Amber Gurung’s body before being taken for cremation. By the end of the day, it was so drenched in garlands you could barely see him. Credit: RSS
The composer of the world’s strangest – most joyful – national anthem, Nepal’s, has just died.
Amber Gurung was 78, and had long been in and out of hospital due to complications around diabetes and Parkinson’s, but it’s still taken me as a bit of a shock.
His anthem was a big motivation for me writing my book on these songs. When I first heard it, written on a Casio keyboard, sounding more like the music you’d hear blasting out of a taxi than a stadium, I instantly wanted to know more and travelled to meet him.
Gurung wasn’t just an anthem composer, though. He was the father of Nepali music despite growing up across the border in Darjeeling.
Here’s his first hit – Nau Lakh Tara Udaye (Nine hundred thousand stars have arisen) – about the problems of the Nepali diaspora in India.
It was written in 1961 and deemed so subversive that India instantly banned it from the radio. Nepalis spread it by playing it on hand-wound gramophones and blasting it out over village PA systems.
Another of my favourites is this, since adopted, oddly, as the anthem of the Nepalese army. You can find dozens of rock and dance covers of it online showing how much it’s loved in the country.
When I met him in 2012, he couldn’t have been more welcoming or honest, happily speaking with me about his life, Nepal’s history and the Maoist revolution that led to him being asked to write the anthem, how difficult he found writing that melody (“It’s very easy to make difficult songs, y’know. It’s very difficult to make easy ones”), even how he didn’t really like it.
“This is not great music,” he said. “Anyone could have done it, and any government could have chosen it. But it is a lucky tune. Time has made this song the anthem, not me.”
Amber was cremated at Pashupatinath Temple, the holiest site in Nepal, with full honours – a military salute, a brass flourish or two, hundreds of people looking on.
In many ways, that makes him the most celebrated anthem composer ever. Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, the composer of la Marseillaise, was buried in front of just a handful of friends in a suburb of France, for instance.
Amber’s anthem may sound simple, child-like even, but it’s proof that anthems can impact whole countries – millions of people – in ways other music just can’t.
Rest in peace.
Update: I received a message from one of his sons today. “We are still carrying the death ritual, it will be over in thirteen days. He is observing both the Hindu and Buddhist rituals, this is not our usual practice. He received a state funeral. The prime minister, army and police chiefs, minsters and general public all paid homage to him. Different party leaders from Maoist faction, UML, Nepali Congress, writers, poets, musicians all came to see him in the hospital. He seems like a unifying personality.”