Prakash Slim is a country blues musician and educator based in…wait for it…Nepal. His remarkable story is straight out of the history of the blues.
He was born in 1980 during the rainy season in a field in the small village of Lamatar, just south-east of Kathmandu in Nepal. Nepal is a country of 28m people, situated between India to the south and China to the north. It has eight of the world’s highest mountains, including Everest and a very ancient culture.
Prakash’s village saw its first electric bulb in 1983 and its first automobile in 1995. Although Nepal is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world, much of the country remains very poor – around one third of the population lives on under $3.20 a day and the GDP is only around $30bn (compare that to South Korea, with a similarly sized population and a GDP of $1.6tr.)
Prakash’s father passed away at a young age, leaving his mother to provide for three children by working in a neighbour’s field. Food and clothing was scarce and the annual festival was much anticipated by Prakash, when an uncle would gift him a set of new clothes. Life was tough.
So, perhaps it’s no wonder that Prakash has gravitated towards the blues. He’s lived the blues, growing up in a rural village with significant hardships, and the road to the future paved with considerable difficulties.
After becoming an accomplished guitarist and playing in a number of bands in Nepal’s lively rock scene, Prakash has become an acoustic bluesman, with Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt as his guiding lights. He’s now a recognized, internationally affiliated Artist/Performer and Educator of the Blues with the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in Mississippi.
The recent lockdowns because of the pandemic have enabled Prakash to play in a number of international blues events, so we were delighted at Down at the Crossroads to have the opportunity to chat to him:
Gary: For someone born in rural Nepal to become a blues artist sounds like an amazing story. Tell us briefly how you first started playing the guitar and how did you get started performing.
Prakash: Well, I was raised by a loving, loyal family but we had very limited means. I went to a public school where, instead of desks and benches, we had mats made of straw. When I was young the only ambition I had was survival. Ambition, as far as I was concerned, was a privilege for rich kids.
I was interested in music from a young age. I’d play music by drumming against a water container and sing songs all day. Music drew me in. My most prized possession back then was a bicycle that my sister gave me after she landed a job. Now I wanted to learn and play the guitar but I didn’t have the money to buy one, so I sold my bicycle to buy my first guitar. I told my family that a friend had taken it for a few days! But anyway, I got the guitar and started playing.
For two years, I searched for a mentor who could teach me everything I needed to know about music theory. Finally I found a teacher, and even though he lived 10 kms away from my home, my passion for music was so great that I never missed a lesson. Come storm or rain, I always arrived ahead of time and ready to learn.
I worked hard at my music for a number of years and was able to join my mentor, the legendary C.B. Chhetri’s band and gigged in a circuit of restaurants playing mostly rock music. I kept busy playing lead and rhythm guitar and bass, and doing vocals for various bands throughout Nepal.
Gary: Given your background, growing up with very little, is there a particular resonance for you with the blues, in their original setting in the struggles of black Americans?
Prakash: There are a lot of differences between African Americans and me, but, it’s true, we faced difficulties in life like education, economic depression, and discrimination. So many of the social issues are similar.
Gary: What blues artists did you first encounter, and which ones are important to you?
Prakash: I liked to listen to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and many other rock blues artists. For over 12 years I played in rock bands and I’ve tried to give the songs I play an urban blues feel. When I first heard B.B. King’s recordings I was eager to learn the magical intervals: sixths, ninths, major and minor thirds. I wanted to learn his bee-sting vibrato technique. Then when I heard the country blues artists like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and many others, I knew this was the style that most spoke to my heart. So, now these country blues legends are the most important to me.
Gary: Has where you live been an advantage or disadvantage in pursing your art?
Prakash: Well, that’s an interesting question! My life experiences, including my hardships and struggles, are reflected in my music. I really want to express my experiences and feelings through the blues. But then, the limited access I have to instruments, equipment, sheet music and online music other than YouTube is a real disadvantage for me.
Gary: What sort of interest in blues music do you find in Nepal? Is there any resistance to it as Western music? Is it confined to Kathmandu?
Prakash: Well, we have a history in Nepal of the blues that goes back three decades, so I don’t think there’s any real resistance to the blues as western music. Some well-known blues bands are still active. People are interested in the blues but most people think that the blues start with B.B. King and Eric Clapton. Very few people know country blues, all the early stuff which is root of the modern music. Blues in Nepal, for sure, is centred in the capital and major cities and really, we have very few platforms and venues for the blues.
Gary: Are you able to make a living with your music?
Prakash: It’s very hard to survive as a musician in Nepal. It’s difficult to convince people how important music is for all ages and walks of life. For musicians of all genres, of course we have some pubs, restaurants and hotels to play. But for me, there is not much of a platform as a country bluesman.
Gary: How did you get your nickname, Prakash Slim? That’s a very cool blues name!
Prakash: Well, when I finished some serious blues research funded by the Mount Zion Memorial Fund in Mississippi, Dr. T. DeWayne Moore gave me the name. Prakash “Slim” Papa Pokharel. But when I got some international platforms, many friends suggested that I go for something shorter so we settled on Prakash Slim – “Prakash” represents Nepal and “Slim” represents the land where the blues began.
Gary: Tell us about your work in promoting blues music in schools.
Prakash: Well, blues is not only the music but also a culture. Without knowing its history, blues would be incomplete. We can empower and educate people through the blues. Knowing about the blues helps race relations and makes aware people of social issues. I’ve been teaching blues in schools here for some time now. My students know very little about black communities in the US and the problems they faced. I teach them that blues is an experience of life. I also teach them to play instruments and how to write song lyrics. I’m very happy that some of the students from grade three and four have now started playing slide as well! This year I did a blues exhibition in one of my schools. So, blues education is very important and I feel proud to be a part of it.
Gary: You recently collaborated with a friend of mine, Fabrizio Poggi in Italy. Tell us about that. [catch our recent chat with Fabrizio here]
Prakash: Well, Fabrizio Poggi is a renown Italian blues harmonica player and Grammy nominee. He and his wife Angelina and I connected as friends when I did an interview for Blues Radio International. Both of them are great human beings!
After talking for few days, Angelina said to me, “Why don’t you and Fabrizio do something together? I really would love to see you playing together. It would be a great message of hope for the world. A musician from Nepal and another from Italy? Why not? The coronavirus won’t let us leave our homes but we can travel all over the world through music.”
So, I was very excited and happy to do play with a legendary blues artist. I asked if we could do a favourite number of mine, a Robert Johnson song. I will always be grateful to Fabrizio and Angelina for this opportunity.
Gary: Prakash, tell us about your ambitions and hopes for the future.
Prakash: I really want to establish myself as an acoustic bluesman. I hope one day to play the blues with a National guitar in Mississippi. I consider that the sacred land of the blues – the blues Mecca. I want to spread blues in every corner of the world.
Gary: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected Nepal and has it affected your music making?
Prakash: We are all living in different and strange times. Nepal was not much affected by the pandemic in April and May, but we now see the number of affected people and deaths starting to go up. So, of course, yes, it has affected my music making badly. Schools and colleges are closed and all the venues are too.
Gary: Thanks, Prakash. We wish you well in your music making and every success in the future. Hopefully we’ll hear a lot more from you!