Category Archives: Taking NE sounds to the world
All about those north-eastern musicians who have successfully taken regional sounds to a global audience. Despite their mammoth achievements (a few have even been nominated for the Grammy Awards), very little is known about them. Read on…
A unique folk fusion album, Rajabasa, was recently released at the Guwahati Press Club. The album is a collaborative effort of Karbi folk fusion band Jambili and singer Rajlakshi Bora. The album features a beautiful fusion of Dimasa folk songs with Karbi folk tunes.
Photo courtesy: Hafiz Ahmed
Children’s Film Society, India (CFSI)-produced Assamese feature film “ishu” and Subimal Bhattacharjee-produced 2nd World War documentary “Memories of a Forgotten War”, both directed by Utpal Borpujari, continue to make Assam’s film industry proud.
“Ishu”, the debut fiction feature by National Award-winning film critic-filmkaer Borpujari, has been selected in competition sections of 11th International Children’s Film Festival Bangladesh to be held from January 27 and the 6th Toulouse Indian Film Festival, France, to be held in April.
On the other hand, “Memories of a Forgotten War” will have a special screening at the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), India’s biggest festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films.
Adapted from Manikuntala Bhattacharjya’s novel of the same name, “Ishu” has earned wholesome praise from viewers at Canada Kids Film Festival, 23rd Kolkata International Film Festival (where it received Best Film and Best Director nominations in the Indian Languages competition), 3rd Smile International Film Festival for Children and Youth (SIFFCY) New Delhi and 3rd Eye Asian Film Festival Mumbai. It was also screened at the 10th International Guwahati Film Festival organised by the Gauhati Cine Club.
“Memories of a Forgotten War” too has been appreciated for its in-depth research and depiction of the lesser-known events during the battles of 2nd World War in Manipur and Nagaland by viewers at the prestigious Indian Panorama sections of the 47th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) Goa, the Normandie 2nd World War Film Festival in France, the Fragrances of the North East Film Festival in Pune and the 5th Woodpecker International Film Festival in New Delhi where it won the Best Film on North East India award.
“it’s a great honour that both the films are simultaneously travellng to prestigious film festivals. As someone who strongly believes in depicting untold stories from North East India cinematically, I feel highly encouraged about it,” says Borpujari.
Noted defence analyst and cyber security expert Subimal Bhattacharjee, the producer of “Memories of a Forgotten War” too is elated at the selection of the film in MIFF. “It’s great that the two major reasons we made the film for are getting appreciated: one, it’s an important part of the history of Northeastern India that needed to be looked at from humanistic point of view before it faded away and too late, and two, that as someone hailing from the region, I feel strongly about bringing out positive narratives from Northeastern India that is often in the news for the wrong reasons,” he says.
Incidentally, “Ishu” marks the screen debut of Kapil Garo from Sonapur Baroghoria village on the outskirts of Guwahati in the title role, and also stars Bishnu Kharghoria, Tonthoingambi Leishangthem Devi, Chetana Das, Pratibha Choudhury, Monuj Borkotoky, Dipika Deka and Nibedita Bharali. Others in the cast include Mahendra Das, Rajesh Bhuyan, Naba Kumar Baruah, Monuj Gogoi, etc. Other child actors in the film include Mahendra Rabha, Srabanta Rabha and Uday Rabha.
Several actors from the Badungduppa Kala Kendra of famed theatre personality Sukracharjya Rabha have also acted in the film, including Dhananjay Rabha and Basanta Rabha. Sukracharjya Rabha has penned the dialogues along with Borpujari.
The film has been edited by A Sreekar Prasad, while its sound design is by Amrit Pritam Dutta and music is by Anurag Saikia. The cinematographer is Sumon Dowerah, while other prominent crew members are JItendra Mishra (executive producer), Hengul Medhi (final sound mixing), Monjul Baruah (associate director), Homen Borah (production manager), Golok Saha (art director), Rani Dutta Baruah (costumes) and Achitabh (Shanku) Baruah (make up). The assistant directors of the film were Ghanshyam Kalita, Ronal Hussain and Monuj Borkotoky.
The film takes a look at the inhuman practice of ‘witch hunting’ that is prevalent in parts of Assam as well as some other parts of India, through they eyes of an innocent child whose favourite aunt is branded as a ‘witch’ by the evil village “Bej” (quack) who conspires with another aunt to do so.
On the other hand, “Memorie of a Forgotten War” depicts the extreme valour, sacrifice and sufferings of thousands of soldiers and local people in the Northeast Indian theatre of World War II. The film brings the story alive through reminiscences of a number of war veterans from Japan, Britain and India as well as war witnesses from Manipur and Nagaland, where some of the most ferocious battles of World War II took place during 1944 climaxing with the famous Battle of Kohima.
The film was shot in Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi as well Japan and the UK by a multinational crew. Its background score is by Anurag Saikia.
“Ishu” trailer link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mf7gLpg9qc
“Memories of a Forgotten War” trailer link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mw78ftewbmQ
When Eleuterio Sánchez Rodríguez was convicted and sentenced to death in Spain for a crime he professed to have never committed, it marked the birth of an outlaw who gave the Spanish law enforcement agencies a torrid time. The erroneous conviction of Rodriguez and his subsequent fight for freedom stirred the emotions of many, and the same went on to become the subject of many a creative endeavour, including a hit single by German band Boney M. The song in question was titled El Lute, which took a bit of time to pick up on the charts but which, over time became symbolic of imprisonment, hope and liberation.
Thousands of miles away from Europe where the song was conceived and being performed to appreciative audiences, a principal of a local school in remote Jorhat district of Assam introduced one of her students to the piece. The said number’s powerful portrayal of hurt, hope and longing for freedom cast a deep spell on the young boy’s mind; a spell which was woven in deeper as he watched his teacher being moved to tears as he sang it in front of her. It was then he realised the immensity of the power of music, the fact that a piece of art is defined by the manner and way it touches the soul. Therein started the young boy’s tryst with music; a long, arduous and passionate journey as he explored the world of rhythm and tried to sing along with his soul.
Kajal-streaked eyes, which you are hesitant to look into at first in case you get lost in their depths. A soft and at the same time confident voice that draws you close, at times unnerving you with its rawness but which also reflect a long-drawn communion with the inner self, making it linger long afterwards in your mind. A person who leaves his presence with you even after he departs. That is Joi Barua for you at first sight – our own home-bred futuristic musician and composer who is increasingly making his presence felt in the music circuit of the country.
