The world of jazz is vast and today one rarely gets to hear traditional jazz, the original form of jazz music. People may be familiar with jazz rock, funk jazz and fusion jazz but one doesn’t often get to hear gypsy jazz either. A highly gifted guitarist who lost the use of two of his fingers on his left hand in a fire at a gypsy caravan, introduced the world to what became known as gypsy jazz (also known as hot club jazz) in the 1930s. The legendary Romani guitarist, Django Reinhardt (1910–1953) is said to have first appeared in the jazz scene by jamming with a house jazz band during their regular gig. It is said the band leader tried his best to put the young upstart off by playing the most difficult pieces on his instrument for Django to follow in a musical duel. But the incredibly talented gypsy guitarist displayed his amazing ability by matching him note for note on his guitar with just two fingers, using the other two only for playing chords. He became a sensation in a very short time and started playing with the cream of jazz musicians in New York.
Here in Nepal, Hari Maharjan is known as the man who introduced Nepalis to gypsy jazz, one of the most enjoyable and melodic forms of guitar playing. It has a flow and sweetness unlike other forms of jazz. Hari was inspired by the great Django Reinhardt’s music. Born in Jaisidewal (The large temple of Jaisidewal was brought down by the earthquake of 2015), in old Kathmandu, not far from Durbar Square, he attended Ananda Kuti Vidyapeeth School and later passed SLC from Mitra High School. Like many of his Newar contemporaries, he was inducted into the tradition of playing Dhime (a large Drum that is central to Newar traditional music). “It is in our culture to learn Dhime for three years, but once I discovered the guitar, my attention was diverted towards this western instrument and by the age of 12 or 13, I was playing pretty well. I used to listen to all kinds of music and formed quite a few rock bands with other guys in the early days,” recalls Hari.
Decades ago, one of the major gigs for young Newar musicians playing rock was the annual Newari New Year gig out on the street near Indra Chowk. A stage would be built in the middle of the street and crowds would gather to listen to the various bands where some famous musicians were also a regular feature. “I first played professionally when people started calling me for various programs around town. I have even missed exams because of these gigs as playing music was so important to us. One of the regular venues for big concerts was People’s Campus where I also studied. My musical career was kick started by playing around these colleges. From there we went on to play in Thamel where live music was becoming very popular at the restaurants and bars,” says Hari. These Thamel gigs lasted until 1996, and post 1999, he started playing the lucrative hotel circuit. Big star hotels were better venues and also paid a lot more. Some hotels offered long term monthly contracts which enticed some musicians to move away from Thamel.
Maharjan’s life took a different path when he was presented with a cassette by a French guitarist he’d been introduced to. At a gig in Hotel Yak & Yeti, he met the Frenchman and ended up jamming together. The General Manager of the hotel was also French and incredibly supportive of musicians, offering them well-paying contracts, which also brought classical guitarist Kishor Gurung there to play guitar at the Chimney Bar around the same time. Listening to gypsy jazz on that cassette moved Hari deeply which made him take up the music seriously. “I started collecting cassettes and CDs of gypsy jazz and began learning by intently listening to them, which is how most people learned music back in the day before youtube. Meeting Kishor Gurung regularly at Yak & Yeti was advantageous as I was able to get classical music sheets from him,” recalls Hari. But outside the hotel, this versatile and very gifted musician was still playing rock and blues and still does when not playing jazz.
From 1999, Maharjan started playing rock music with the famous Karma Band and had a few hits with them which included “Hukka Mero” and “Mauntama” around 2000. Following the success of these songs, the band went on an all Nepal tour and also performed in Sikkim. By 2001, Hari had joined another famous band, Nepathya which had been through quite a few line-up changes over the years. “Bhedako Un Jasto” became a huge hit for Nepathya and they too went on an all Nepal tour followed by the annual Shikhar Tour which included most of the popular Nepali bands and singers for an extended tour of the country. Hari was to become a regular member of the band for eight years during which time they toured Finland, Korea, The Netherlands and the U.S. and cut five albums. “I went on to record songs with all kinds of artistes as a studio musician, mostly recording at Iman Shah’s BMI Studios, but I also worked in countless other studios. I arranged many albums and started out by playing metal, rock and blues. Besides recording and touring, I was also engaged in hotel and casino gigs especially at Casino Anna where a lot of bands have played,” says Hari.
Maharjan also ran his private guitar institute at his house. In order to teach others, he took the trouble of learning how to read music so that he could teach them through notations. When Nepal Music Center (NMC) was established in Pingalasthan, some of Nepal’s top musicians were roped in to run the institute. After his predecessors, Kishor Gurung and his brother quit, Hari was brought in to teach there, which he did for eight years.
Hari then joined a band in Switzerland with French musicians playing gypsy jazz as well as fusion music. We’ve played in Switzerland, France, The Netherlands and also in Kolkata, India. Every year he has been spending six months abroad playing music with them. “We even released an album with a female singer and played many festivals,” informs Hari. In 2006, he formed his own band called Hari Maharjan Project to play gypsy jazz, which has become quite popular and people began suggesting they record an album. When Music Nepal approached them to record one, they brought out “Kalakarni” in 2008.
Maharjan’s recent engagements have been with Project One which has brought some of the top rock musicians together including Robin Tamang and Mukti Shakya, to record songs and to tour around the country. A few years ago, he also joined Robin & the New Revolution as a regular member and has been recording and touring with them. “At the same time, I’ve been playing with Karma Band as well and have also started recording with an Indian artiste named Arko Mukherjee who sings Nepali songs. We’ve done two live recordings so far,” reveals Maharjan. Two singles will be released followed by an album. In the mean time, Robin & The New Revolution have also released their latest album “Muglan” with Hari on guitar. Talking about his solo projects he says, “I will be releasing a solo album on CD and online. It is already available online in Holland.”
Playing music keeps Hari busy, but he has found time to establish his own pub for playing gypsy jazz. In collaboration with three other musicians, he has formed the first Hot Club which is typically a gypsy jazz hangout. His partners are also gypsy jazz guitarists and they perform together from time to time. Located on the top floor of a boutique hotel still under construction in Saugal, Patan, they expect to officially open the pub to the public by February 2020. Over a hot cup of coffee, the humble guitarist revealed his plans to promote not only gypsy jazz but also musicians playing different genres of music at their place. Having made a name for himself as a guitarist, his next mission is to promote music in general and provide a platform for others to showcase their talent. Hari Maharjan at the moment has his hands full!
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