Who chose the Blues?


The Blues is my teacher,

The Blues is my friend.

The Blues never hurts me,

It just heals me in the end.

— Soulmate (The Blues is my soulmate)

India has never had a crowd for the Blues as such, but that has not stopped the fan base of a particular Blues band from Shillong from exponential expansion. Meet Soulmate — a four-piece outfit from Shillong that is making waves in the global music circuit. Frontman of the band Rudy Wallang clarifies though, “India does have a crowd that listens to the Blues, it’s just that there were no bands really dedicated to doing it. When we first decided to dedicate ourselves to playing and spreading the ‘Blues’ around, a lot of people were sceptical about it. But I guess we have proven them all wrong. We may not be superstars but we have indeed made a name for ourselves.”  And quite a name they have made at that!

Over the years Soulmate has carved a niche for itself, both in India and abroad, having to their credit more than 250 acclaimed performances. The band created history by performing as semi-finalists at the Rum Boogie Café (Blues club of the year) on Beale Street in Memphis, USA last year, alongside 150 other bands and musicians from all over the world. This was at the 23rd International Blues Challenge organized by the Blues Foundation of America. It should be noted that Soulmate is the first and only Blues band ever to represent India in this International Blues Challenge! They performed at the International Jazzmandu Festival in Kathmandu for two consecutive years in 2004 and 2005, and were also a part of the ‘Roots on the Move’ Festival, 2007, during which they performed concerts and conducted workshops all over Northeast India.

Inspired by the roots and groove sounds of the Blues and Blues-rock, Soulmate came together in Shillong in February, 2003. And since then, they have come a long way indeed! Not only is their sound unique in the Indian rock music circuit; it has also helped the band establish themselves as a premier Blues band of this corner of the planet. The band is made up of the two core members of Rudy Wallang (guitar and vocals) and Tipriti Kharbangar (vocals and guitar). When on the road, the sensational duo is complemented by seasoned session players like Sam Shullai, Ferdy Dkhar, Momo, Ambar Das, Shawn Nongrum, Shaun Nonghulo, Adhiraj Mustafi and Leon Wallang. The present line up consists of Rudy, Tipriti, Ferdy Dkhar (bass), Adhiraj Mustafi (drums) and Leon Wallang (guitar).

Anyone with an interest in the western music scene in India will recognize singer and songwriter Rudy Wallang who leads this tight knit musical unit. Born into a musically inclined family, he grew up listening to his father Toto Wallang make music. As someone who started singing and playing the ukulele at a very tender age before eventually graduating to the guitar, Rudy is today regarded as one of the foremost Blues guitarist and songwriters in the country with a long musical history, having been part of bands like Great Society and Mojo. The other member, Tipriti, has earned the distinction of being the finest female singers to have emerged from Shillong. Reminiscing on the formation of the band, Rudy recounts, “Soulmate was formed a few months after Mojo split up. I met Tips when she came to my studio for recording a gospel album, and I was blown away by her voice. She had the Blues and so did I, and things fell into place; the rest is history!” Incidentally, the band is named after a song Rudy had written, The Blues is my Soulmate.

Being the son of a legendary musician must have helped Rudy lay the foundation of a prolific musical career, evident as he says, “My family has always been very supportive towards my musical endeavours. Dad was a star in his time and he and his band mates would practice in our small living room. I remember sitting in a corner listening to them whenever I could.” The other member of the band, Tipriti ‘Tips’ Kharbangar, is not only known for her pretty looks, but also for her powerful voice. If there is something that Tips is happy doing, it is singing, and reflecting on this, she vocalizes with a joy and exuberance that is totally unmatched and original. She started out singing gospel songs at the local church choir and is now drawn to the Blues, Soul, Jazz and the like. As she says, “Music has always been present in my family. Being a tomboy, I picked up the guitar at a very young age and tried to imitate my father who was also into music. My musical activities were, however, limited to taking part in church activities like gospel concerts.” However music ceased to be a hobby once she started performing solo shows. “Once I started getting paid for my performances, I realised that I could take it up seriously as a career. Now here I am with Soulmate!”