Born in Digboi to Rohin Dhar Barua and Ranjana Barua, educated in Shillong and Guwahati, and now based in Mumbai, Joi has worked in a number of films as a playback singer, vocal arranger and background singer and has also sung for hundreds of ad jingles. The list of popular mainstream Indian movies where he has lent his voice runs long and the list includes the likes of 2010’s Filmfare Award Winner (OST) Udaan and National Film Award Winner Dev D. Practicing a mixed musical style incorporating elements of rock, soul, jazz, folk and world music, he shot to international limelight last year when he was among the 20 handpicked fellows at the first INK (Innovation & Knowledge) Conference, a TED- affiliated multidisciplinary conference, in Lavassa, and where he performed his song Tejimola, based on an ancient Assamese folklore, to a front row audience of celebs like James Cameron, Matt Groening, Linda Barry, amongst others.
He, along with his band Joi, released their debut Assamese album ‘Joi: Looking out of the window’ in December last year and the same became an instant hit, besides going on to redefine standards of contemporary Assamese music as a whole. The album fetched him the best debut awards at the 1st Big Fm Music Awards this year, but more importantly helped bring due recognition to this artiste who strives to let his compositions communicate with the soul.
The quest to commune with the soul
Many would associate soul singing, based on rhythm and blues, with legendary musicians like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin or the “King of Soul” Otis Redding, amongst others – who helped take the genre of soul music to its pinnacle in Northern America and from where it spread to other parts of the world and blended with other musical genres. However, Joi’s style of singing, in case you got confused, is not limited to just soul music.
“For me some of the biggest soul singers have been Bruce Dickinson, Sting, Freddie Mercury, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Bhupen Hazarika, Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman and the like. The soul in the singing is what really matters to me; that is what stays with me after the music dies. Peter Gabriel, another fine example of soul and world music; the way Joe Satriani plays, that’s soul. I want to sing with my soul, that’s what music means to me.” And this desire of Joi’s finds adequate reflection in his numerous compositions as well as all his other endeavours.
Feel is Paramount
In all probability, Joi’s love for music is probably something he was born with. But the contributions of a few people in his life cannot be overlooked; one being his school principal Sister Mabilia who guided Joi’s love for singing while in junior school and whom he regards as his first and only guru. A lifelong inspiration, as he puts it. The earliest inspiration, however, was his father who gifted him his first violin. “My father was the one who kickstarted the passion by teaching me the rudimentary notes ‘do re mi’. An amazing musician himself, he played with great feel and he was the one who taught me the important lesson that in music feel is paramount.”
The quaint oil township in the upper reaches of Assam where he spent his initial days and his subsequent days in Jorhat, growing up with his family and following the intrinsic Assamese traditions and rituals, also contributed a lot to the growth of the artist in him. “Digboi was a beautiful colonial-looking oil town with lovely houses amidst a thickly forested landscape. The beautiful quietness of the town then is what I liked about Digboi; in the evenings one would get to see large bat-like flying squirrels jump from tree to tree. Looking back now, when images of the town come to my mind, it was like we were living inside a period movie where time stood still – the air was clean and silence was a companion. It was lovely to walk around the small roads and nooks and smell the trees, the lushness.”
The quietness of the evenings in Digboi where he played his violin to the fading sun was in sharp contrast to life in the joint family in Jorhat where his family later shifted. The music however was constant. “Ours was a joint family. There would be lot of people, a lot of energy, a lot of madness; we would play cricket, football, run, sing. I used to play my violin while my cousin would play his sitar. My grandfather used to insist that we sing our devotional songs every evening; that is how I learnt to play the negera, khol, taal and sing our guxai naam.”
As he grew up, rock too began to make an impression on him and he and his cousins spent countless hours listening to music, jamming together and making new songs. “Right from the Beatles, Eagles, Deep Purple, MSG, Simon and Garfunkel, Iron Maiden etc, we sang them all.” From Carmel School in Jorhat to Commerce College in Guwahati where he did his graduations, the music kept flowing. The way fishes take to water, Joi did to music and looking at any stage of his life, from any perspective, it is difficult to visualise him doing anything else.
The feeling of stagnation and the need to break through from monotony is probably something which many an artist has to contend with. Joi was no different and it was this very feeling of stagnation that forced him to shift from Delhi – where he had moved to after his graduations – to Mumbai in 2003. “The first person I called was Zubeen and he really helped me a lot. I stayed with him in the initial period and he took me around to meet music directors and the other key people in the industry.”
It was a fun audition with Jatin Sharma which brought Joi his first break in Bollywood. “My first recording with Jatin was for ‘Sajana hai mujhe’ – a remix with singer Vaishali Samant and which was mixed with Shaggy’s ‘Sexy Lady’. This became an enormous hit. This was then followed by another magnum production – ‘Dekh Le – the club mix’ from Munnabhai MBBS with Sunidhi Chauhan.” After two mega hits, life was never the same again for Joi. “I used to sing in English and that became a rage. There was a huge initial bulk of work that I did with Jatin Sharma and working with him led me on to other people like Anu Malik, Ram Sampath, Anand Raj Anand, etc.”
Besides films, Joi has also been a part of some of the biggest advertising campaigns in the last few years and the organizations he has sung ad jingles for includes the likes of Fiat Linea, Vodafone, Reliance, LG, Hero Honda, Nescafe, Club Mahindra, Yatra.com, Raymonds, Tata Tea, Coca Cola Minute Maid, amongst others. “I was once singing for a film called Khakee for music director Ram Sampath, who is also one of the country’s biggest advertisement music honchos. He gave me my first break in an ad for Sanfrisco Jeans. This was noticed by other people and I soon found myself in the thick of the advertising world. Maybe I’ve sung for every major brand that there is in the country and with India’s top advertising people.”
Looking out of the window
Though Joi has been making music since his childhood and has also established himself in the music industry of Mumbai, it was ‘Looking out of the window’ that made people in his own State stand up and take notice of the musician in him. The album, however, stemmed more as a result of his desire to “just sing some Assamese songs of his own”.As such, the fanatical response of the people towards his debut endeavor was something he never visualized. “Some of the people have just gotten to the songs. Yet the response has amazed me, humbled me. It has just reconfirmed my belief in the power of good, sincere music.”
Six months past the release of his debut collection, as he walks through obscure, nameless streets in Shillong, he is yet to get used to people walk up to him wanting to shake his hand; while walking on crowded streets back in our own State it will still take him time to get used to his new slow gait, on account of the frequent stops he has to make doling out autographs and smiles to young kids dragging along their helpless mothers; still get used to the cries of adoration from young women for whom he has become their latest heartthrob, one of their very own. And though it gets tiring, for everyone he encounters Joi always has a smile and a moment to stop and chat.
On one particular evening in the lobby of Hotel Brahmaputra Ashok, after battling yet another sudden crowd of fans that surprisingly appeared from nowhere, Joi and me got talking about his music and the genesis of his debut album. “I had been composing songs, random tunes with no specific intent, for a while now. Last year I played a few of them to Abani Tanti and within the next two days, the project Joi was born. Pawan Rasaily, Manas Chowdhary, Ibson Lal Baruah all agreed to be part of this music and take it ahead.”
