2019 OneBeat Fellow Jason Kunwar on creating a space for Nepalese musicians in the midst of a pandemic

Found Sound Nation’s Nyokabi Kariuki talks to the second round recipients of OneBeat’s Accelerator Grant

Jason Kunwar, OneBeat 2019 | Photo by Alexia Webster

Jason Kunwar, OneBeat’s first ever Nepalese Fellow, is a composer and multi-instrumentalist whose community work centers on preserving and highlighting Nepalese musical traditions. As an awardee of OneBeat’s Accelerator Grant, he put together the second edition of Confluence, a program for musicians of diverse backgrounds in Nepal to engage in a virtual creative collaboration, with a focus on how they can create and work amid a crisis.

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Nyokabi: Who is Jason Kunwar?

Jason: I am a Kathmandu-based composer and performer. I’m a member of the folk band ‘Night’, and I have, on a part-time basis, devoted myself to solo projects. My primary interest and work revolves around learning and researching the distinct and disappearing traditional musical practices, instruments and folklore of Nepal. I make music about the challenges of village life as farmers and herders, about laborers and migrant workers and their struggle to make ends meet against incredible odds, about the relentless floods, the Government indifference and unjustifiable domination imposed by the people in power.

Nyokabi: Do you remember the moment you realised you wanted to pursue music-making as a career?

Jason: I don’t exactly remember the moment I wanted to pursue music and since I don’t earn enough from music to keep my head above the water, I often ask myself if this qualifies as a career, but, yes — I have spent a lot of time composing, practicing and performing. I chose to do music as it has been an outlet for my emotion. Sometimes it’s an escape from the world and at times a statement or questions and most times finding a rationale and reason for my own life and connecting and relating with life around me. I think for these reasons I engage myself with music.

Nyokabi: I can hear this idea of music being your emotional outlet when I listen to you sing and play sarangi on “Chha Gham”, which you wrote and recorded with fellow OneBeat alumna Bailak Mongush during the OneBeat program.

What are some other musical projects you were involved in that you look back on fondly?

Jason: ‘Orchid’, created in collaboration with several other OneBeat alumni (Jax Ravel, free feral, Ivy Alexander and Fanni Zahár) is one of my favourites. Musically speaking, our collaboration resulted in a song that is innovative and fresh, which I always seek as an artist. Collaborating with someone who is just as enthusiastic about the idea as you are, is a much more fun and enjoyable process in music-making.

Nyokabi: That’s true. And in addition to composing and performing, you give back to the musical community in your country in various ways. Can you talk a little bit about the work that you’ve done with regards to preserving musical traditions from your country, such as with the ‘Know Your Instrument’ initiative? Why do you believe in that cause?

Jason: I started exploring traditional music culture, wishing to come up with new and innovative musical ideas. To my disappointment, the resources for learning traditional music were scarce. I then decided to travel to remote places of Nepal to learn and experience it first-hand. Being in those places helped me understand the social and cultural context of traditional and folk music. I learned that many musical forms, songs, instruments are disappearing. As I was fortunate to meet the older generation of musicians and instrument makers, I decided to make mini-documentaries, including “The Forgotten Tharu Instruments”, highlighting the master musicians, culture bearers and the skill they possess.

I believe the survival of traditional music depends upon the young generation of musicians. We have little or limited access to our music heritage. So through programs and workshops, and projects like ‘Know Your Instrument’, we try to encourage people to know more about our musical tradition. At the end of the day, it’s an individual choice and preference. All we are trying to do through our effort is, expose the young generation to a broad spectrum of musical possibilities so they are empowered to choose their own musical paths.

“The survival of traditional music depends upon the young generation of musicians.”

Nyokabi: Confluence, recently awarded the OneBeat Accelerator Grant, also aims at keeping the spirits of Nepalese musicians alive. Can you tell us about what Confluence is, where the name came from, and what pushed you to run this program — now for the second time — in the midst of a global pandemic?

Jason: Prior to the pandemic, I had conducted several workshops, but during the period of lockdown, I got some space to reflect upon the difficulties and struggles that artists might be facing in this time. This led me to the idea of organising a virtual meeting place focusing on artists amidst the crisis. Confluence is designed to encourage artists on how they can create, work, and connect with audiences from complete isolation, and how musicians can deal with the conditions of collective isolation. Keeping the concept in mind, the program was initially given a Nepali name “Dobhaan”, which when translated to English means ‘confluence’: the meeting point of two different rivers.

Nyokabi: The symbolism of the name fits perfectly with your goal to creating a space for musicians coming from different backgrounds. However, as someone who has attended virtual classes during the pandemic, I know how demotivating online experiences can be. How did you design Confluence to be a program that can still allow attendees to have a meaningful experience even though it takes place virtually?

Jason: The first virtual meeting was fun, insightful, and exciting. Our main goal and communication never centered around collaborating and coming up with new creations but to understand each other artistically and beyond, so we did not just talk about music or collaboration and work, but about our life in general. I felt this helped us to be at ease and express ourselves freely. The approach of freedom to develop without expectations of outcome propelled the whole team to come up with new work with comfort and confidence. Our theme and approach towards the second edition are no different. I hope that the upcoming edition holds the same emotional and artistic value.

