The late 1970s was a bleak period for rocks musicians in the valley when a new band was formed disregarding the lack of a condusive atmosphere for playing rock music. But Prism was destined to revive live rock and went on to spawn countless bands that followed in their footsteps.
Fate plays a big part in the lives of most people and it has an even bigger role to play when it comes to formation of bands. It all started for Prism when renowned guitarist Pemba Lepcha (from the famous band Diamonds who had earned fame playing at the popular Trincas in Calcutta) invited Dinesh Rai and Prolad Roka for dinner at his residence in Kalikesthan. Dinesh Rai had represented St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta in the solo western vocal category while Roka was his singing partner from his earlier days. Pemba’s neighbor George Subba, a co-worker of his and a fellow musician (ex-member of Mascots) was also invited and arrived with his prized Yamaha acoustic guitar. As usually takes place when musicians get together, when dinner was over, Dinesh and Roka sang duets they used to sing together in their earlier days, when Pemba suddenly announced, “Let’s form a band!” This came as a real surprise to the other three as nobody else had even thought about it. But all were quickly in agreement as the idea was highly appealing. Thus was born the legendary band that went on to rock the valley to everyone’s delight.
To go back to fate and the role it played in the formation of Prism, all four future members had found their way to Hotel Yak & Yeti. Roka would often go there to meet an old friend and co-worker Vijaya Malla (she was later to marry the icon of Nepali cinema, Bhuvan K.C.) who was stationed at the Yeti Travels counter at the hotel. Roka who had recently joined the same travel agency would ask Dinesh to meet him there. Over tea the three would chat and call Pemba and George on the phone since both were working in the same hotel. Moreover, Dinesh had been sent by Govind Sharaf of Calcutta with a letter of introduction to Radheshyam Sharaf, the owner of the hotel. The hotel had accordingly put him up for three days asking him to sing with the house band named Brotherhood for all three days. Eventually a singing contract had been offered which Dinesh turned down as singing solo in the Chimney Bar did not sound appealing. Hence everything seemed to lead to the Yak & Yeti which eventually led to the birth of Prism.
The late 70s in Kathmandu
Before we delve further into the history of the band, it is important to briefly describe the scenario in which the band was formed. It was the late 70s and after the closure of Park Restaurant in Ratna Park (Park was where all the musicians in town gathered to play music until it eventually shut down) there was no live rock music to be found in the valley besides Hotel Soaltee Oberoi where only foreign bands (at the time “Desmond & the Clan” from Sri Lanka were the house band while the great Louis Banks had done a stint with his band in the 60s) were hired and the clientele was limited to tourists and the upper class of Kathmandu. There was Brotherhood playing at the Yak & Yeti but they were mostly focused on playing jazz. Of course there was no lack of interest in music; the 60s and 70s had produced the most talented musicians in the world stage and they left behind a catalogue of creative works of a quality that is not likely to be surpassed. So the Nepali youth listened to a great deal of western music especially rock. Nepali rock was yet to be born and all one could listen to was folk or adhunik songs in the form of Nepali music, which did not excite the youth. The late 1970s was all about Love, Peace and Happiness and people really believed in it. The Flower Generation dominated the scenario in Kathmandu and young Kathmanduites were influenced by them; some even became freaks. Smoking pot and listening to music played a big part in the lives of young people. With a small population, life in Kathmandu was blissful and the climate beautiful. TV had not arrived in Nepal, cassettes were imported from Bangkok, jeans were hard to find, there was only one English daily ‘The Rising Nepal’ and only one radio station, ‘Radio Nepal’ which had the only recording studio in Nepal. Freak Street where the hippies hung around always had stereos blasting western music (Thamel was still developing and beginning to draw crowds but Freak Street was the place to be for its liveliness.) Stereo sets had just gotten bigger and people were competing with neighbors by setting the volume as high as possible on their Sony sets. Back then most electronic goods came from Japan and were of superb quality. But the music scene was something to moan about. Most rock musicians like some members of The Hillocks, future members of Prism, Pemba and George had nowhere to play music and had taken up regular jobs in hotels and travel agencies while some like Prism’s future drummer Dev Rana had left for India. The prospects for rock bands playing live in Kathmandu was quite depressing in the late 70s.