Though the music was the defining factor, all of the members had different reasons for wanting to be part of the album. “Manas and Ibson wanted to sink their teeth into a project that involved good honest music. Pawan Rasaily felt that this would be a great gift from all of us to the people of Assam, now that we have the means and resources. Abani Tanti wanted to take it to the next level and set a benchmark for new sounds while I just wanted to sing my own songs.”
Listening to the album, the first thing to strike you is that the album has converged from a band’s point of view. A blend of rock, soul, folk and world beat, all the members have brought their own influences and ideas into the music. The defining factor of the album is the clean and clear music devoid of gimmickry of any sort, which is complimented by the excellent production quality – a first of sorts in the State.
A track which exemplifies this is the song Aaikon Baikon, which is being widely aired on the television channels and which seems to be on everybody’s lips on account of the catchy tunes and lyrics as well as the beautifully produced video. “I had made the initial scratch with some nonsense and funny lyrics though I did not know what to do with it. Keeping the phonetics same, it was Ibson who conceptualized the whole Aaikon Baaikon theory and the song took off like dynamite.” The lyrics revolve around the carefree lives of two young girls, Aaikon and Baikon, who used to play games in the usual carefree manner of children, and compares their childhood freedom to today’s modern day life, marked by its closed spaces and closed rooms.
Then there is the track Tejimola, which shifted the focus of the entire world community to Assam as he performed the number at the INK conference in Lavassa. Based on the Assamese folklore about Tejimola and her evil step-mother, the song has Joi asking the young girl not to be afraid and to smile on and keep playing with her dolls. With Lyton accompanying him on the piano, Joi’s soulful rendition does not fail to tug at your heart strings and has caught the fancy of the entire youth brigade. “That was an unforgettable experience. I was singing Tejimola in Lavassa to a front row audience of celebs and they were all in tears by the end.”
The album took about a year to be completed and during the entire process the members went about with ease, each of them contributing their ideas, experience and feel to this gift of theirs to the State where they come from. “We’ve all come from various backgrounds. Our stories, expressions and emotions have found a way through the music that we created. All the music that we’ve heard over the years – Sting, Clapton, Floyd, Bhupen Hazarika, Rahman, Rossini, Beethoven – have been responsible for nurturing our musical sensibilities. There is all of them there. And the best part is that all of us kept complimenting each other throughout the process.”
The journey has just begun
While the success of the album is yet to sink in for Joi and his band, the album is just a beginning for its members. On a personal level, his recently released song ‘Khirki’ for Hengool theatre is fast picking up and is well on its way to become one of the hits this year; the number Dil Dharakne Do which he sang for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy in the recently released Jindagi Na Milegi Dobara is also earning a lot of appreciation in the national music circuits.
But success notwithstanding, the quest remains on making clean and clear music. This is best reflected in Joi’s own words, “I love singing and I go about it every day like I breathe. But now that the State and the people have extended so much love and support to my music, it gives me even more strength and resolve in my belief that I can and I should do much more.”
And once the soul gets singing, that doesn’t seem to be much difficult, does it?
References by author:
1. The Queen Of Soul by Mark Bego
2. Singing in a Strange Land: C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America, Little Brown, 2005.
TEAM joi – As seen by Joi Baruah
Ibson Baruah – Lyrics
Penned the lyrics from his soul. A traditionalist, true to earth musician who’s maybe the finest gentleman you will ever encounter
Manas Choudhary – Bass
His bassplaying has nurtured right from the nooks and crannies of Assam and now the world’s embracing it.
Pawan Rasaily – Guitar, Arrangements, Music programming
His playing has so much soul, always pushes me ahead to crack the new level. He defined the soundscope that we were looking for and many a times he was the sounding board, critique and counterpoint of my compositions. His feel will be matched by a very few.
Abani Tanti – Mixing and Production
The guardian angel. He was the man behind the machine and the album that u feel was something he created and gave birth to. He always believed in me and we knew that someday we would collaborate on something amazing. Maybe ‘Looking out of the window’ is absolute testimony to that belief.
For a region known for its fascination with rock, 2010 was a bit of a dampener in the Northeast because of the absence of performances of international bands worth reckoning; a major reason being the lack of viable venues and the closing down of some of the previous ones. But despite it all, the music calendar of the region was packed to the brim this year, marked by the emergence of a lot of new local talents thanks to the fast emerging pub rock scene. Another interesting development that could be witnessed here was the re-emergence of folk or experimental music as a preferred choice of music fans here.
Talking about experimental music, the ICCR-sponsored performance of Mexican singer Jaramar in Guwahati was one of the most notable. Jaramar, who feeds on her traditions to create a deeply personal music, was part of a unique fusion experience in Guwahati where she incorporated Mexican music with the Indian Sarangi, Flute and Tabla. Wvoath – a folk-fusion band of the Lepcha community of Sikkim – tops the list among the new home-grown experimental bands.
As it is with other parts of the country, metal has become the preferred genre for the youth in most States of the Northeast. Judging from that angle, a number of prolific bands have indeed touched base here this year. Mention can be made of outfits like Swiss folk metal band Eluveite that performed in IIT – Guwahati’s annual cultural fest ‘Alcheringa’ in the month of February. For the uninitiated, Eluvietie is presently raging across the European folk metal circuit, with its authentic bend of Celtic folk music and melodic death metal. With a wide population of metalheads spread over the region, the band’s performance in Guwahati was definitely worth reckoning. One also remembers the performance of DeProfundis – a UK-based death metal band that performed in the city towards the fag end.
While the overall music scenario is most of the States does not appear to be too rosy and can be said to have even gone down from previous years, a significant development could be noticed in the emergence of pub gigs which have caught the fancy of music lovers in most of the States. Besides serving as a potent launching pad for new artistes, these places have also witnessed performances by some visiting artistes and bands. In Guwahati, mention can be made of Cafe Hendrix, the Rockarolla Pub Rock gigs held at Cafe Blues and the gigs organized at Traffic Bar and the Basement Jaxx. While Nagaland has a number of lounge bars that organize such shows, Tango Lounge is the chief organizer of gigs in Shillong. Jumping Bean Cafe, Cafe Hiyo, Cafe Destination and Dream Cafe are some of the most popular lounge bars in Nagaland that organizes such independent musical events.
To provide a State-wise break-up of the music scene, Nagaland – the only State to have a clear-cut music policy – remains the most proactive among all the State governments. That should not come as a surprise when we take into cognizance the fact that it is probably the only government in our country to have dedicated an entire governmental wing in the form of the Music Task Force (MTF) for the promotion and propagation of music in its land. The Music Task Force, led by its project director Gugs Chishi, has indeed been doing a commendable job in pursuing the objectives it has been set up for.
