There are many things to love about Kathmandu. Its history, for one. Though the capital of Nepal only officially came into being in the 18th century, its roots can be traced back 2,000 years. The weight of the years hangs in the air, almost as thick as the dust kicked up by the heavy traffic that jams its streets.
And there are its inhabitants. The people of Nepal are uniformly friendly and welcoming, an approach that permeates the whole of the country. Compared to its bigger neighbours – chaotically crazed India to the south and stern, stentorian China to the north – it’s laidback and relaxed. You can see why hippies have been flocking to this country since the late 60s.
But there are a tiny handful of things not to love about the city, too. Chief among these are the police. The local enforcement officers have a reputation for being impatient, brutal and quick to crack down on rebellion, real and imagined, meting out justice with the big wooden sticks they carry. If you’re a white westerner, you’re unlikely to experience this side of things. It’s a different matter if you’re a local metal fan or musician.
“I’ve seen kids being beaten up just for being at a metal show,” says Avishek K.C., singer with Underside, who can lay genuine claim to being Nepal’s biggest rock band. “A few years ago, if you were walking down the street with long hair, they’d take you to a barber and shave your head: ‘We are going to clean the streets by cutting people’s hair.’”
Things have quietened down a little since then, but it’s still a tricky line to walk – especially for Underside. Since 2010, the band’s guitarist, Bikrant Shrestha, has been the prime mover behind the Silence Festival, Nepal’s sole metal festival. Each year, the authorities make him jump through hoops to get the necessary permits. Luckily for the festival, and for his country’s metal scene, Bikrant is persistent. “I’ve kind of got used to it,” he says. “I know how to work with them. You have to smile a lot and just go with it.”
But heavy-handed cops aren’t the greatest existential threat the Silence Festival has faced. That came in 2015, when Nepal was devastated by a massive earthquake that killed more than 9,000 people and caused more than $10 billion damage across the country. For the next two years, the festival was put on ice while the country struggled to recover. This year’s event is the first since that terrible tragedy. This is a festival literally rebuilding itself from the rubble.
Bikrant Shrestha is the classic local boy made good. An elegant, courteous, hyper-friendly 30-something in an embroidered cowboy shirt and expensive-looking boots, he’s every inch the jet-setting rock star. It’s just after noon and we’re sitting between two tents in the festival’s backstage area. Outside, the first few fans are beginning to trickle into the site, set up in the grounds of an exhibition centre in the heart of the city.
Bikrant and his co-organisers have pulled together a great line-up for this sixth edition of the festival. It mixes overseas bands – Australian sludge outfit Chillaum, Swiss melodic death metallers Voice Of Ruin and their avant-garde metal countrymen Enigmatik, plus Aussie post-nu metal lunatics Twelve Foot Ninja – with homegrown grindcore bruisers Nude Terror, extreme metal provocateurs Kaal and self-proclaimed purveyors of ‘Ramailo’ (translation: ‘fun’) death metal Binaash. Then there’s Bikrant and Avishek’s own band, Underside, who could easily headline the festival themselves if the size of the crowd they pull is any measure, but have graciously allowed Voice Of Ruin, Enigmatik and Twelve Foot Ninja to go on after them.
Bikrant was born here in Nepal, but studied hotel management and graphic design in Switzerland. He’s a musician, but he’s a businessman, too: as well as Underside and the Silence Festival, he has his own recording studio and a luxury apartment building. It was his time in Europe that inspired him to set up Silence back in 2010.
“You go to the festival and see all these things happening,” he says. “But there was nothing like that here in Nepal, no heavy metal festivals. I wanted to bring something different, like the things I had experience of.”
What there was was a vibrant metal scene, particularly in Kathmandu and the country’s second city, Pokhara. Bands such as long-running local heroes Cobweb could pull a few hundred people to their club shows. Bikrant himself played in various rock and metal bands, while his future bandmate Avishek had his own group, groove-infused thrashers E.Quals. The latter actually headlined the first Silence festival.
“It was something completely new,” says Avishek, a man whose own rock star charisma is matched by his laidback demeanour. “Maybe 500 or 700 people turned up, but Bikrant had got a proper stage and backline. He took it seriously.”
As well as E.Quals, the inaugural festival line-up showcased an array of Nepalese bands, including Monkey Temple (featuring Bikrant on drums), 72hrs and Binaash. Bikrant called in favours from a couple of outfits he knew from Switzerland, flying over the Motherockers Gang and Enigmatik. The latter have returned for this year’s instalment.
“This is one of the best festivals to play,” says Enigmatik vocalist Ben Plüss. “The crowds are dedicated to metal. Maybe it’s because they’re not spoiled in a way some Western audiences are.”
Between 2011 and 2014, the event steadily grew. They pulled in a range of big-name overseas bands: Vader, Behemoth, Sikth. But then, suddenly, everything stopped in its tracks.
The earthquake that hit Nepal occurred just before noon on April 25, 2015. Its epicentre was roughly 50 miles northwest of Kathmandu. The city suffered some damage, though the greatest impact – and death toll – occurred in rural areas. Almost 9,000 people lost their lives. Over three million people were left homeless.
