Striking the Right Notes

Shillong, well-known for its western music scene, has more to unfold in its soundscape

Evening shadows fill the night

Glowing starlight shining bright

I will be here till morning light comes round again

Nothing can harm you if you trust in me, my friend

Rest your head on my pillow

Until the dawn, until the dawn

The year was 1970. Bombay hosted the all-India Simla Beat ‘Battle of the Bands’. Participants came from every part of the country, but one band stood out – the Shillong-based The Fentones, who won the first prize. They presented the ballad “Until the Dawn”, originally composed by the English band Christie.

Bands like Blood & Thunder, The Vanguards, The Pohrmen Sisters, The Rumnong Brothers, and The Great Society were some of the other well-known bands of Shillong.

Lou Majaw and Shillong Chamber Choir have placed us on the global map. Recently, KC Lights, a choral group of children from Kiddies Corner Secondary School, led by Brian Wallang made the country proud. They bagged two gold medals at the World Virtual Choir Festival, Bandung.

How about a bit of Soulmate, who has shaped blues in India?

Like to have a cup of tea

Well, that’s the first thing I do

When I wake up

In the morning

It just wakes me up so gently

Shillong’s love for music has been documented over the years. A walk down the road and you can hear snippets of conversations among young tourists who say that music brings them to the “Rock Capital of India”.

The musical sensibilities reflect the multi-cultural influences that have shaped music here, be it western, Indian (including Bollywood) and the traditional folk music.

The river flows

The digital space has further given a boost to genres in Shillong. The rising popularity of K-Pop shows how the youth feel a sense of global belonging.

Contemporary artistes like Big-Ri and Meba Ofilia, Khasi Bloodz, Kabir have allowed the space for rap to grow. 101 India came out with the song, Anthem for the Northeast in 2016, featuring Stunnah Beatz, Symphonic Movement and Cryptographik Street Poets, among others.

While many may not give hip hop its due respect, it has allowed space for Generation Z to express themselves. This is seen in the song, HipHop by MC Yaki and Mejied Kyrpang.

Bollywood music is equally popular with Hindi songs being played in cabs. Young college students can be seen humming to Arijit Singh songs. The film Rock On 2 got Usha Uthup to collaborate with the Summersault Band in the song, Hoi Kiw, drawing both admiration and criticism.

Back to roots

There has been a resurgence in traditional folk music of Meghalaya.

The video of Sur Duitara by Na Rynsan Ki Sur Tynrai starts with a question, “What is the sound of the duitara?” To this, a young man replies, “It is the language of the mother.” The lilting softness of this group is rooted to earth and captures the essence of the gentle slopes of the ‘Scotland of the East’.

The music video of the song, Na Rynsan Ki Sur Tynrai, shows traditional Khasi instruments, Ksing Shynrang, Besli and the Duitara, along with visuals of the Nongkrem Dance.

The Khmih Creative Society has captured the angst of a generation in their song, Ah Ko Ri.

The youth, in particular, seek to find meaning through music. Mejied Kyrpang, a rapper captures contemporary political issues in Jingshai.

In Garo Hills, Rich Rocker and Dolrich Marak are bringing Garo music to the fore – the influence of western music shows in their song, Dongkamgen. Pop influence is noticeable in the song, Na Khap Wa Boon by Ram Suchiang and Dawbhaki Pde.

Gone are the days when appreciation for indigenous music took a backseat, owing to the western influence. The new generation of musicians explores their identity through their music.

Music schools in the city

The Department of Music, St Anthony’s College has been around since 2005. It offers courses in western, Hindustani classical and indigenous music of Meghalaya. The idea is to promote the traditional folk music forms and inculcate respect for other music forms among the students. Prabhat Karki, a third semester student of the department echoed this vision, adding how he was initially not interested in knowing about Khasi traditional music. As the collaborative spirit among the students grew, so did his fascination. “Khasi music has so many facets; it’s very deep and each note has a great meaning,” he said.

“Credit must be given to Helen Giri in setting up this department,” said Bala Pynkmen Shadap, Head of the Department. She said how music is integral to identity and hopes for a day when music will be made compulsory right from the school level.

Similarly, Martin Luther Christian University (MLCU) has a Department of Music; its vision is to hone the talent here and create job opportunities for musicians. Music as culture is what they focus on. Music psychology and music therapy are key focus areas. It was through the initiative of Helen Giri that the department was set up in 2007.

The Shillong Music School was established in 1984 by Richard Nongrum. His son, Peter Marbaniang, runs the school. They only offer western music – guitar, piano, drums and violin are taught.

The faculty in these schools are all qualified to teach music, with some having a doctoral degree in music.

What can we do?

Brian Wallang gave us an idea about the challenges that musicians face. He stressed the importance of creating opportunities here, adding how there is no venue for the youth to express themselves. He is positive about the blooming café culture as spaces of artistic expression. “Talent should be respected.

Unfortunately, most of the people here prefer to download music for free. In addition, people consider music to be a hobby,” he said.

A major concern is the role of the government in this regard. Competitions are expensive. Apart from the financial constraints, there has to be a concrete body to fight the obstacles. Wallang spoke of the music taskforce in Nagaland, a private body that is funded by the government.

Because support is minimal, parents are reluctant to allow children to pursue music. That music is seen as a ‘hobby’ is the first challenge. Avenues, along with government assistance, can challenge this mindset.

Shadap said students themselves don’t know about their own indigenous music instruments, beyond a few. Music literacy, in particular, the traditional folk music, is important. That will shape our students to be at par with their fellow musicians, both nationally as well as, internationally.

Generation Z is hopeful about a positive shift. Passion is the most important character trait to have. Catherine Kordor Laloo, first semester student in St Anthony’s College said, “If music makes you happy and that is what you want to do again and again, take a leap of faith.” Her senior, Aiemkumba Imchen continued strumming his guitar while saying, “Be serious about your passion. Music should reflect our times.”

Diversity lies at the heart of any art form. The seven notes of music are the same in all cultures. As citizens of Shillong, we need to re-think about what we can do to shape the talented musicians of our city. As Dr Mebanlamphang Lyngdoh, Head of the Department of Music said: “Performance alone is not enough.”

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