A rock band from a small town leaves home in search of opportunities in the big city. Fate has a lot in store for some of them. Navin Chettri is about to find doors opening into a whole new world.
Fate plays a vital role in most people’s lives before they find their true calling. It is also fate that brings many people to Kathmandu, which has been the springboard for the careers of countless people since the 1950s. The Capital city offers opportunities that are denied those living in small towns and villages. On the other hand small neighborhoods are the breeding grounds for talented youth where they find inspiration in the simple surroundings and the abundance of spare time they are afforded.
Navin Chettri grew up with three siblings in the small hill station of Darjeeling and his early inspiration came from his father R.D. Chettri, who played the tabla. His brother too was into classical music so a family band was inevitable; they played bhajans which are classical based. “One day when I was in Grade 5, my Dad came home with a bearded old man who turned out to be Ustad Fakira. He owned a shoe shop nearby but on the upper floor he taught his students how to play the tabla. Originally from Lucknow, he held classes on Saturdays and my Dad would wake me at 5 am to attend his classes,” recalls Navin. His interest in music became so overwhelming that he began to neglect his studies which alarmed his father no end. His tabla lessons came to an abrupt end. “Studies are more important,” said his father as all fathers believed back in the day.
But it wasn’t always cut out that Navin would take up music as he was also into visual arts. “While in Grade 4, a Bengali landscape artist taught me how to paint and my interest in art grew. So Art was one of the six subjects that I took up in senior high school. But eventually it was music that took precedence as I formed a band called Cadenza with like-minded friends,” says Navin. As fate would have it, their bassist Arun had an uncle named Mahendra Lama who was Prism’s bassist since 1979, and playing music at Hotel Soaltee. Mahendra also acted as a part time manager, hiring bands for hotel gigs. Although his band members were skeptical when Arun told them that his uncle was arranging a gig for them in Kathmandu for Christmas, he later very proudly displayed the contract that he’d just received. This was way beyond their dreams. Although they had won a music contest at the Kharagpur Spring Fest, India, getting a contract to play in Kathmandu was a big deal for the young boys still in school.
So it was during their winter holidays in 1993, that the rock band Cadenza arrived in the valley with no amplifiers, nor a drum kit and just guitars slung over their shoulders. Lama arranged some Stranger amps for the lads and they played a Christmas gig at Hotel Himalaya. In the meantime, Uncle Mahendra had told them the amazing story of how we as Prism had landed a lucrative contract at Casino Royale (which prompted the band to leave Hotel Soaltee after 15 years) playing one and a half hours, just three times a week for Rs 80,000. For starry-eyed small town boys this was unbelievable. But they began to dream. With their gig over, in the wee hours of 25th December, after downing copious amounts of alcohol, the band discussed calling Mrs. Tuttle who ran the discotheque in the casino, where the bands were hired to play dance music. Navin remembers, “Taking a chance I picked up the phone and called and got through. After telling Mrs. Tuttle how we had come from Darjeeling and were looking for a contract, she replied ‘Call me after New Year’s Eve!’” They were ecstatic just to hear that. The band had a New Year gig at Hotel Everest and after the gig, the same scene was repeated. Around 2 am just into 1994, an inebriated Navin picked up the phone at Hotel White Palace where they were staying. Mrs Tuttle immediately invited them for an audition at Casino Royale the following day. “We were dazed and stared at each other. We couldn’t believe this was happening,” recalls Chettri.
On that fateful day, Cadenza eagerly waited for Mrs Tuttle to arrive at 2 pm but even an hour later there was no sign of her. Just then Mahendra arrived and they also saw a shiny, black car driving out. The window rolled down, a young, pretty face looked out and Mahendra was overheard saying, “Hello Mam!” They knew it had to be her. Then she noticed the boys and remembered. Cadenza consequently got their audition and was asked, “When can you start?” Navin told her, “We have to get permission from home.” She then said, “I’ll give you a week.” A week later the boys were ready to sign their first professional contract and start playing at Casino Royale. Their wildest dream had come true.
The first time I laid eyes on Cadenza was when they joined us at the Casino where we were already playing three times a week. Yogesh Lama played lead guitar, Navin was the lead vocalist and played rhythm guitar, not drums. Arun Lama as mentioned before was on bass and Harish Sewa played drums. They played everything from Lenny Kravitz to Bob Marley. We sometimes covered for each other by playing two slots, if one of us had an outside gig. There were always two bands playing at the discotheque with the DJ taking the slot in between. Just as Prism had got a break with the Soaltee contract, these boys had their break at Royale. The band had punch and they played with a lot of passion; it’s passion that separates real musicians from wanna-be musicians.
After playing for a year at the Royale, the contract was over with the sudden closing of the disco. Seeing no future ahead of them, Arun and Harish decided to return home while Yogesh and Navin were bent on staying behind and facing the challenge of eking out a living playing music. They knew the two of them alone couldn’t possibly get a gig, so Navin decided to take a chance with his father. He called home to tell him he was staying in Kathmandu. The old man was quite cool about the affair and asked, “How can I help?” Navin hesitantly replied, “I need Pravin to join the band!” Back came the reply, “I’ll talk to him.” And that’s how Pravin arrived in Kathmandu and the two brothers along with Yogesh became a Trio. But first they had to solve the problem of not having a drummer which was a tricky situation. Pravin was on bass , Yogesh on lead guitar and Navin still on rhythm guitar. One day during their regular practice, somebody asked Navin, “Why don’t you play drums!” and the other one piped in, “Yeah, why don’t you try playing drums.” And that is how Navin became a drummer. A new journey was just beginning which would take him places. Was it fate? (to be continued…)
A Hampton Scholar, Navin Chettri received his undergraduate and Master’s degree in percussion performance and composition from the Lionel Hampton School of Music, University of Idaho.