One of the most successful initiatives of the Music Task Force would be the Hornbill Rock competition, which is being projected as the mother of all rock competitions in India. With a huge prize money of more than Rupess 10 lakhs dedicated for local rock bands of the country, I don’t see any reason why they should not get that tag. The Hornbill rock competition is organized as part of the annual week-long traditional Hornbill festival of Nagaland. Twenty top bands from all over the country participated in this year’s competition, which saw Slain (Bengaluru) walk away with the winners trophy of Rs. 5 lakhs. Traditional music, dance, food and the best of rock – Hornbill truly is a festival not to be missed!
Talking of traditional festivals, music has become an inseparable component of the many such festivals organized in the region. One can talk about the Autumn festival of Shillong, the Sangai festival of Manipur, Cherapunjee festival of Meghalaya, etc. All these festivals had a host of prolific musicians performing therein. For instance, Indus Creed, who are presently on their re-union tour, had Cherapunjee as one of the venues and watching their performance, all one can say is that they are much stronger than ever before. The other bands who performed in Cherrapunjee were Blues-rock band Soulmate, Shillong-based bands Colours and Snowwhite, Japanese Buddhist monk Gyomyo Nakamura, experimental rock band Abiogenesis, multiphronic chant master Lama Tashi, Delhi-based singer-songwriter Sushmit Bose, amongst others. Nakamura, for those who don’t know him, is a Buddhist monk who lives in India for most of the year and who is also a rock musician with insane guitar skills!
Besides these frequent gigs and festivals, another significant development would be the emergence of music being used as a social tool for peace and reconciliation. The lead in this regard has been taken by the Eastern Beats Music Society – one of the foremost bodies of musicians, music lovers, artists and activists. From streets shows and jamming sessions to the much hyped 2nd Karbi Anglong national beats, this society has been really reaching out to people in the hinterland, showing the healing and nurturing qualities of music. The Karbi Anglong Beats is an unique attempt to promote village bands as well as channelize the energy of youth in a positive direction. Ten top bands from across the country had participated in the second edition of this contest that was held in a insurgency and ethnic-violence hit area, and which was incidentally Assam’s first national rock contest. Dementia from Nagaland walked away with the winner’s trophy while Cleave from Manipur finished a close second. Talking about the use of music as a social tool, one also remembers the efforts of the Haflong Music Association which had actually dared to organize a peace concert in the middle of strife-torn Haflong town of NC Hills! Brave souls who have shown the immense healing power of music!
While the region continued to host its annual music festivals, like the Lou Majaw-led Bob Dylan celebration in Shillong, the club circuit of the region also had some prolific musicians performing in their midst; litterateur and experimental vocalist Amit Choudhury, Indian Ocean, santoor player Rahul Sharma, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, KK, being a few of them. A few musicians and groups from the region have also established their hold firmly in the independent industry in the mainland and abroad this year. Talking on these lines, how can we forget the performance of the Shillong Chamber Choir that is presently raging across the South-east Asian choir circuit? This group, which performed for visiting US president Barack Obama after winning India’s Got Talent and gold medals in the World Choir competition, had it coming for a long time now and it is of much pleasure that Bah Neil Nongkynrih and his troupe finally got their due. The Angarag ‘Papon’ Mahanta-led East India Company is also proving a point, having performed in the cultural evening of the Commonwealth Games.
A melange of performances but when it comes to the audience, the response is loud and clear: We want more!
With what words do you describe a musician who devoted his whole life to the pursuit of good music but could not see the day to bask in full, unbridled glory of his achievements? I guess that unfortunate would be the right word to describe Late Nupur Bordoloi who left for his heavenly abode having got but, just a glimpse of a prolific and international music career. After all, how often it is that Assam or the country for that matter, sees the emergence of musicians, who can be termed as ‘export materials’?
A gentle giant, Nupur earned many a nickname during a short but none the least, eventful music career with tenga doi (Sour Curd) being one of them. And though the tenga (sour) tag stuck throughout, his music had always been sweet from the very beginning. It would be wrong to classify Late Nupur just as a keyboardist and ‘maestro’ would be the right word to describe a person of his stature. He was one of the most talented musicians that the region has ever produced and he had been part of some of the most popular and trend-setting musical initiatives of Assam, as well as the north eastern region. In a region lacking in trained musicians, Nupur was amongst the very few graded Western Classical musicians and his journey to International stardom was cut short as he had to fight a losing battle with an adversary like blood cancer.
Despite maintaining an unerring belief in the higher power till his very last moment, life had been grossly unfair to this pioneering musician. During our last meet when he had just recovered from a deadly dose of malaria leaving him totally weak, his faith seemed to have increased manifold. And during our entire chat, while he talked about the importance of faith in our materialistic world, the words of a Khasi guitar strumming crooner kept flashing through my mind,
“Tell a man to paint a picture,
To paint in sorrow, paint in pain.
I will look through the eyes
Of a world driven insane.”
I remember Nupur saying on many an occasion during his last few days, “We are living in such a beautiful world. Man has become so destructive that paap (vice) has engulfed us from all sides. I pray that the pristine glory of this world remains intact and retains, at least some, if not in entirety, some of its earlier glory”. The paap must have become really unbearable and he left soon after but similar to his nature, he saw to it that the transition from his physical state did not cause any problems for anyone.
An arts graduate from B. Barooah college, Nupur’s music genius had been recognised by a lot of organisations in many places throughout the country. In 1993, he was adjudged the best accompanist (national category) in a nation-wide music competition organised by Mood Indigo, where his band Dorian Platonic had gone to participate. In 1996, he was awarded B-high grade, as a western classical musician of piano accordion, by All India Radio. He had composed music for the award-winning and trend-setting television serial, Preyoxi. Some of the music albums which he had composed are Angelica with Dilip Fernandez (1994), Rosti (music arranged by Bhaya-Mama), Anamika (Zubin Garg), Sinaki Logori and Pahi (Kaberi Goswami), Najaba-Najaba (LIVE by Kumar Bhabesh and Jayanta Kakoti) besides numerous other compositions and Bihu albums. He had also composed the music for an English album, Friends in Touch by Dhruva Sarma.
The musician who loved to admit that he, in fact, loved singing was never happy with the western music scene in the state and his deepest regret was of the fact that people in the State had failed to understand the real beauty of this particular genre of music. A fan of legendary composers JS Bach and L Van Beethoven, Nupur wanted to cut an instrumental fusion album of folk and western classical music which would have again, been a first of sorts. “It all depends on Deepak Baba and Maa Saraswati”, I remember him saying.
And as I followed his mother inside his strikingly sparse room where sunlight had long stopped flowing, Nupur’s visage in the portrait hung along side those of other Gods, evoked a sense of peace and radiance which illuminated the entire dreary surroundings. The person who promised to make a mandir in Deepak Baba’s name seemed to be at peace with himself and with the world which ironically, had always snatched so much from him. I just pray that his soul rests in peace, wherever he may be.
