In search of the Missing Element

The realm of music is a never ending horizon; the more one knows the more lucent it is as to how much one actually does.

–          Unknown

Shillongites are known across the world for their unfussy love for rock ‘n’ roll, which, when added with the scenic natural beauty of the area and the hospitality of the wonderful people residing here, adds to the mysticism of this quaint little town. But more than the hills and valleys, the waterfalls and cool winds, it is – as novelist Anjum Hassan rightly said in her debut novel – the Shillong-flavoured timeless which makes this town exclusive in itself. Besides anything else, this small hill station in the north-eastern province of India has always enjoyed a lot of popularity for its vibrant music scene – those regular gigs by those exotic musicians, who could make even a piece of wood sound like a Washburne guitar! Music is more than just a way of life in Shillong; it is ingrained in the heartbeats of the people.

At a time when Shillong is being regarded by many as the new music capital of India, it is indeed sad to note that Shillongites are still essentially rock-centric and have failed to embrace other musical genres. The Sentinel team recently caught up with Ribor MB, a talented Khasi session musician and founder-cum-front-man of the band 4th Element – a five-piece musical outfit based in Shillong which has dared to deviate from the requirements of the mainstream public and propagate an entirely new musical genre. Formed with the basic objective of finding the “missing link” in the regional music scene, 4th Element was basically conceived as a jazz band but their music also contains elements of funk, R&B and soul, which plummets them to an altogether different league. In an absorbing discussion with Aiyushman Dutta, Ribor talks about his life growing up in the musical environs of Shillong and his views on the music scene in the town. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Aiyushman: Please tell me a bit about your childhood. Did you grow up entirely in Shillong?

Ribor: I was born as the youngest child of Dr. H Bareh Ngapkynata and late Merlicia Kharshiing of Shillong. I have two other brothers and a sister. My life has remained more or less, constant in Shillong – studying in St. Edmunds here, except for a brief period when I went to St. Paul’s in Darjeeling for my schooling. I guess the charm of Shillong has worked its magic on me as I remember each and every moment of my childhood – the fun with friends, those mischievous deeds and friendly fights, playing football, going hiking and cycling, etc. But something which I treasure more than all these were the evenings we spent at home when all the family members would be around. Those were undoubtedly some of the most memorable evenings in my life.

Aiyushman: What kind of early musical inspiration did you have? Were the seeds of a musical career sown in the family itself?

Ribor: I guess it all started at home. There was a piano in the house and since it was played by everybody around, it was obvious that I too would play it some day. My aunt, who used to move around in a wheelchair, taught me my first tune on the piano when I was around seven or eight. But it was my sister, a classical pianist herself, who really got me totally interested in the piano.

Aiyushman: So did you always want to make a profession out of music?

Ribor: My family encouraged me a lot to learn music but during my early school years, I had other ambitions like becoming an aeronautic engineer and the like. So I never thought of making a career out of music, even though I used to be pretty active in musical functions in school and other places.

I still remember my first stage performance; I was around seven then and the guitar was literally bigger than me! My brothers used to play the guitar so I got a few guitar lessons before I actually started learning to play the piano. By the age of nine, I was shuffling between two instruments. My interest in music deepened once I went to high school. I remember those days when I used to go watch Mojo perform and harbour dreams of sharing the stage with them one day…And ultimately, that dream did come true.

Aiyushman: Tell me something about the beginning of your musical journey

Ribor: My real journey in music can be said to have started during my last few days in school when I played the bass for three operas. But band-wise, I started in the nineties with a grunch rock band called Nakra Kurja. Though rock was never my cup of tea, I had joined this particular band only to get the much-needed experience.

As I started performing on a regular basic, people started noticing me and began inviting me to fill in as a session keyboardist in the recording studios. It was around those days that phenomenal guitarist Rudy Wallang heard me and invited me to join Mojo as a keyboardist. But alongside my stint with Mojo, I also toured with bands like the Voices and musicians like Lou Majaw as a session keyboardist.

Aiyushman: What kind of music is 4th Element into? Please elaborate a bit.

Ribor: The music of 4th Element is based basically on elements of funk, pop, R&B and soul. Apart from originals, we cover bands like Incognito, Crusaders, Joss Stone, Vonda Shepard, Earth, Wind and Fire, etc and a few jazz standards. The band comprises Sara Lee on vocals, Starley on guitars, Aaron on bass, Sam Shullai on the drums and me on the keys. Somehow, people are beginning to notice us and gigs are lined up for the next few months.

