Finding Christ in Music: A Conversation with Neil Nongkynrih

Shillong Chamber Choir has released their Christmas album Come Home Christmas. The choir’s founder, mentor and conductor, Neil Nongkynrih opened up about his life, music and the new album. What remained long after the conversation with Sunday Shillong was the silence within him. Here are excerpts from the interview with Uncle Neil, as he is popularly known in Shillong.  

SS: What was the inspiration to form the Shillong Chamber Choir (SCC)?

NN: It came many years ago when I returned from Ukraine in 2001. I had come for a holiday. Remember how there were so many curfews back then and people could not go out. I wanted to figure out a way to bring people together. The Shillong Chamber Choir came out of this. The first batch was formed in 2001. The second batch came in 2006 and they won in India’s Got Talent. Interestingly, they did not come for singing. We were thinking of forming a school. Education has a problem with elitism and we wanted none of that. My aim was to have an all-inclusive school. So, it was not strictly a music school, but we were using music as a form of therapy. The second group came to help me with my mission and to teach these children. They were about 12-13 of them. They started singing in the process. We did not have an ambition to make a career out of it. By the time it was 2010, we found ourselves winning India’s Got Talent.

SS: How has Shillong responded to choir singing in regional languages besides English?

NN: Is there a need for camps? We are all one at the end of the day. Music brings people together. When we won, everyone celebrated here. This shows that people are good at heart. Music has the power to heal. Wars are everywhere, but maybe it is time to ask ourselves if that is the way to be.

I grew up with western classical music. Apart from Queen who has been a major influence, I was not into popular music. Language was a barrier as I didn’t know Hindi. I remember Alka Yagnik taught me the song, Ajeeb Dastaan Hain Yeh at a friend’s house. I had never heard it before and she started singing it. Yeh dosti from Sholay was another song I heard. So, I mixed these up and the rest is history. Very soon, we realised that there was a gap in this market. SCC has filled this gap.

I call this process weaving, rather than fusion. This is a marriage of different cultural elements. New India has accepted us and we must remember that this India has so much exposure, in terms of musical sensibilities. For example, our rendition of Hoi Kiew in Russia was so well received.

The way I see it, the only way to counter segregation is to always bridge the gap. My own personal experiences are part of my musical journey. I love people and feel we are all connected.

SS: How has life changed for all of you after SCC won India’s Got Talent?

NN: We feel so blessed that we can do what we love. We have travelled, seen places and interacted with people from different backgrounds. That is so important. People now have the courage to pursue their passion; earlier people looked down upon music as a career choice.

As a choir group, we are comfortable everywhere, at home in Bollywood and all the places we have been to. Andrea Bocelli attending one of our concerts and reached out to us – that meant a lot to us. AR Rehman came to our house and wanted to see my studio and we sang for him. Its 10 years anniversary of SCC winning India’s Got Talent; a virtual concert is lined up on December 22, and will be up on an American platform.

SS: How has 2020 been for the choir?

NN: By god’s grace, it has been a good year. I have never been so busy in my life. My own studio is also there. We relay live concerts from here and did our first one from here to Boston. It’s gone global. This year we did charity concerts to raise money to help other artists like folk singers and people who mend instruments. The choir has adopted six villages here during the early days of the Pandemic and gave them free food every week.

Our Christmas album is out and we have a close tie-up with Taj Hotels. People can find it on Apple music and Spotify. In fact, I will be opening the new Taj in Darjeeling and it will be my first trip this year. We have albums coming up with Saregama and Sony.

SS: What is the significance of Christmas this year for you?

NN: It has to be Christ-centred. I feel that, somewhere, along the way, we have lost our way. It has become a very commercial event for years now. Our Christmas album is exactly about that – reminding people to find Christ during this time. This year families are together, a reason why the album is called, Come Home Christmas. We can give presents to each other all the time, be it Diwali or birthdays.

SS: Tell us something about your Christmas music album.

NN: I have included many languages. The main theme is in English, but we have included Middle Eastern influences. In one song, you will find Hebrew and Iranian influence. Aramaic, which is considered to be dead, is another language we have used. We were lucky to find a small group of people living in Turkey. They helped us in shaping our album.

It is a message that we do not have to wage wars when we can talk to each other. This is a spiritual pandemic. To learn to communicate and love each other is divine work. The soil of humility is what we should return to because only beauty can grow there. Christ came to the world to spread this. That is what our album is about.

SS: What made SCC go for an album with Middle Eastern influences?

NN: We have to remember how the Jewish people were persecuted by the Romans. He came at a volatile time. We have to ask ourselves if things have changed. It would be rude of me to not acknowledge Christ’s roots and be joyful when we are all in a crisis and living in uncertain times. For us it became important to explore those elements while making our album. If you look at the life of Jesus, he was a friend to everyone. He was an ordinary carpenter who welcomed the outcasts and the sinners and changed their lives. That element of forgiveness is something we need more than before.

SS: What is your message for the people of Shillong this Christmas?

NN: My message is this – you are a gift to your family and everyone close to you. I am thankful for someone who has given Uncle Neil a cup of tea, without me even asking for it. Christmas is about goodwill and creating an atmosphere of home. Houses can be built by anyone, but a home is a creation of the heart.

Jesus Christ did not come only to forgive us and our sins, but for us, to overcome our sins – our anger, hate and envy. He has given us the power to overcome all hurdles.

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