Though music has remained an unerring passion of mine right from a very early age, the harmonica had always been an alien instrument for me, and it was only recently that I began to appreciate the immense musical possibilities associated with the harmonica. Thanks to my friend Abe from Suzuki who introduced me to its limitless possibilities, and who helped arrange a music concert for harmonica virtuoso Jia-Yi He in our city earlier this year, I have been encountering quite a few harmonica players and enthusiasts in our region.
Sometime back, I came across another Indian who has been creating waves with the harmonica in the global circuit. His recently released album, Tip of the Top, has been earning rave reviews from people all over! Besides being one of the finest Blues harmonica players in the world, the fact that he is of Indian lineage makes me feel more proud to talk about him.
Born and raised in Mumbai, Akarsha “Aki” Kumar’s suburban, middle-class roots and Silicon Valley credentials present an unlikely backstory for one of India’s finest blues harmonica players. Aki’s appreciation for music began at an early age; while neither of his parents were formal musicians, they exposed Aki to the world of music from the start. Aki remembers music playing around the house since his childhood days, be it jazz, classical, Hindustani or classic Bollywood oldies.
After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, Kumar pursued a successful career in the high-tech industry but deep down he knew that he had a greater calling. He picked up the harmonica to join an informal musical group with a few colleagues, but he soon found a richer appreciation for the instrument and the raw, emotive power of American blues. After exhausting the available avenues for self-study in print and online, he decided to pursue formal studies under David Barrett, a blues harp (harmonica) virtuoso and one of the most authoritative sources of information on the subject. Aki was also very fortunate to discover a thriving music community in the SF Bay Area, one that included modern blues harp legends Gary Smith, R.J. Mischo, Andy Just, Mark Hummel and Rick Estrin, among others.
Over the years, Aki studied the styles of various American harp masters, specifically the post-War greats: Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Walter Horton and George Smith. His own playing and vocals reflect elements from these players blended in with a signature sound of his own. Aki’s progress from an enthusiastic student of the blues to a dynamic stage performer has been rapid, earning him recognition as a rising blues star. In the last few years he has appeared with some of the premier blues artists in the area, including Kid Andersen and Earl Thomas. He has also shared the stage with some of the finest contemporary harmonica players alive: Gary Smith, Rick Estrin, Mark Hummel, Charlie Musselwhite, Lee Oskar and Jason Ricci.
Aki’s newest venture, Tip of the Top, is a collaboration with Bay Area blues veterans and has been the culmination of his journey through American roots music. The group performs vintage blues with subtle flair and a respect for the deep history of the genre. Experts and aficionados agree that only a group with raw talent and a true appreciation of the art form could produce a sound so authentic. Aki and his band can be seen performing regularly at various venues and festivals in and around the San Francisco Bay Area.
The best thing is that you can watch him live as he performs at Blue Frog in Mumbai on December 23. So all you music freaks, especially if you’re into the harmonica, don’t miss this chance to see him perform live in Mumbai. And by the way, don’t forget to cheer for our very own ‘Aki’ Kumar!
Music, I have always felt, is an art; an art form which calls for continuous experimentation and innovation. Privy to the staleness that seems to have crept into the regional music scene, I seriously feel that our homegrown acts need to develop their own brand of sound, even if it might be at a very raw level, to prove their mettle in the national level and even beyond. Besides helping them carve a niche of their own, this would also add to the development of world music, which I believe is going to be the next big thing in this corner of the world. This can be gauged by the success of regional bands and musicians like Abiogenesis, Lama Tashi and Warklung, to name a few, whose musical pursuits have even transcended international boundaries.
At this juncture, I would like to talk about Strange Frequency – a three price outfit from Shillong, which is working on a new brand of instrumental music with a line-up comprising three bassists and a drummer. Led by seasoned session player Larry and Noel, this closely knit trio is a surely a welcome change from the bands of Shillong, who basically have a rock centric outlook. Both Larry and Noel, who are prolific musicians in their own right, have been accompanying other bands for a long time now; Strange Frequency, however, is the first band that they have themselves conceived.
Strange Frequency came about in 2006 with Larry on the bass and Noel on the drums. Reminiscing about the formation, Larry says, “I would not deny admitting that Strange Frequency started with the remains of Agape. Along with the support, zeal and cooperation of Noel, we made our first attempt at a Kuki festival here in Guwahati – the 7th Chavang Kut festival 2006.”
The band is basically a collective of a drummer and three bassists who play the bass guitar on three different frequencies. Highly innovative and original, the music of Strange Frequency is melodic and catches on to you immediately. They had recently bowled over the hearts of Guwahatians with their performance at ‘Virtuoso in Concert’ – the international music concert organized to mark the formal launch of the Rockarolla Music Society. Strange Frequency, when it was first conceived, was essentially a two-piece outfit, comprising Larry and Noel. As time passed, the idea arose of incorporating more bassists working on different frequencies. In the words of Larry, “With the coming of Rupert in the band, the idea of more bassists popped up. Rupert, again, had the better idea of having three bass guitars in the band and accordingly, Gideon joined us to form Strange Frequency, as it stands today.”
Though the band is pretty confident of their present line-up and the members are against tampering with it, they also want to keep experimenting. “Strange Frequency is always open to working with newer and better ideas. We might bring new instruments, new musical styles, fresh musical patterns – we don’t know, but the experimentation will continue,” says Noel. Herein I should mention about both Larry and Noel’s penchant for experimentation. Talented musicians themselves, both have a penchant for experimentation and improvisation which, I believe, is the hallmark of all successful musicians. While Noel is highly creative with the drumsticks, Larry guides the band like a true front-man.
With an eclectic brand of music and an eye for bigger, larger platforms, Strange Frequency is surely one band which will appeal to the western music lovers of the country. I am sure bright days await this collective!
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!
Shillong. How does one describe this quaint little hill town in the north-eastern periphery of India? More than the cool breeze and the droplets of rain that tantalize your skin as you walk through its meandering roads, this scenic town is known for its fixation with rhythm; for it is a place where you don’t go around searching for music but let the music find you. It would not be wrong to say that besides its peculiar small-town charms, Shillong is best defined by music. And why not? Thanks to the strong Christian tribal population and the strong influence of western culture in the lives of the people, this small town is one of the most vibrant western music destinations in the world.
But there can be musical surprises even in a place like Shillong which is so deeply soaked in music. I am talking about the Shillong Chamber Choir, a unique choir group based on Meghalaya’s rich musical traditions that has mesmerised people across the globe. Led by seasoned concert pianist Neil Nongkynrih, the choir group recently returned from South Korea, having bagged a silver medal in the World Choir Championships that was held there. Had the organizers not cancelled the championships due to the outbreak of the swine flu epidemic, the members of the choir group feel they could have easily brought home a gold medal.