As a musical outfit, Soulmate was basically formed with the desire to promote the Blues genre of music and for fulfilling the passionate involvement of the artists with this particular genre. However even though our region is known to be more receptive to western music, it is still a fact that the majority of the population is obsessed with rock and metal music. It takes a lot of courage to dare to deviate from the requirements of the general public and play one’s heart’s rendition, something which Soulmate has successfully done. “The Blues is one form of music that is as true as it can get, no pretences and I like the simplicity of the form — if one can call it simple!” says Rudy. Tips explains further, “I started off singing in church. Gospel music is very deep and it comes straight from within, that’s the same with the Blues. That’s why the Blues means a lot to me — when I sing I feel and mean every word I say. Most songs that I sing relate to my personal life.” Nonetheless, when often asked by people as to why they chose the Blues, they have their answer ready: We didn’t choose the Blues, the Blues chose us! Their dedication seems to have paid results as quite a few bands have come up in the country playing the Blues. Rudy is exuberant when he says, “Starting out was lonely, but we now see a number of other bands following in our footsteps. That’s a really good feeling. More power to the Blues!”

Their debut album, Shillong, released in 2005 on the OML record label, was very well received by the people of the country. The album has a backup of rave reviews and was voted the No 1 original album in the Blues/Rock category in the year 2005. Rudy says, “The album , Shillong, is a tribute to where we come from — our roots. Thematically, our songs are about life, love and everyday things. But, this is an album of love songs. It explores various facets of love — romantic love, love for oneself and love for music and life.” Tips adds, “The vibes in the band are strong and the same reflects in our album which has very positive vibrations.” Talking about vibes, once you hear the album, you immediately realise why Tips is such an integral part of the band. Generally with the Blues genre of music, the music is always first and the singer just mumbles along. But when Tipriti sings, you listen. She’s got an enchanting, clean voice and its sheer bliss to watch Rudy match her mesmerising notes with his brilliant handling of the guitar. Rudy’s prowess over the guitar is proved in the track, If you were my guitar, which is possibly the fantasy of every guitarist put to music. The gems of the album undoubtedly have to be St Valentine’s Day Blues and Shillong (Sier Lapalang). Both being instrumental tracks, the former reminds you of the bluegrass and country movement of the ’60s, while the latter is more or less an improvised jam — a solid trip of seven-odd minutes, with guitar solos, keyboard passages, the works. The band is working on their second album, which is due for release in March next year.

One of the most significant achievements of the band was its participation in the 23rd international Blues challenge in Memphis, USA. Rudy elaborates, “Memphis was a dream come true. A Blues band from India, playing the Blues in the home of the Blues! How much better could it get?” Since their performance in America, the band had also been invited to Colorado for the Grand County Blues Festival earlier this year. “Unfortunately, we were unable to make it due to a little ‘glitch’ in our paper-work, but we will be there next year for sure.” the greying, soft spoken man adds, a grin breaking our across his face.

Rudy’s exuberance is not uncalled for. In a land which is regarded as the capital of covers, the band has managed to create their own singular identity. Did they ever feel the lack of an audience in the region that appreciates originals? “I was fortunate enough to have started my musical career playing in a band — Great Society — that insisted on playing original material besides a few covers. My stint with this band gave me the confidence to go ahead and do my own thing. Then there was Mojo, where we mostly played our own songs. With Soulmate, I feel it was a natural progression,” says Rudy. After breaking off for a while, he adds, “The thing is, people will listen to you if you are not faking it. If you are real and honest about what you are doing, then people are bound to appreciate and accept you. I seriously feel that if we were not confident of ourselves and our talents, then we would have never had come this far. Always believe in yourself and leave the rest to God!

When asked to comment on the music scene of the region, the duo feels that the region is still going through a transitional phase and a lot still remains to be done. In the words of Rudy, “There is a lot of talent in the region, but the infrastructure is totally lacking! Most of the time, we have to depend on private organizations for gigs. Though there are a few event management companies like ‘Springboard Surprises’ that are really trying hard to change the music scenario, I feel this kind of thing needs a lot of input from all sides. It’s only when society becomes more broadminded and stops catering to the whims and fancies of a few people in power that things would change for the better.” Tips adds, “Musicians need venues to perform if they are to grow musically and if they want to take up music as a career. They also need to be paid for their efforts. Musicians deserve respect as much as politicians, doctors and engineers do!”

Though the duo proved that they are in a class of their own right from their very first performance, none of them ever imagined the mass adulation that they enjoy today. As Tips says, “I, for one, never imagined that Soulmate would get this big! Anyway, popularity and fame never mattered to me — I just wanted to sing and that’s how I still feel today.” It is interesting to note that the band likes to use their talent not only to entertain but also to help the society. When asked to comment on their future plans, Tips tells me, “Beside playing our Blues and making people happy, we would really like to help society in whatever way we can. We believe that we are in God’s hands. He will decide what is in store for us.” So very true, but the manner in which Soulmate is blazing across the international music scene, they should be feeling anything but Blue!

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Posted on January 15, 2010, in Taking NE sounds to the world and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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