SHILLONG — In early November, the NH7 Weekender lineup and accompanying hordes of revellers will descend on the hills of Meghalaya, bringing Shillong back into the musical spotlight. If clichés came alive, the town, long represented in popular culture through a lens of gentle nostalgia, would be a skyscraper-sized kaiju rampaging through the countryside to the lilt of a playlist from the '80s.
But in reality, Shillong is home to multiple musical expressions whose influences range wide and far. There is now a boom in the production of original music and local musicians are challenging norms and asking questions through their lyrics. If you're a music lover searching for your next favourite(s), Shillong may have some surprises for you.
Funk, jazz, R&B and soul are the genres that inspire 4th Element, one of Shillong's most well-travelled musical groups. The band recently played shows in Belize and Mexico, apart from appearing in various festivals across Asia. Founding member Ribor Mb remembers the struggles of introducing new sounds to the fans.
"When we started off in 2008, it was initially difficult to get the audience for our music but within a year, we started getting more gigs. A decade later now, I think we have created an impact and we are also influencing other musicians."
Along the way, the town's musical tastes have also become more diverse. "Early on, Shillong was dominated by rock but in the past decade, musicians of other genres have come into the scene."
Blue Temptation is often hailed as a worthy successor to Soulmate, one of India's best blues bands. The band's guitarist and singer, Gregory Ford Nongrum, thinks this is a good time to be a musician in Shillong, pointing out the availability of more recording facilities, along with an integrated network of artists to work with.
Nongrum is also generous in praising his peers as he describes how exciting the musical scene in Shillong currently is. "We (Blue Temptation) are trying to be on the forefront of the blues for this generation and Dewdrops are trying to do the same with reggae. Skylevel plays instrumental math rock and when you look at the metal scene, you have heavyweights like Plague Throat."
Nongrum also contributes as a guitarist in Summersalt. The decade-old band, whose music was used in the Bollywood movie Rock On 2, incorporates indigenous instruments into their genre-blending set-up. "The music, especially the folk fusion bit of it, the social nitty-gritty and the traditional culture of the Khasi Hills converge into what we have now," explains vocalist and guitarist Kit Shangpliang.
Tipriti Kharbangar, who has enthralled audiences all over the world as the vocalist of Soulmate, says there was a time when women would prefer to stick to music in churches and choirs instead of playing in a band along with men. "But nowadays, more women are inclined towards music. People understand that it is actually a viable career opportunity," adds Kharbangar, who is known for her powerful voice and spirited stage presence.
Tipriti Kharbangar and the Clansmen will be performing at the NH7 Festival this year. The singer acknowledges technology as a much-needed fuel for musical careers in Meghalaya.
"Availability of music software like FL Studio and Ableton is helping shape the music scene here," she said.
Influenced By Life
Shillong's musicians are experimenting with more than just skill and technicalities. Many are trying to incorporate their lived realities into their music and aiming to be an outlet for people to express their disenchantment with society and politics.
Known for its interactive shows, Tarik is a band with a punk-inspired sound and lyrics on subjects such as moral policing, corruption and the passiveness of middle-class society. When asked about the inspirations and irritations that drive the band's lyrics, frontman Wanphrang Diengdoh, who is also a filmmaker, points to the overwhelming angst in the town, across generations.
"Unfulfilled promises of bygone eras and rising aspirations of the young find a common playing ground and that is their angst. And all you need is a motive," he said.
Tarik's latest music appears in Diengdoh's new feature film Lorni the Flaneur.
Sarahlee Nicholas, 4th Element's former vocalist, jokes about dropping out of school twice and hating studies as she pursued her one true passion. "Music has been a roller-coaster ride and once I realised that it can give me an income, there was no turning back."
Nicholas has seen many women torn between their music and other responsibilities.
"It all depends on the individual. It is all about you and how you connect with the people that you work with. I took it very seriously when I started off and it is paying off now, but there were times when I thought I was done. It does not matter if you are male or female; if you are good at it, there will be people to promote you."