Aiyushman: Shillong is known to be a rock-crazy town. What made you decide to form an R&B band in the first place? Did you face any kind of difficulties?

Ribor: I learnt a lot while I was with Mojo but my calling was something totally different. After Mojo split, we formed SFR, comprising Sam, Ferdy and myself, which again continued off and on. 4th Element was formed in 2007 after I met Sara Lee. She had come to my studio for a recording session and when I first heard her voice, I knew that I had found the vocalist I was looking for.

I had always wanted to come up with a new sound from the north-east. But with Shillong being essentially rock-centric, it was difficult for us to get our message across. We now have a small group of people that enjoys 4th Element’s music, which is a very good sign for us. But although we are confident of our abilities, we are aware that it will take some time for the rock-crazy fans of the region to enjoy this new kind of music.

Aiyushman: What do you feel is the strong point of 4th Element?

Ribor: The thrust is on to educate people that music can be enjoyed in many different ways, and not just head banging, violence and drugs. We feel that one can enjoy music without any of the above and this is something which we want to reiterate through our kind of music. The music that we play has very less distortion and quite a few enjoy it that way.

Aiyushman: When did you start your own studio?

Ribor: For many years, I worked as a music arranger in various studios before deciding one day to start my own unit. ‘Merliham Arrangements’ accordingly came to being in 2004 and has been rolling ever since. Most of my studio productions are based on gospel music.

Aiyushman: Having played with a lot of other musicians, what do you feel is required for the emergence of quality musicians – technical expertise or natural instinct?

Ribor: I would say one should have both. One should have an inborn talent for his instrument, and at the same time, he should be technically sound of whatever he’s playing or performing. The combination of both is the best, even though half of the great musicians whom I know don’t really have any training as such, but play music that goes up a level higher than those musicians who are technically sound.

Aiyushman: What, according to you, are the problems facing bands in Shillong today?

Ribor: The problem that every musician and band is facing in Shillong today is lack of respect. We will see the emergence of more bands and musicians from the State only when the people will learn how to respect their musicians. Nowadays, we have international concerts in Shillong. But why don’t our musicians who open such international concerts get the same respect that the visiting international artists get? Why are the local musicians not even allowed to use the same sound gear which is used by the visiting band?

Many call Shillong as the rock capital of India. But how many bands actually perform in the local pubs and clubs every week? Maybe one or two; but with such a rock-centric attitude and zero levels of tolerance for other musical genres, a city like ours can never become a rock capital. We need to have more live bands performing in the city every week, more respect for our local musicians and only then can we regard ourselves to be the “music capital”. What’s really the big deal of hosting international music concerts in Shillong when the public cannot even appreciate their own talents?

Aiyushman: What are your views on the present music scene of Shillong?

Ribor: The music scene in Shillong has suffered a lot over the last four-five years,        especially after the visit of the international bands. There are hardly any local gigs nowadays and bands rarely get the chance to perform, except for occasions such as Independence Day, Republic Day, New Year’s Eve and the like. The visits of high-profile international bands were supposed to provide further impetus to local bands, but on the contrary, they have failed to provide any positive support to our local musicians.

Aiyushman: What do you have to say about the levels of tolerance of our people towards musical genres other than rock?

Ribor: Shillong needs to be more tolerant towards other musical genres. Bands should not just stick to rock but also try other forms of music. There are a whole lot of options which are waiting to be discovered, but that can happen only when we open our minds, eyes and ears to the beauty of other musical forms and genres. We have got so many rock bands. But at the end of the day, how many of them have actually managed to make it? Apart from a couple of bands, hardly any outfit has even made it outside Shillong. Where are the rock bands from the so-called “rock capital” of India?

Aiyushman: How important are proper marketing agencies for our local musicians?

Ribor: As I said earlier, bands and artists can make it big in the national level only if our own people learn how to respect them. At the end of the day, in Shillong, the amount of efforts that a band makes to get their music rolling is never equivalent to the amount they get at the end of the day. I feel our talents are just being exploited here and it’s high time that all musicians got united and had an agency which would deal their business part. After all, united we stand, divided we fall.


Posted on January 15, 2010, in Musicians/ Bands and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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