The year 2009 has been particularly good for the choir group. Earlier this year, the group collaborated with the Vienna Orchestra for a concert held in Shillong and later, in Kolkata. The collaboration with the Vienna Orchestra created musical history for the town of Shillong for it was the first time that a full member western-classical orchestra collaborated with local artists from Shillong in their own backyard. Then last month, the choir bagged the silver medal at the World Choir Championships in South Korea. Talking about the Korea tour, co-Chairman of the Meghalaya State Planning Board Aubrey Scott Lyngdoh, who led the team, said, “We were the first team ever to represent India in a World Choir Championship. Judging from that angle itself, our participation in the world championships is a matter of honour for not only Meghalaya, but the entire Northeast.”
The World Choir Championships — also known as Choir Olympics — brings together choir groups from all over the world, including some of the famous bands from Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America. The achievement has now placed the Shillong Chamber Choir as one of the leading choirs, not only in India but also in the international circuit. Though the championship is divided into three categories, the choir could compete in only one as the entire event was cancelled due to the outbreak of swine flu. Lyngdoh said, “We were expecting a gold medal at least in the gospel and general categories. But the silver medal is still a big inspiration for us as we were competing against the best choir groups of the world. This has raised our level to international standards.” The gold medal went to the former world champion Elfa from Indonesia. Lyngdoh feels that even though the choir failed to bag the gold, their impressive performance has elevated Shillong into international focus. “Now people from all across the world want to know more about the Shillong Chamber Choir,” he said, adding that a section of the audience rated the choir group’s performance to be very high. “We are now receiving a lot of enquiries as to who are the Khasis, Jaintias and the Garos,” he added.
Band manager of the Shillong Chamber Choir Bill Richmond, who was part of the entourage to South Korea, said that the group also performed in several other parts of Korea. “The choir group went with only 17 members and had to compete with groups consisting of more than 80 members. The choir later participated in several “friendship concerts” in and around Forbidden City, the main venue of the championships.” Reminiscing about the choir’s performances, Lyngdoh said, “The people really appreciated the choir. When rains threatened to halt one particular concert at an open-air venue, the organizers provided the audience with free raincoats so that they could stay and watch our performance.”
A way of life
Now let’s start from the beginning. The Shillong Chamber Choir was formed in 2001 by acclaimed concert pianist Neil Nongkynrih who wished to bring together some like-minded singers to produce a variety of music, rather than being limited to only one kind. The choir’s versatility reflects itself in the age of the members: while the youngest member is a 13-year old, the oldest is all of 27 years. The group’s debut performance saw 25 soloists assembling at Pinewood Hotel on January 14 and 15, 2001 for the first performance of a chamber choir in the city, and the same was a resounding success. There has been no looking back for the choir and its members since then. But along its journey, the Shillong Chamber Choir has stopped being only about music and rather, it has become a way of life.
A Khasi folk opera
Their repertoire now includes pieces from Handel, Bach, Gershwin, Mozart, Neil Nongkynrih’s compositions, Khasi folk songs as well as popular adaptations of Queen and ABBA. As Neil says, “We play all kinds of music; the sole criteria for selection of the music is its possession of positive vibrations, which uplifts one.” The group however won the silver medal for their performance of Sohlyngngem, a Khasi folk opera. Sohlyngngem tells the story of a girl who had to encounter a lot of hurdles in love. Struck with grief at having lost her lover, the girl finally turns into a bird (Sohlyngngem). “It was a great privilege to showcase music written in Khasi, which is now considered one of the dying languages of the world. Winning the silver medal was simply out of the world,” says Neil. Sohlyngngem dwells a lot on contemporary socio-political events in Khasi society, touching on quite a few areas of humane interest, like multi-culturism, hypocrisy, alcoholism, cruelty to animals, the unusual role of the maternal uncle in a matrilineal society, lost love and the like. In the words of the composer, “My obsession with Sohlyngngem perhaps has a lot to do with my desire to promote Khasi folklore through different forms of expression. The folk opera has been made in such a way that it appeals to the young generation and keeps them close to their culture. The opera itself is based on a very dark subject that is interspersed with dark comedy.”
And Neil’s attempt to promote Khasi folklore in the form of an opera is an idea exclusive in itself. Whoever thought that the bunch of young singers would ever be able to reflect the varied emotional undertones of the subject of the folklore through just their voices? “The voice of north-easterners, especially of the Khasis, has elements of a certain kind of sorrow in it, an unique emotional appeal. It perfectly complements the Khasi folktales which are mostly tragic in nature.”
The story of the Shillong Chamber Choir is closely linked to that of its founder Neil Nongkynrih, who left for England to learn music much against the wishes of his father. Once in England, Neil learnt from the best and made his mark as a successful concert pianist but fate had other plans in store for him. After numerous shows as a concert pianist in Britain, he felt his music was getting “elitist and commercial.” He tells me, “I came home only once in the 13 years I had been away. I was doing well professionally and a glittering career awaited me, but I felt ashamed with my own life. Doctors said I was stressed out, I needed rest and what better place could be there for that than home? I had come here for just a short vacation but once I came, I felt that I was needed here. That’s a great thing you know – the feeling that you’re needed.”
Once in Shillong, Neil, a man who is always in search for something new, finally found a purpose: start his own choir group, that is. The beginning was difficult for it was hard to find members. “I was frustrated with people who would come to the choir for short intervals and then go back to join their schools, colleges and places of work. I decided to take a risk and start my own school where I would teach them music as well as their regular courses of study.” Accordingly, Neil started his ‘home school’ in 2002 with his first student Ibarisha Lyngdoh. All of 16 years, Ibarisha is the “mascot of the home school”, having been gifted with an amazing voice. The young talent can sing in Khasi, Hindi, Asomiya, English, French, German, Italian and Latin. “Such is the potential of this girl that she gave a solo recital in Switzerland at the age of 13,” says Nongkynrih with pride.
A place to blossom
“I am very concerned about the present educational scenario in our country that prevents children from being their true selves. I don’t want my school to be labelled in any way for it is different. I just want my school to be a place where children can blossom and be their true selves,” says Neil, when I question him about his home school. So does his belief have its roots in his own school days? “Yes, I did not enjoy studies and my school,” says Neil, “I guess that’s why I used to spend most of my time playing the piano to escape the drudgery of studies.”
Each of Neil’s students has a story to tell; each different from the other. “Initially, I felt like taking only musically-gifted children but after sometime, I felt that was being too elitist,” says Neil. Most of the students come from troubled families or suffer from some sort of mental disability. Some parents just come and hand over their child so that they turn into a “good human being”. “These children now stay with me. The school is about living together and enjoying music. For me, music is a means to participate in the society.”
