Famous in Kathmandu, anonymous in New York
On the narrow streets of Kathmandu, the name “Phiroj Shyangden” is more recognizable than that of Bob Seger or Cat Stevens, legendary rockers who’ve both written songs about this exotic city less than 100 miles from Mount Everest.
As lead guitarist and vocalist of 1974 A.D., the popular band whose concerts have packed stadiums and caused traffic nightmares throughout Nepal since the mid-1990s, Shyangden – with his pierced eyebrow and patented dark sunglasses obscured by wavy black bangs – could rarely surface in public without being hounded for autographs or irritated by gossip-like whispers.
But such hassles no longer plague Shyangden, who continues to sing his hits, albeit from a less glamorous platform: The Himalayan Yak, a restaurant in Queens whose website proudly declares, “Good news for all yak meat lovers: We now have yak meat on our menu.”
Three years ago, Shyangden sang and played guitar to the roars of thousands; these days, the closest thing to a roar during his performances is when the “7” train, just outside the Jackson Heights eatery, thunders across the elevated tracks above Roosevelt Avenue.
“To be honest, sometimes I feel very embarrassed playing here,” admitted Shyangden, in his customary soft, deliberate tone that would be a whisper if any quieter. “Sometimes I have to play in front of two tables, in front of three people, instead of playing in front of 50,000 people. But I have to do it. This is for my bread and butter.”
Shyangden, 45, is one of several household names in Nepal who have traded the limelight for better financial opportunities in America.
It’s an immigrant narrative with a peculiar twist: celebrity musicians and actors from a faraway land abandoning their fame and ending up among their fans and fellow countrymen in a neighborhood in Queens. The dynamic, however, often leaves “regular” Nepalese-New Yorkers surprised to find such well-known artists living, working, and in many cases struggling, right alongside of them.
Samir Shahi, a Jackson Heights resident and fan of Shyangden, said that back in Nepal it would’ve been “nearly impossible” to cross paths with the rock star.
“But in New York, I see [Shyangden] every week,” said Shahi, 25, whose iPod includes numerous Shyangden tunes. “Here I’ll bump into him.”
According to Shahi, Nepalese celebrity sightings are not infrequent. He said he recently spotted Gauri Mulla, the famous Kollywood (Nepal’s film industry) actress, on the subway.
Ang Chhiring Sherpa, the Editor in Chief of The Everest Times, a Nepali language newspaper in Woodside, put it this way:
“In Nepal, people like Shyangden, they cannot meet in a public area. It’s impossible,” said Sherpa, the first South Asian journalist to climb Mount Everest, according to his business card. “But when they came here, everybody is busy, and nobody cares who he is.”
In Nepal, an underdeveloped, landlocked country scrunched between China and India, Shyangden said he would typically earn just 20,000 rupees (approximately $244) for large concerts and as little as 2,000 rupees, or $24, for small shows. He also worked as a grammar school music teacher, although that job similarly paid “very little.”
“It was very hard to support my family in Nepal,” said Shyangden, who departed for New York in 2009 while his wife and teenage daughter remained in Kathmandu.
Shyangden acquired permanent U.S. residency as an “alien of extraordinary ability,” a special category of American immigration law that allows foreign citizens who possess a “record of sustained national or international acclaim” to bypass standard bureaucratic procedures and automatically obtain a green card.
Once in New York, which Shyangden describes as “a very fast city” and “vastly different from Kathmandu,” he met two Nepalese immigrants who had been playing a regular gig at The Himalayan Yak: Rajesh Khadgi, 38, an eccentric, eternally-headbanging former drummer of Robin and the New Revolution, one of Nepal’s best-known bands, and Prazwal Bajracharya, a pony-tailed, soft-spoken 30-year-old computer networker who had belonged to an underground Kathmandu band called Lithium.
Blending traditional Nepali folk music with modern genres of rock and roll, blues and jazz, the trio performs several nights a week at the restaurant, which draws a predominantly Nepalese crowd.
Dr. Tara Niraula, an expert on the Nepalese community and an administrator at Bankstreet Graduate School of Education in Manhattan, said that he has spoken with a number of Nepalese celebrities about their transitions from fame to obscurity.
“In Nepal, they were primetime, they had all the attention and prestige,” said Dr. Niraula, who noted that several Nepalese movie stars also reside in Baltimore. “Then all of a sudden, [the fame] is gone and that’s a difficult thing, because in their heart they are different.”
Each morning, Shyangden awakes at 8 a.m. and calls his wife and 14-year-old daughter in Kathmandu. He spends his days practicing guitar, composing songs, and discussing music and life with his band-mates over tea at a Bangladeshi café. To supplement his income from The Himalayan Yak, Shyangden also gives private guitar lessons to Nepalese children.
Shyangden hopes for his family to join him “in the near future,” but “it is a very long process,” he laments, one that “requires a lot of money.” Still, his combined wages from singing and teaching are far greater than what he earned in Nepal, which helps his family.
The Himalayan Yak is at the heart of Queens’ South Asian cultural hub, with the colorful commercial strip of “Little India” just around the corner. Its spacious, rectangular upper floor is outfitted with gold and brick walls, multiple paintings of Buddha, a photograph of the Dalai Llama, and two miniature stuffed representations of the restaurant’s mascot and namesake.
Against this backdrop on a recent Thursday night, Shyangden and his band played an acoustic show in front of about 15 people. Shyangden said he “loves playing” at the restaurant, even if, at times, the miniscule crowds challenge his ego.
At around 11 p.m., the band broke into a cover version of the Eagles’ Hotel California, with Khadgi, the greasy-haired drummer, head-banging and flailing away at his drum set like “Animal” from The Muppets. Once Bajracharya, who’d assumed lead vocals, belted out the famous line, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” Shyangden erupted into a guitar solo that whipped the tiny audience into delight.
“Every time I hear him play, my energy, my vibe, gets better,” beamed one of the few spectators, Xlabia Khadka from Kathmandu, who now lives in Jackson Heights. “Whenever I come here, half of my stress just goes away.”
It was almost midnight, and up on stage, Shyangden showed no evidence of tiring. His eyes half-closed as if in a trance, Shyangden sang “Gurans Phulyo,” his original composition that once dominated the radio airwaves of Kathmandu.
Across a two-person table, Khadka’s friend, Mohan Poudel, 23, sang and clapped along.
At the song’s conclusion, Poudel smiled and shrugged, as if trying to communicate how surreal he found the scene before him.
“When I first came to New York, I said, ‘What the hell is Phiroj Shyangden doing here, playing in this restaurant?’” said Poudel. “I knew him as a star.”
“But that’s the New York life. He’s trying to survive, just like us.”