Prem Raja Mahat

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November 30, 2003

In America, Prem Raja Mahat manages an Indian restaurant in Baltimore, Md. But in his home country of Nepal, Prem Raja is one of the most popular singers. Think of him as Bob Dylan of Katmandu... or Elvis of the Himalayas. NPR's Steve Inskeep reports.


Musical fringe dwellers these days spend a lot of time indulging in armchair ethnomusicology thanks to recent waves of recordings that have rippled through music reissue bins: Afrobeat, 1970s African funk, the Ethiopiques and Rough Guides series, Brazilian baile funk, the various Sublime Frequencies label compilations. It all sounds grand, but how many times are these thing basically mix CDs you call by their names—“Put in that Nigeria 70 CD”—and know next to nothing about the artists contained therein?

Baltimore is actually home to one of the biggest Nepali musicians in the world, an artist whose work could easily fit alongside any of the northern Indian folk collections in local specialty shops. Prem Raja Mahat—”prem” means “love” in Nepalese—moved to Baltimore in 1997 and currently lives with his wife and family in Towson, but in Nepal (and to Nepalese speakers the world over) he is an immeasurably popular folk artist with a 51-album discography. Mahat’s music sounds gentle and pastoral, with that lilting pace and cascades of high notes reminiscent of Chinese folk music, over which Mahat sings long lyrical lines. And he performs that music May 6 at the Ottobar, alongside some of his musical countrypeople in drummer Raj Kapoor, pop singer Mister Sunil Upreti, actress and dancer Saranga Shrestha, TV anchor and emcee Mister Ravi Lamichhane, Ravindra Adhikari, and folk singer Shyam Gurung. It’s Mahat’s first local rock club performance ever, and City Paper sat down with him briefly at Mughal Garden, the Mount Vernon restaurant he manages to ask him about his music.

City Paper: How did this upcoming concert come about?
Prem Raja Mahat: Someone, somewhere said, “We like to do something with you. Would you like to do this?” And I said, “Oh, yes.” I’m a singer and I’ve performed for Americans. Music? Everybody can understand music. Sometimes singing different languages makes it difficult, but the feeling you can understand.

I’m very curious to know how it will go. I did one time a big show for English people in London and in 1997 I did a very good concert in Pennsylvania, and they enjoyed it. Lots of people—there were mostly not Nepali, mostly English-speaking shows. So this is only my third concert—I’ve played, many, many concerts—but this is only my third for mostly American people. I have concerts and other people come—some Mexicans, some Indian, and some Americans, but mostly Nepali. But this time, I’m thinking it’s going to be mostly American.

CP: Do you stay pretty busy performing elsewhere around the States?
PRM: I have interviews now everywhere. I just did a big concert in Texas, in Houston. And that was last week, and last Sunday I had a big show in Washington, D.C.

CP: So is your music basically Nepalese folk music, or have you taken that form and made something more like Nepalese pop music?
PRM: Yes, I do the folk music. But in my country, I like to sing folk music and folk is like pop. Even in American, many people like folk music. In my country, many people understand folk music and folk songs and folk language. Everybody gets that.

CP: Is it a folk music with traditional songs and instruments, the sort of thing that if people get together it’s what they’re playing or listening to?

PRM: Yes, yes, yes. Folk-music songs deal with the whole culture of a country and its language. American folk music, it tells about your language, your family environment, your culture. All folk music has that kind of quality.

The interesting thing is when I came here I loved the songs of John Denver. And I tried to call his home in Denver. I couldn’t talk to him, I talked to his secretary—I don’t know, but I wanted to meet him. But “Country Roads,” when I heard that music—you know Shenandoah River? I went over there and saw why he did that kind of song. I saw the natural thing, the hillside, mountainside. “Misty taste of moonshine.” You know moonshine? When I heard that I just wanted to understand. And that’s the kind of sentiment that folk music can do.

CP: Has being here influenced your music at all?
PRM: Yes. Musicians can go anywhere in the world. My thinking comes from the Himalayas. Mountains, hillside, rivers. My mind goes over there when I write music. So wherever I go, I like to stay there with my music. My music comes from there. I’m here but I’m thinking about my country. In my mind, my Himalayas, my lake, my river, all the time that’s in my mind. And my music, my folk music, I’m very proud of my country. I came here for good opportunity, but my music—I’ve traveled to more than 40 countries in the world—I bring that with me wherever I go. I am doing here but I am thinking there. Now, though, I have some music pieces in English. Now I am making some music so my American friends can understand some of it.

CP: How and when did you first start playing music? Is it something you learned growing up?
PRM: Oh, yes. I really started when I was 7 years old. And when I grew, I started singing and performing when I was 16 years on state radio in Nepal, sometimes India, sometimes BBC.

CP: When did you record your first record?
PRM: My song was recorded for the radio 24 years ago.

CP: So why did you come to the United States and what made you choose Baltimore of all places?
PRM: I like to travel all over the country, all over the world. I used to do performances in Europe before I come here. And when I used to come here, I’d come to Texas. And one lady from Baltimore [Barbara Apolonio] saw me and really liked me and said, “Come stay in my house.” She ran a store in Fells Point, the name is Karmic Connection. She’s a Buddhist. And she had a Buddhist center friend in Nepal, and she had been to my house in Nepal and she invited me here. And I came here, to Baltimore. And I saw many places, and I liked it.

But I was busy in my country, I had to work. But I thought about it. And I talked to people who told me that I could move and bring my family, and they can go to schools and get a good education. So I said, “Let us try.” And we came here. Now, I am Baltimorean, I am real Baltimorean. I went down to Washington, D.C., and you can see everybody from around the world there. But I like Baltimore, this is a good place to be. You can go to New York, go to Washington, D.C., you can fly anywhere in the world, and I love being seaside—and it’s seaside in the city! I’m from Nepal, it’s all mountains.

CP: That is pretty cool. I’m from Dallas and we definitely don’t get waterfronts there.
PRM: Really? I was in Dallas last week. And I said how I liked country music and country people. And I asked these people, “I’d like to see Texas cowboy and Texas music.” And they took me. You know the stockyards?

CP: The Fort Worth Stockyards?
PRM: Yes. It’s so nice. I spent the whole morning to night, looking at Texas cowboys, cow city, ride the bull, you know. Rodeo things. Everybody drinking and eating. I started to invite many country men here. So maybe they come to Baltimore and I take them out. I like to make Baltimore my city. I like to say I’m a Baltimorean.

CP: Did you ride the bull?
PRM: No, no, no. Not really.