Bikrant cancelled that year’s festival. “It didn’t feel right to spend money and do the festival after that kind of massive destruction,” he says. “You can’t think about anything other than trying to help.”
He co-founded a charity, No Silence For Nepal, with his friends in Enigmatik. They raised 150,000 Swiss Francs (£114,500), which went towards rebuilding a village in one of the hardest-hit rural regions.
Bikrant considered relaunching the festival the next year, but people didn’t want to pay for the tickets. “It wasn’t even [the equivalent of] $7, but they’d say, ‘Oh, it’s too expensive.’ So I thought, ‘I’m not gonna do it.’ Then I did a Facebook survey asking, ‘How much would you pay? Do you want the festival?’ And people were hungry for it.”
As we talk, a man in an official-looking uniform hovers nearby. He’s from the local police station, and he wants a word with Bikrant. The pair have a discussion in Nepalese then the guitarist comes and sits back down.
“The district police called to tell him we could only have the festival until six o’clock,” he says with exasperation in his voice. “We were told we had permission until 8.30. Every year, it’s the same problem.”
At least the police have calmed down a little in recent years. Back in 2012, Dutch tech-metal band Textures’ headlining set was curtailed mid-song when the cops pulled the plug onstage. Avishek remembers trying to hold off the authorities as they attempted to take control of the sound desk while up onstage Textures had their instruments taken from them mid-song. In the past, kids have been beaten up simply for the crime of moshing.
“There’s a power trip, definitely,” says the singer. “But they’re abused in a way by the system – they don’t earn a lot of money, so they take their frustration out elsewhere. Plus, older people in Nepal don’t really understand metal and they’re probably irritated by the noise.”
Silence seems mercifully free of overt police brutality this year. There are other bureaucratic dramas to contend with, though. Early in the afternoon, Avishek leaves the site to pick up Twelve Foot Ninja from the airport. As Underside’s late afternoon stage time draws closer, he’s still not back. Swiss metallers Voice Of Ruin – old friends of Bikrant’s – agree to swap spots.
Eventually, Avishek returns with Twelve Foot Ninja in tow. There was a serious hold-up at customs. Apparently, immigration officers had caught someone trying to smuggle rare birds out of the country.
“They went into asshole mode,” says Avishek, still looking stressed. “They said Twelve Foot Ninja’s equipment would be in there until Monday, and we could come and get it then.”
That was way too late for the festival. Panicked, Avishek explained his predicament, but the chief customs officer was having none of it. “The guy was screaming, ‘Why do you keep talking to me?’ I pretty much begged him to let us have it. I think he started to feel sorry for me.”
At a Western festival, this would have been a major, if surmountable problem. Here, with Silence effectively flying the flag for the Nepalese metal scene, having no headliner would have been a disaster, with undoubted ramifications going forward. But Avishek’s persistence paid off. The mixture of charm and desperation eventually wore the obstinate official down, and catastrophe was averted.
The growing masses outside remain blissfully unaware of the drama backstage. Inevitably, the majority of the audience members are locals, though the crowd is peppered with Westerners. Most incongruous of all are two 20-something blonde women in flowery jumpsuits. They turn out to be Swedish students, here to study social work.
“We saw a flyer at a club last night,” says one of them, as Binaash’s rumbling noise erupts behind them. “We didn’t know what it would be like.”
And are you enjoying it?
“It’s not the sort of thing we’d normally listen to,” says the other, “but it’s cool it’s happening. There’s not a lot of things like this in Nepal.”
Silence would give any Western festival a run for its money, in terms of presentation and musical quality. The sound is near-perfect, the giant demon wings that envelop the stage light up the area when the sun goes down, and there’s nothing approaching a late-afternoon cider slump from the crowd. The only issue, inevitably, comes from the cops, who insist Twelve Foot Ninja’s set end four songs early. Thankfully, there is no violence, just a kind of resigned frustration on Bikrant’s part. The look on his face says it all: you have to pick your battles carefully.
It’s 48 hours after the festival has finished, and spirits are high. In a local bar, the members of Underside, Voice Of Ruin and the festival organisers are downing beer and knocking back shots of Raksi, a potent local libation that tastes like sake with twice the kick.
They’ve earned tomorrow’s hangovers. For the first time in its history, Silence has made a profit. Not a huge profit – the equivalent of a few thousand US dollars – but a profit nonetheless. Much of this is down to sponsorship deals with Tuborg lager and local vodka brand Ruslan and others, though the 1,500-plus attendance didn’t hurt. Still, profit isn’t the point.
“I don’t do this to make money,” says Bikrant. “Seriously, I just want this thing to happen. We’ve always had to fight to make people here realise this is for real. It seems like they’re finally coming to the realisation it is.”
Does it feel like the authorities are starting to listen to you? He smiles determinedly. “They will.”
The process for putting together Silence VII is a while off yet, but they’re already thinking about who they’d love to headline. Lamb Of God and Cannibal Corpse top their list. “And Slipknot would be mindblowing,” says Avishek.
Next to the giant European festivals, Silence is tiny. But it’s far from being inconsequential. Here in Nepal, where obstacles come in both natural and human form, it’s a triumph over adversity. Hopefully, one day, the bureaucrats and lawmakers will realise that, too.