Though he claims that he is no social activist, Neil has proved with his home school that music is also a way to reconnect with life. One of his lead singers, Johanan Lyngdoh, is a 19-year-old former drug addict whose family had given up on him and left him at Neil’s house one day. The music and “Uncle Neil’s” ministrations brought him back from the brink. Similar is the story of another young girl Mika Phanbuh, who has been diagnosed by doctors as suffering from Down’s Syndrome – an illness which prevents one from leading a normal life. Thanks to the music and care in Neil’s home school, Mika can now sing, play the piano and even read music! “For me, Mika is as much a star as Ibarisha is. If she had been left to your ordinary system, she would have spent the rest of her life in a mental facility.” I remember watching in absolute amazement as Mika cuddled up with her mentor, her Uncle Neil, who then told me, “We are planning to make a little album where Mika will play the piano with the Shillong Chamber Orchestra backing her.”
Jessica Shaw Lyngdoh, another talented member of the choir, tells me, “The education that is imparted here is life changing. It’s not all about singing, but it’s about evolving spiritually. One of the most important lessons Uncle Neil taught me was to lead by example. He is more than just a teacher; he is more of a father figure to me.”
God is the source of all healing
“Sometimes, I feel I am unrighteous in giving too much credit to music. Healing power comes from God who gives us all different skills; music is just one of them. The ultimate source of all healing is God,” says Neil, slipping into a retrospective sort of mode, when questioned about the relevance and healing power of today’s music. He continued, “You know, 85 per cent of the music today does not heal. We talk about rock and metal being a bad influence on our youngsters, but so are love songs. If we look at it, love songs have done more damage than any other musical genre.”
It is a fact that today’s youngsters, as can be seen in our very own Northeast India, are more into rock and pop music than any other genre. Neil, however, is still confident about the reach and relevance of Classical music. “Although people like me will never be popular, I feel my work will have much greater impact in the future than it has now. I don’t think even Mozart or Bach were aware that their music would be played this often.”
Besides its relevance in contemporary world, Neil is more concerned about his music being a journey in spirituality, towards the truth. “I have spent my life in the quest of truth. Truth is not always wonderful; at times it is not to everybody’s liking. But the truth is part of god’s laws of nature. My music, as well as my life, is governed by this very law. I would never ever want to know that my life here on earth was overrated, which sadly is the story of most popular artistes nowadays.”
The journey continues
Besides planning future concerts in several parts of the world, Neil Nongkynrih is also working on his next Khasi opera – an epic of hope which is based on the life of St Mary Magdalene. “St Magdalene is a name that has been much abused, but she still remains a symbolic hope for humanity. She is an inspirational saint; she is an example for those who lost hope, for those who think that there is no more time to change and for those who wants to correct what is wrong. I have crafted the story from the point of a woman – a sinner without any hope – who finally meets the dawn of her life.”
Even after having tasted international success, the members of the Shillong Chamber Choir remain committed in their pursuit of the truth. In the words of its founder, “The choir is not about people who just want to reach higher grounds; it’s made up of people who are really committed to their music. Earlier the story was different but for the members of the choir now, music is just the means towards the truth and not the ultimate goal.”
The journey continues…
For centuries altogether, Buddhist monks and monasteries have been shrouded in secrecy. Cut away from the world, the monasteries form a world in itself; a world where humanity and the basic tenets of the human condition are still part of the lifestyle of the monks. As a religion, Buddhism is a path of practice and spiritual development leading to insight into the true nature of life. Buddhist practices like meditation are means of changing oneself in order to develop the qualities of awareness, kindness, and wisdom.
The Power of Sound
Religion is sound. This is how the high priests of Tibetan Buddhism describe the importance of music in their worship. For Tibetean monks, Buddhist chants form the path for their liberation. The life of a Tibetean monk involves practicing compassion for all people with the studying and memorization of sacred texts at the core of this practice. This memorization is carried out by constant oral repetition to a specific tune to which it is later chanted.
Tibetean Buddhist chants were first performed in front of the western world audience after Dalai Lama escaped to India following the Chinese invasion of Tibet. One of His Holiness Dalai Lama’s followers, Geshe Ngawang Tashi Bapu has mastered the unique multi-phonic chanting style and popularised it’s mysticism in the western world, to become the first monk and one of the very few Indians to be nominated for the prestigious Grammy awards. His achievement does not end here. After performing the sacred Buddhist chants with top celebrities all across the world, he has come back to the monasteries and tried to introduce some of the new technological advances in the traditional Buddhist monasteries.
A Monpa, Lama Tashi was born to Krishok and Karma Tashi of Thembang village of West Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh. His primary education begun at the age of 6 when his father enrolled him in the newly opened primary school of the village – Pangona Government school – where he studied till the eight standard. A further spell of three years of study in Government Namshu School ensued before he was initiated into the Gontse Gaden Rabgeyling monastery in Bomdila to complete the foundation course of his education. During the same time, the monastery relocated to Karnataka as the Drepung Loseling monastery, where he stayed for twenty long years to complete his higher studies. In Drepung Loseling monastery, Tahi’s major subject was ‘Philosophy in Debate system’, which is a Socratic view of Tibetan Buddhism.
It was in Drepung Loseling monastery that Tashi had his first brush with multi-phonic chanting or the one-voice chant, as it is more commonly known. Thought to arise only from the throat of a person who has realized selfless wisdom, throat or multi-phonic chanting is defined as multiple tones emanating from a single larynx. The harmonic frequencies created by the human vocal apparatus are harnessed in throat singing to select overtones by tuning the resonance in the mouth. The result of tuning allows the singer to create more than one pitch at the same time, with the capability of creating six pitches at once. “Multi-phonic chanting is in vogue in Mongolia though it is prevalent here as well. It is characterised by a deep, vibrating voice, which is produced continuously for 8-9 minutes at a stretch,” says Tashi.
The Tibetan monks believe, that in the creation of the ‘One Voice Chord’, the monks do not ‘make’ the sound. Rather, they become a vehicle through which the sacred sound may manifest. This is a basic principle contained in the Tibetan Buddhist teachings of sacred sound. Tibetan multi-phonic chanting has its own characteristic sound, which has been compared to the Australian Digeridoo or resonance of a drum. The chants are usually metrical, in both symmetrical and anti-symmetrical measures, and the chant is produced by a close-throated, constricted style, deep in pitch. Tashi tells me, “I mastered the multi-phonic chant and was appointed as the Umzey or Head chant-master of the Drepung Loseling monastery in 1999. I served in that capacity for five years before coming back to Arunachal Pradesh in 2004”.
Tashi got the opportunity to perform the famous Buddhist chant in front of the entire world, and also with top celebrities throughout the globe. Though Tibetan chanting was first experienced by Western listeners in 1967, since then, Tashi and the monks have traveled around the world, performing in prestigious places as Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House. A number of CD’s with Tibetan chanting has also been released, thanks to Tashi’s efforts.