Jason’s band ‘Night’ perform at Radio Asia Festival in Warsaw, Poland | Photo by Bartek Muracki

“Our main goal and communication never centered around collaborating and coming up with new creations, but to understand each other artistically and beyond.”

Nyokabi: In musical spaces where people are often from diverse backgrounds, I notice that people are quick to praise music as “the universal language” as a way to unite everyone in the room. But what is often left out of the discussion is the reality that artists coming from underserved communities simply don’t have access to the same opportunities that others do. However, you want to tackle this part of the conversation in the workshop. Why?

Jason: Artists coming from underserved or disenfranchised communities in a country like Nepal could refer to artists who have no access to wifi, let alone computers and proper recording facilities and space, so conducting virtual programs involving such artists is almost impossible. Musicians in rural Nepal are deprived of such opportunities and platforms. The traditional music practitioners are often from low-income communities and do not have the means to support their art. Since many of the rural artists believe that their traditional musical practices are critical and relevant for the survival of their culture, we aim to have discussions on how to get their voices heard and support them in their cause. We would talk about the methods that can be devised to collect information on local instruments, songs, repertoire, instrument makers and elder artists.

The second phase of the plan is to facilitate the creation of spaces where elders and youth can be together to teach and learn traditional music. Therefore, with the help of the networks I’d developed through my past field visits and friends I made during my music research, I’ve reached out to young artists in rural parts as they are well equipped with technological literacy. In this second edition of Confluence, we have a young motivated group of socially aware artists who are committed to positive change in the community through their words and action. We hope to collectively understand and explore the courses of action to be taken to empower rural artists.

Nyokabi: What stands out to me about your response is that at Confluence, you are seeking to discuss tangible ways of supporting musicians from rural, underserved areas. You’re also employing a ‘Training of Trainers’ model for this second edition. What does that do?

Jason: I wish to share the experiences and learnings I have gained through community engagements, social change efforts, and participation in other music revitalization workshops. The ‘Training of Trainers’ (ToT) model aims to empower and motivate participants of Confluence to share their experiences with the wider population. We train those who are interested in independently conducting similar programs in their own localities and communities.

Photo by Bishwo Harsha Bajracharya

Nyokabi: One of the core parts of Confluence is that the artists in the program will collaborate with each other to create new pieces. Did OneBeat, where you went through a program similarly centered around collaborating with socially-engaged musicians from all over the world, influence your approach to Confluence in any way?

Jason: I think collaboration in music is not that much of an uncommon practice. Having said that, I am hugely inspired, influenced and motivated by OneBeat. I was exposed to methods and innovative programs conducted by facilitators and mentors that brought the best out of the individuals and ensemble. I have taken a keen interest in applying some of those methods in this program. For instance, I got a chance to meet and learn about the Critical Response Process (CRP) from Liz Lerman. CRP is a four-step facilitated dialogue between artists, peers and audiences aimed to nurture one’s creative work. I found this process extremely useful in taking and giving critique to create a better and stronger work of art.

Jason performs with 2019 OneBeat Fellows Dylan Mckinstry & Fani Zahár.

Nyokabi: Any other highlights or memorable takeaways from OneBeat?

Jason: Having (stupidly) spent years in the hustle and grind mode, the cumulative stress ultimately took its toll on my mind and body and thus I was contemplating taking a break and even giving up the music altogether before coming to the US for OneBeat. I was not the best version of myself throughout the program. However, the easy-going attitude and positive outlook of all the fellow musicians and facilitators seeped into me and made it easy for me to focus, feel motivated and connected. Now, looking back I feel grateful for the honor of having spent time together and working with brilliant, compassionate musicians and the OneBeat team. My admiration, gratification and appreciation towards the program had grown even further. The program has given me a renewed sense of purpose and motivation not just musically but also on a personal level. This feeling will stay with me for a long time to come.

Nyokabi: When I hear about the effect OneBeat had on you, I also think of the reviews on Confluence’s website, where previous participants also express how meaningful that experience was to them. Why do you think that these kinds of collaborative art spaces, from Confluence to OneBeat, have such a big impact on the musicians who get the chance to be a part of them?

Photo by Bishwo Harsha Bajracharya

Jason: Artists strive for a community that understands their ideas and their work. These programs bring together like-minded artists from varied social, economic and cultural backgrounds in a single platform where they can discuss their ideas, communicate about their music. They are a huge opportunity to develop a wide cross-disciplinary collaboration between musicians, song-writers, engineers, music producers, and visual artists.

“Artists strive for a community that understands their ideas and their work.”

Apart from expanding creative and professional networks, these spaces can provide moral support that encourages and uplifts artists. Initiatives like OneBeat have a big effect on artists as it creates opportunities for them to connect with a wide array of audiences and music lovers and fosters the growth of a strong music community.

Nyokabi: After the two weeks of workshops and discussions, Confluence participants will showcase the music they wrote together at a final concert. When and where can we watch?

Jason: The collaboration will be made available on the Confluence YouTube channel. As we are in different locations, we are still figuring out ways to go live together from different spaces, but the final collaboration will be shared on the 18th of December. Thank you for the interview and for giving me the space to talk about Confluence!

OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in collaboration with the groundbreaking New York-based music organization Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation that employs collaborative original music as a potent new form of cultural diplomacy.

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Found Sound Nation

Found Sound Nation

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Found Sound Nation is a collective that designs collaborative music projects. www.foundsoundnation.org