Kathmandu Bluegrass Festival debuts in Nepal

Participants in Nepal’s first bluegrass festival – photo © Eliott Siff

On December 9, Nepal saw the first Kathmandu Bluegrass Festival with multiple bands, a packed house, and a big All Star finale, with bluegrass pickers from Nepal, the USA, and India. The event was organized by the Nepali-American band, Himalayan Highway, who were joined by The Grassy Strings from Kolkata in India, Ryan O’Donnell and the KTM Bluegrass Unit, and the Bluegrass Journeymen.

Local fans and musicians alike were talking about the great music from the show, as well as quite a bit of talk about the Ear Trumpet microphones that made their debut in Nepal this winter, and were used on the Kathmandu Bluegrass Festival stage.

While Nepal may not be the first place to come to mind when thinking about bluegrass music, in recent years there have been increasing numbers of bluegrass and old-time musicians coming to Nepal to play, as Nepali musicians traveling to the US. The fusion of the two cultures has been producing some really cool fresh sounds.

The Mountain Music Project first came to Nepal in 2006 with founding members Tara Linhardt, Danny Knicely, and Jake Penchansky. While shooting their documentary they noted the similarities between the Nepali traditional music and that of Appalachian bluegrass and old time music. Since then, Linhardt has screened the film in Nepal and the US, and their Himalayan-Appalachian fusion music gracing such stages as National Geographic, The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, and many others. Their documentary also was screened at numerous universities and some festivals like the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Joe Val Festival, and World of Bluegrass. 

In recent years, Tara has been heading up Music Arts and Culture Tours bringing music fans, musicians, or just folks interested in some travel to Nepal for fun and adventure with her company Music Arts Adventures. Inevitably, they have gotten into jams with local Nepali musicians, and for some Nepali audiences, creating more interest and understanding of the US bluegrass music and culture. Anyone interested in the possibility of taking a vacation to Nepal, or interested in organizing a student trip for university groups should contact them online

The Kathmandu-based band, Himalayan Highway, organized the festival, and has been gigging around the Kathmandu Valley with their hot mix of Nepali and bluegrass tunes. They have been creating quite a buzz about the world of bluegrass in the region, and they are hoping to tour in the US in the new year to let US audiences hear their work. The band was started by Zoe Levitt, an American mandolinist and vocalist, and Prince Nepali, a fourth-generation sarangi player from Kathmandu in Nepal. Prince Nepali’s father, Shyam Nepali, performed with Tara Linhardt and her Mountain Music Project band at the Grey Fox Festival, and competed in old time fiddle with his sarangi at Clifftop and Galax in 2015.

When asked about organizing the Kathmandu Bluegrass Festival, Zoe Levitt said, “It was so amazing to bring a bluegrass festival to Nepal! I never imagined that we’d be hosting a jam with so many bluegrass musicians in Kathmandu.  At first glance, you might not expect Nepali folk music and bluegrass to go together, but once you hear it, it sounds like such a great fit! The sarangi and Nepali percussion add so much depth to American tunes I’ve been playing all my life.”

Anyone interested in helping bring Himalayan Highway to the US can reach them online.

Here they are at the festival playing their tune, Folk Fusion.