Shades of Music: Evolving Soundscape of Khasi Music

Margaret Lyngdoh dissects Jer by Nion

Shillong is known as the “Rock Capital” of India. Music is intricately woven with life here. Over the years, different musical genres have made their presence known – perhaps, revealing how different cultures have had on impact on each other.

Margaret Lyngdoh writes about the soundscape of Shillong, in particular, how Khasi music continues to evolve and pleasantly surprise us. Read on to know more.

Moving beyond the cloying melodious notes valorising Khasi monoliths and heroes; beyond the resurgence of folksy tunes waxing glorious about the beauty of nature, and the film–sy ballads shot in golflinks, are emerging musical genres that are unapologetic and uncensored: gritty as the frustrations of those who are denied a voice.

Shillong, the self-styled “rock-music” capital has moved on. But the legendary greats are acknowledged; they built the foundation, and we carried it forward. Khasi rap music, disliked by many and condemned as not being aesthetic enough, is distilled into a fine art as our young generation have so much to say and no place to say it. Venon Lyngkhoi, began with a catchy piece about mosquitoes and has now moved on to what is real for him. The angst of having talent and the inability to express has given rise to his new piece “Ngan Thom”. Noteworthy mentions include, but are not restricted to Kabir, Mejied Kyrpang, Symphonic Movement, Da Minot, amongst others.

I reflect on the status of Khasi music as it presents itself today without forgetting our stalwarts: U.N. Sun, Anthony Khongwang, Skendrowell Syiemlieh. The Shillong elite now jams to Jessie Lyngdoh and whatever the radio stations blare. The Khmih Creative Society, the Christian religious music, Na Rynsan Ki Sur Tynrai, Na Rympei, etc all contribute to the soundscape of Shillong. Kpop devotion is on the rise. And Western heavy metal music and the older taxi-cab specific favourites/jingles can still be heard. Bollywood music also has a strong following. I cannot forget to mention heavy metal music band Dimbur, who are well loved all over India, and of course, the Shillong Chamber Choir, and Soulmate.

This write-up is not a promotional piece. It is a critical analysis of what is steadily emerging out of the concrete landscape of Shillong. Why this manifests as a musical expression of the tussle with tradition. Who owns tradition? The elderly? The “tradition-bearers”? I use the case-study of the song “Jer” by Ñion to exemplify the neo-traditional manifestions in Khasi art and aesthetics. I argue that these expressions are representative of a nostalgia of what it means to be “Khasi”; an expression of selfhood and a re/presentation of the transformative nature of tradition.

Jer begins with:

“For it is only when we embrace a Divine Order

That we can witness the Covenant on the Gourd”

(Khasi naming ceremony)

And compare it to the original Khasi line that follows the English translation:

Dei tad ynda ba lah pdiang ia ka Hukum Blei

Ba sa wan hiar ka jubab ha rniang u Klong

Ka Jer

When asked about the creative license, Wanphrang’s lazy, artistic response: “why should I concern myself with meaning”? Which becomes the crux of the question I ask, “Who owns tradition”? Here, I respect the artist for staking a claim to the meaning of culture. It is three fourths into the video that we see the “divine order” manifested on the Gourd.

Ñion, the Shillong–based band, is conceptualized by two individuals: Hammarsing Kharhmar and Wanphrang Diengdoh. The song samples and plays with Khasi folklore. The above lines preface the song, thus, setting the tone for a conscious looking back.

I was eating Naga food with Wanphrang and I accused him of mistranslating the title: Jer is not “Rites”. He irreverently told me, “I don’t like to be literal”. As an academic, I was affronted by this take on translative license. Later, I would come to understand that for the new generation of Khasi artists, tradition and folklore have become something that sources creativity and fills a gap in the angst that has become second nature to urban living. But this is not always consciously understood or acknowledged.

