Josh Brody is not who you think he is, and exactly who you want him to be. Most of the time you can find him at the Sequoyah School in Pasadena where he acts as principal to a few hundred elementary and junior high school kids; strolling around the campus as the amiable hero of a small, progressive colony. Brody is borderline goofy, with scruffy brown hair and a shy smile. He is patient, very tall and contagiously nice.
When Brody walks down the street in Nepal, however, people ask for his autograph. The Nepali people know him as Bahadur Gurung Lama (“Strange and Wonderful Thing”), the lanky, hammy, American half of the duo behind the top-selling pop album in the country. When Brody first set off for a year in Nepal as a student back in 1994, he had no premonitions of a musical career, let alone fame. He landed a gig as the principal of an elementary school in a small village, where he met his musical partner, Khem Raj Gurung. A short, stout Nepali man, Gurung makes Brody look like Pau Gasol. Drawn to Nepali folk songs as a useful way of learning the language, Brody and Gurung began to perform them together at school and around the village. That Brody had no musical background didn’t matter.
“We would make fun of each other as much as being melodious,” Brody says. “People got a kick out of it.”
Their shtick typically involved Brody and Gurung “poking fun at each other or fighting over the ladies.” The music videos, which can be found on YouTube, are reminiscent of a Saturday Night Live parody of foreign pop, with lanky Brody skipping around a forest, competing with Gurung for a beautiful dark girl in a long skirt and bandeau top.
Brody came home to the States, but then, on a fellowship from Harvard, returned to Nepal to help translate the rigid educational standards set by colonial India. The new, accessible curriculum he helped to develop focused on adult literacy and honored the specific language and cultural traditions of Nepali villagers, including Yak herding and herbal medicine.
“The goal was to help people negotiate their changing environment,” Brody says. “To think critically about the forces acting on them, to have more voice.”
While Brody was busy teaching and translating, Gurung was trying to break into the music scene. Brody agreed to record an album with Gurung, and their album of folk songs quickly became the top-selling album in the country. Not quite platinum, Bahadur Gurung Lama received a mere $7,000 in royalties. But stardom and profit are of little importance to Brody, though he still gets a little taste of fame, even at home. Recently, Brody posed for sculptor Chris Slatoff, who is currently working on a rendition of Jesus and Joseph for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown. Slatoff, a parent at Sequoyah, was drawn to Brody as the model for Joseph because he is someone people trust with their children. While his music videos gather hits on YouTube and the Nepali people dance to his songs, Brody’s image will be cast in marble at the largest cathedral in Los Angeles, Jesus cradled in one arm.