In the Beginning
The early days for Prism were not all rosy as George’s Yamaha was the only musical instrument the band could call its own. Practice began in Roka’s Samakhusi flat with Dinesh on lead vocal and Roka singing in harmony; Pemba played the acoustic guitar and George banged a table with two rolled up comic books. The band was only just getting together when another resident of Samakhusi, Lok Deep Thapa (later became editor at Rising Nepal) began talking of a concert featuring the band. The resourceful Pemba quickly made arrangements with Shailendra Shrestha of Bhimsenthan for the newly formed band to practice with his full set of instruments: electric guitar, electric bass and drum set. Shailendra who played lead guitar also had his own band called Freedom with Mukunda (Mike) Khadka (now with Classic FM) on vocal, so Prism had to wait until Freedom went through their list of practice songs. This was a real blessing for the new band and practice began in a serious manner at 3 pm every afternoon when Pemba and George came out of their morning shift at the hotel, while Roka took time off from Yeti Travels. The band would meet at a small restaurant named Soaltee at Bhimsenthan before moving on for practice which was like a sign of where they were headed.
When the first concert was held at the City Hall, Prism’s repertoire of songs by The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Eagles, The Who, Chuck Berry and others proved to be a recipe for success as the crowds went wild at the two packed shows held on consecutive days. Along with Prism other performers were The Hillocks, Brotherhood, Em Ages from St Xavier’s School and Freedom. Uday Thakur appeared as a guest artist with Brotherhood dressed in a black leather suit singing songs by Elvis Presley. The Hillocks comprised of Tarek Man Singh on vocal backed by Bhanu Tandukar and Gautam Tamrakar on rhythm and lead guitar. Brotherhood was a band formed by Ambar Gurung’s sons Kishor and Raju Gurung. Kishor was on lead guitar (he would later give up rock music for a scholarship in Classical guitar) and Raju on drums. ‘Em Ages had Jay Man Singh on vocal and guitar. The concert was a resounding success and live rock music had been revived. Soon rock concerts became one of the major forms of entertainment for young Kathmanduites and they were hungry for more.
Prism at the Soaltee
Finding immediate success, Prism began a monthly gig at the prestigious International Club in Rabi Bhawan where the elite of Kathmandu mingled with the diplomatic expatriate community. With no equipment of their own, Prism took along Shailendra and his equipment to the gigs. These were no ordinary engagements as the dancing would continue with full fervor until 4 am forcing the band to repeat half the songs, but by then no one could remember what had gone down earlier in the evening. By the time the band were dropped off home a new day would be dawning. It wasn’t long before Prism was invited for an audition to Hotel Soaltee Oberoi. In charge of recruiting the band was armyman Roj Kapoor who played keyboards. A gig at a five star hotel would require the band to play soft instrumentals besides the rock songs when requested. Prism had just one morning to add jazz tunes to their repertoire as Roj Kapoor took them to his military base in the Singha Durbar for a last minute practice and crash course. The boys were surprised to find that the army had electric guitars and Laney 100 Watt amplifiers in their music room. At Soaltee a Dutch Manager, Mr Staats auditioned the band hearing them play everything from “Autumn Leaves” to country and rock songs. Probably on the strength of the songs rather than the messy jazz instrumentals, a two-month contract was signed and the band began to play at the Gurkha Grill restaurant.