The video is, of course, very beautifully shot, but the humility underlying the symbols are more significant: Hammarsing’s stellar guitar sounds sample western retro sounds fused with Khasi drum beat patterns. As the video progresses, several uncertain aspects of the song stand out: these boys have not worn the traditional Khasi clothes and Hammarsing adjusts his kynjri tabah, silver jewelry that sits around him awkwardly over a black leather jacket that both Him and Wanphrang are wearing – reminiscent of the punk attire of the 70s in America and the UK, which was eventually appropriated in Shillong during the 90s, an era rife with political strife, communal tension, and rock music. The “black leather jacket” would also eventually symbolize the 90’s generation in Shillong, its underground militant implications, Shillong’s love for metal and rock music and the aspiration of an entire musical generation at the time.

The video follows a fragmented narrative of a father carrying out the jer khun for his child. Shot with a stark sense of creativity – during the ceremony, the lack of the extended family around and the child for whom the jer khun is being performed for, stands out distinctly – loss and fragility, the awkward placement of the ritual objects, the obvious sincerity of the articulated love for the unseen child hits hard: why was I, as a viewer feeling the sense of losing something I have never owned?

The next aspect of the video-song is even more mysterious: the musician whispers into the ear of the ritual performer, and with a simple smile, he (the ritual performer) begins an invocation that is at once self-conscious, spoken, stilted, and devout. Khasi “prayers”, are usually offered as chanted arguments, put across in sets of reduplicated words. But this invocation comes through not as a chanted narrative but as a request, a conversation with the primeval ancestress, in short, as a prayer. This represents the ongoing encounters of traditions with modernity. This is, perhaps, a reminder of what it means to look back, for belonging through the oral tradition.

Fast forward into the still image of the sacred gourd set against a still background of the universe, because the most sacred object in Khasi ritual is, of-course, the gourd: the carrier of sanctified water, or alcohol. In the background, the musician picks up the guitar into a compelling thrum, the video merging into the confluence of song, story, image; form becomes content: the divine order is made manifest, and I, as the viewer, am still.

Pahsyntiew, she of divine origin, lured with flowers appears non sequitur and her story narrated, unintelligible, in the background (Wanphrang tells me that it is centrally referenced in his “sonic noir” film, Lorni, the Flaneur). The only reason I knew it was that story, was because of the most helpful subtitles that the authors of the song put in. But ‘She’, who is lured by flowers, is lured with a fistful of the common yellow flower found everywhere, that people like to weed out! But Pahsyntiew leaves, leaving behind the coral and gold necklace that directly references Wanphrang’s film Lorni, the Flaneur. The construction site, the ritual performer dressed in a jain boh and swinging his mic stylishly, the musician precariously perched on those cement pipes, come together as compelling images that ask us to “leave the playground of the gods alone”! The Khasi Hills are not a resource mine! But, perhaps, the playground of the gods is already forsaken, and perhaps these gods will never come back. Even so, they sing and sing and sing these words as if convinced that it would do some good.

Provocatively, Wanphrang told me, that there are two kinds of people who play gatekeepers to what Khasi tradition is “supposed” to be. One who are the elderly, the storytellers, the ritual performers, etc. And the second are comprised of those Khasi “purists”: people who reduce tradition to restrictions. But there are a group of people who do not feel inclined to subscribe to either perspective. They want to posit an identity of their own which allows them to participate in the tradition without feeling accused of appropriation by the so called “gate keepers”.

So how do I understand Jer from this context? Ñion are musicians who connect with the Khasi sense of belonging and they want to transmit this tradition in the way they know how, and in doing so, own it and make it theirs. Those who understood the variations within tradition, have passed on. But this is not to say that tradition is fixed or can be owned. And, this is what I take away from this song-narrative, a complex of symbols that are replayed to remind the Khasi youth that it is only in context of the contemporary Khasi cultural and religious multiplicities that we can understand who we are. As they keep repeating in their other song Shem, shem ban wanrah (lit. discover and return).

(The author is a Researcher in the Department of the Estonian and Comparative Folklore, University of Tartu, Estonia)

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