It was in 1992 that it all started. The compassion, wisdom and vocal abilities of Lama Tashi so impressed the teachers and spiritual leaders of the monastery that in 1991 he was chosen as one of the monks to travel the world on the Sacred Music and Dance tour of 1991-1992. For 11 months, he traveled throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada performing on the tour. “We performed our chants in more than 100 cities all over Europe. It was a great learning experience,” he says. Tashi toured North America once again in 1999 as part of another tour sponsored by the Drepung Loseling monastery and the Richard Gere foundation. In April 1999, he performed for His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Curitiba in Brazil, alongside renowned Brazilian artists like Gilberto Gil. Later the same year, he led the multi-phonic chant before His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the World Festival of Sacred Music at the Hollywood Bowl in Pasadena, California and at Central Park in New York City.
The multi-phonic chant, like other aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, is also shrouded in mystery. The western world was particularly curious as to how a human being can produce multi-phonic sounds to give the impression of several singers performing together. Before leaving for the second leg of his world tour, two groups of medical experts had examined Tashi’s throat to unravel the secret behind his vocal chords, not to mention the numerous tests that Tashi had to undergo at hospitals in Canada and the United States. A bemused Tashi recounts, “Once they (doctors) even inserted a camera through my nose to look at my throat. I don’t know anything else but I felt very sleepy when my throat was being examined”.
Tashi and his group of Tibetan monks started recording the Tibetan chanting albums after coming back from the 1992 tour. Finally it was the Tibetan Master Chants that elevated Lama Tashi to international stardom. Tibetan Master Chants was nominated for the 2005 Grammy awards in the Best World Music category. The Singing Monk, Tashi was one of the nominees in the Best Traditional World Music category at the 2006 Grammy Awards.
The album, Tibetan Master Chants, is a unique collection of 12 Buddhist religious hymns rendered in Tashi’s sonorous voice, accompanied by a traditional gong and cymbals. “Vibrating my vocal chords and producing multiple overtones with deep sounds while chanting the mantras is the specialty of the album,” the monk, who loves Hindi film music and folk songs, says. The unassuming 38-year-old tribal monk says that he never in his “wildest dreams” expected to be in the running for the coveted prize when he started chanting Buddhist hymns and added, “I only wanted to spread peace and love in the world through the traditional Buddhist chants”.
Recounting the Grammy nomination, Tashi – the principal of the Central Institute of Himalayan Studies at Dahung, Arunachal Pradesh – says, “We did some dubbing so as to give the feeling that the mantras are being chanted by a huge group of people. Some journalists and musicians in America asked me if I was a rocker. I said I want people to listen to our hymns and get peace of mind. I have dedicated my life to Buddhism and the Grammy nomination is indeed recognition of our beautiful religious hymns that symbolize peace and love”.
Tashi has rubbed shoulders with the biggest names in the world entertainment industry. Hailing from a monastery and having his roots in a remote village of north eastern India, has the success had any effect on him? Tashi doesn’t feel so, “Sometimes I feel that I’ am really lucky to have met stars. But from a spiritual point of view, it is not such a big deal”. Even if the limelight didn’t affect the monk, there must have been some kind of a conflict between his monastic upbringing and way of life with the far more liberal western culture. It would be a travesty of the truth to say that Tashi was not affected by the outside world for he was instrumental in introducing modern technological gadgets inside the monasteries. He has played a major role in taking Tibetan Buddhism to the 21st century by introducing many monks of his monastery to the internet and e-mail. He says, “Exposure has a lot to offer. I began studying basic English in the monastery but it was through my travels and performances that I became fluent in the language. I remember carrying two dictionaries with me at all times and would constantly engage people in conversation in order to better my language skills. It’s only when you travel that you realize the positive aspects of other cultures and try to introduce them in your own traditional cultures”. He added, “I never wanted to change the system but just try and take in the positive aspects of the outside world inside the monastery. As head chant-master, I had thought of installing broadband connection inside the monastery to transmit to the outside world the happenings inside. We did bring in some important changes in the field of education and healthcare though”. It is also a lesser known fact that Tashi planned to preserve the Tibetan chants in digital format so as to aid in its preservation. When asked, he said, “See, I was trying to preserve the rich Buddhist traditions. As Head chant-master for four years, I tried a lot of things. However, you can say that it didn’t really meet up to my calls”.
Tashi has fond memories of his early monastic life. He grins, “I love the monastery very much. During my entire childhood, I was lost in monastic studies”. Life in a monastery is difficult with the stipulations and regulations. This is evident as Tashi recounts, “I used to wake up at 5:30 in the morning and study the whole day to go to bed only at around 2’0 clock at night. We didn’t really have good food nor the basic hostel facilities but it has made me what I am today. Coming to my question on conflict between traditionalism and modernity, Tashi grins and says, “If you live the western style of life, you will become spoilt – you won’t study, you’ll become bad. Though I wish that monastery should become more modern but at times, I also wish that people should spend at least a part of their early lives in monasteries. With so much of technology and modernity around, man tends to forget his principles”. He added, “I seriously feel that both the outside world and the monastery have a lot to learn from each other. Monasteries have its own way of living, it own world. On the other hand, western society has its own rules of conduct. Monasteries should also learn from outsiders while outsiders should also learn from monasteries”.
Spending almost one-third of his life inside the closed environs of the traditional monasteries and then suddenly encountering the whole, bad, wide world must have been difficult for Tashi. It would be completely natural to expect that the outside life must have worked a bit of its charm on the monk. He disagrees though. “As a monk, I took the four roots vows – shall not kill, shall not lie, shall remain a celibate and shall not steal. Of course, we took a lot of other vows like being sincere, staying away from intoxicants, etc. It becomes very difficult to practice those vows in modern society. Everywhere you go, everyone is trying to cheat you, trying to take your belongings away. But if you can practice those vows, that is what makes you a truly great man”. He adds, “Where is the world going? Everyone wants to be rich, to be famous. And to reach that ambition, people resort to stealing, to lying and working with terrorists. That is the most upsetting part of living in the modern world – seeing the basic principles of mankind disintegrate before your eyes”.
The sun had long descended from the skies and the monks who were waiting beside us were slowly starting to make their way out of the room we were sitting in. I realized it was time for me to bid adieu to the celebrity monk. When you are in the presence of Lama Tashi, you are in the presence of compassion itself. I realized it was time for me now to experience that aura of peace and compassion itself as Lama Tashi said his goodbyes and sat down with the monks to rehearse the globally acclaimed ‘multi-phonic chant’. It was only then I realized the power of sound that captured the entire essence of those moments, moments I will forever cherish in my heart.