Mr Staats soon became fond of the new band and after two months of the off season, informed the Lanka Rubies from Sri Lanka who had been on a break from playing as house band, that their visas could not be procured and so Prism became the house band signing a new contract with Soaltee. This time it was a year-long contract rather than a two month one and they played five hours a day, six days a week. The constant playing gave the band a tight sound. The earnings were good and far better than what one earned at a 9 to 5 job and so were the ala carte meals they enjoyed for dinner. It was a lucky break and the four musicians were now doing what they loved doing and earning plenty of money too. Tourism was thriving and the hotel hosted large groups of tourists mostly through Yeti Travels. Playing at the Soaltee was a learning experience; the Europeans loved to dance: fox trot, cha cha cha, samba, tango etc were much in demand and the band had to learn them all. However, the evenings would often end in loud rock music ignoring the complaints from guests who wanted to sleep as playing hours were from 7:30 pm to 12:30 am. The band would remain as the house band for another fifteen years going through multiple personnel changes but Dev Rana, Mahendra Lama and Roj Kapoor would last until 1994 when a more lucrative contract at the Casino Royale would lure them away and also bring back old members Deepak Thapa and Dinesh Rai.
Prism as an institution
As usually happens among local bands, Roka was the first to leave the group for hotel management training at Oberoi Delhi. He was to later return as manager to Soaltee. Mahendra Lama was called all the way from Darjeeling to take his place on bass and he would spend the next fifteen years at the hotel. Soon it was George who was leaving and Pemba brought in Dev (Dave) Rana on drums (Dev and Pemba had earlier played together at Park Restaurant.) who also spent fifteen years playing at the Gurkha Grill. After fronting the band for half a decade, it was Dinesh who left and was replaced by Deepak Thapa, a talented guitarist rather than a vocalist which prompted Soaltee to hire American singer Kate on vocal. With his father in the British army Deepak had recently arrived from Hong Kong and had studied music there. Kate was succeeded by Pui from India’s north east and Gita Gurung at one time became Prism’s crooner. Next to go was Pemba who was replaced by Tilak Magar on guitar. By the late 80s, Mahendra had improved his vocal abilities sufficiently to become lead vocalist. In the mean time Jyoti Ghimire (formally of Grand Slam and Blind Faith) had joined the band as guitarist and Deepak had left. For concerts Prism often borrowed musicians. It all started when Dinesh’s singing partner Roka left the band and Subarna Limbu of Brotherhood (replaced Krishna Gurung on bass) was asked to fill in the void for some of the songs especially duets while Mahendra stepped in for the rest of the songs. Subarna went on to play at concerts with Prism for many years earning recognition as a member of the band although he continued his daily gigs at the Yak & Yeti while Prism was at Soaltee. The next person who did a stint as vocalist was Sunil Upreti and there were other new comers like Tulsi on sax. As Prism went through further changes Ajay Lama came in on guitar. Prism had become an institution. There were many musicians who stood in as substitutes when one of the members reported sick and these recruits enjoyed a paid five-hour lesson every day. Some of these substitutes claim to be ex-members of the band and who can blame them?
A whole generation of musicians grew up listening to Prism at one time or the other at various concert venues and was inspired to take up after them. Singers like Raju Lama and Sanjeev Singh would come up to members of the band to declare their admiration and talk of how they were inspired. Pemba and Dev would go on to personally teach aspiring musicians to play guitar and drums respectively. Prism’s practice sessions were often crowded with fans and colleagues who sat through the long hours. After Prism’s success, many rock bands were formed and the valley rocked along with them. Over the years Prism has been performing with an ever changing lineups leading to confusion and controversy, but the band carries on in one form or another thirty-seven years after it was formed.
I remember clearly we used to go to George’s house as he was the only one who had a tape recorder. Once we selected a song to learn, I would rewind the tape again and again to write down the words. We used to figure out the chords and pass the tape on to Pemba who would then pick up the lead fills and solos and the songs would sound perfect. I was made the cashier of the group and refused to disperse the money set aside for buying equipment. With the savings we slowly started buying guitars (the first of which was Hofner electric for Pemba), amplifiers and speakers. I remember buying one old, large speaker from Ranjana Cinema Hall. English music was frowned upon by the authorities and banned from places like the Royal Nepal Academy.