I feel the importance of exploring indigenous music.”
She feels she is evolving with her music, which is ‘sacred’ for her. And it has provided her with good communal experiences.
Writing the experiences and observations
Of the songs she has written, she feels very proud of Barud. “Barud was my first attempt to write in Nepali,” she remembers. “And it was very well-received.”
This is a song written about the Maoist insurgency, and she fondly expresses the emotion of the song.
“Many relatives in my native village had joined the rebels or were taken by the Maoists, and I had to hear many things about them. Even when living in Kathmandu meant I did not experience the horribleness of the war, such news used to affect me deeply and I wrote my feelings in Barud.”
She is very satisfied with the music she produces. “The people who like my songs usually resonate with the feelings my songs express; it gives me satisfaction. People are gradually showing interest in my music.”
Born and raised in Kathmandu, she lived in London for a few years. Currently, she is based in Austin, Texas, the USA. She worked as a user experience consultant in an IT firm in Texas but now is a freelancer. Living abroad has had a significant effect on her songwriting. Even in a hectic daily routine, she still manages to produce her music.
“The calmness in my music comes from solitude and loneliness I felt when living abroad. I create my own world in my music.”
To write songs, she gets inspired by what she observes.”I cannot write songs until I feel like it,” she says. “I usually write spontaneously when I feel emotionally affected by the things I hear or see.”
The evolvement of Nepali independent music
She is amazed by how talented independent musicians are on the rise in the Nepali music industry.
“In my earlier musical journey, I looked for validation from the mainstream music industry to set an identity. But now, with a good network of indie musicians, we are exploring how to negotiate for identity in a collective manner. ”
When asked who her favourite artists are, she listed out many. “I am fond of many artists, like Baaja, Diwas Gurung (based in the US), Didi Bahini, Gaule Bhai (based in Bangalore), Shreya Rai, Bartika Rai, Kathmandu Killers, On Acid and many others. The independent scene is growing and in all genres.”
Currently, a tour has been planned and she is working with Mannu Shahi of Didi Bahini and Birat Basnet (previously of Night Band) for the tour. The tour includes a wide variety of venues around Kathmandu, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim.
“With them, I can learn more about Nepali folk music as they have studied ethnomusicology and are also very technical as well as organic.”
Overcoming the problems galore
While she likes the music being produced in Nepal and how the music industry is booming lately, she feels many artists are exploited by businesspersons who own mainstream studios.
“It is sad that the mainstream music industry exploits artists. Indie musicians are working from the grassroots to change the scenario. Artists must lead the movement.”
Meanwhile, she also tells of harrowing tales of sexism in the music industry, globally.
“It is deeply rooted, not only in Nepal but worldwide. Esperanza Spalding, an American jazz musician, said recently about the sexist encounters she faced. So it is hard to tackle that for women musicians. When a girl starts playing her instrument, people assume that they are not going to be good. We do not want to be treated differently, but we want people to understand our music, and think of us as capable.”
Similarly, heckling has been a constant issue for many musicians. Being a female artist, dealing with hecklers is harder.
“One needs to be tough to deal with hecklers. In my early days, I faced many hecklers. And many of them were sexist. Some of the comments would be very disturbing like ‘you are a pretty good musician for a woman.’ Such was always irritating.”
However, she has gradually learned to claim that the stage and time are hers now. She feels inspired by Nepali female musicians in the indie scene and relieved as more women musicians are coming out. The music has evolved than before.
“Earlier, men had the freedom to take part in concerts, while we had to rely just on the internet to listen to music. But we developed our own taste in music now.”
For example, she shares her experience of collaborating with Didi Bahini during the Yomari Sessions. “Collaboration with Didi Bahini was very fun. Every band members were very talented in their own instruments and they gave their own inputs to my songs. And it gave me more freedom when collaborating with the groups of girls.”