The 27-year-old is now pursuing a solo singer/songwriter avatar and wants to take her time as she works on new material. Nicholas lists Meba Ofilia and Andrea Tariang as her contemporaries to look out for. "They are fighters, they write music like crazy and they know good music. Young people here are open to every genre under the sun, and from there, many get inspiration and create music. And all that can be experienced live."
In Shillong, hip-hop is a party staple that is often blaring out of car stereo systems and influencing the town's street fashion. There is an active underground scene in the city that draws on the best tropes of the sub-culture while adding a local twist.
Andrew Lyndem, who goes by the stage name Prophet Of Esoterical Metaphors (POEM) and Ratul Hajong (Grey Jaw Ripper) are part of the Cryptographik Street Poets, whose album will release early next year.
"The streets of Shillong are an inspiration. We are also heavily influenced by politics and social issues, comic books, post-apocalyptic cyberpunk content and horrorcore," says Lyndem. The soft-spoken 26-year-old believes Shillong's music promotion still has some way to go. "Right now it is still about the popular music, the club music and the cafe music."
Lyndem thinks technology is great, but can also leave out some good musicians. "With the internet as a platform, you can reach many people but at the same time, you need to understand market aspects. You have to be an expert on so many things, it's not just about the music."
Shillong-based rap group Khasi Bloodz, which combines English and Khasi rhymes, has performed in festivals across the country. They were seen with Cryptographik Street Poets and other regional musicians in a 2016 music video—Anthem for the North East—which has been viewed more than a million times so far on YouTube.
Imti Kharkongor, who manages Khasi Bloodz, has high hopes for the genre. "People have been working hard behind closed doors to create this scene, doing it for a long time. With the kind of quality content local artists are coming up with, Shillong's hip-hop can only get better."
Places To Play
Despite being known as a musically inclined town, Shillong did not have a sustained live music culture for a long time, apart from occasional DJ nights and shows dispersed across the year. Things have changed over the last couple of years. Now visitors who flock to Khyndailad, in the centre of town, get to choose between multiple gigs every weekend.
Jason Manners, 30, is the founder of Rockski, an events firm that started organising weekly gigs at the Cloud 9 club in 2015.
"We believe that an artist should be able to pull in crowds and if you are good, you earn more. It gives musicians a chance to also understand the business side."
Manners is glad to be a part of the larger story but as a musician himself, thinks branding should be balanced with good songwriting. "Everyone is talking about the bands, the festivals, but no one is talking about the songs. Festivals and brands should not become bigger than the actual music."
Valte Chongtu is a musical freelancer who has played guitar with more than ten bands over 18 years while juggling a day job. He remembers the insurgency-wrecked days of the late nineties when live gigs were rare. Even after normalcy resumed, it took some time for local bands to find a stage.
"For many years, besides concerts with bands from outside, there were barely any gigs," he recalls. Valte has more hope for the next crop of talent. "Upcoming musicians are starting to think long term. It used to depend on which promoter you know but these new guys have gone DIY and there is no dearth of talent here."
The town's cafes are also helping musicians find an audience.
The pop art-inspired decor and bohemian setting of Mellow Mood Cafe has provided a stage for many musicians. 30-year-old Zachariah Nongkynrih co-manages the establishment, located in the vibrant Laitumkhrah neighbourhood. He describes the potential he sees from his own interactions.
"There are new genres coming up in the town, from jazz hop to other experimental music. We keep seeing new faces, an indicator that the scene has grown."
Nongkynrih tries to organise at least one gig a week and entry fees can be as low as Rs 50—making it more accessible to teenagers and college students.
Filling Big Shoes
Shillong's established names continue to entertain audiences around the country while reminding younger musicians of the town's legacy. The flamboyant Lou Majaw remains a poster child of Indian rock'n'roll, popping up at venues across town, while Rudy Wallang (Mojo, Soulmate) is one of the country's premier guitarists.
A former member of the band Mojo, Keith Wallang heads one of the North-East's most prominent talent management firms. He believes that Meghalaya has a lot more to offer if the right environment is created. "We need music and arts in school curriculums and also a standard continuous support for artists that are already out there doing their thing."
Summersalt's Shangpliang believes that music can be a culturally uniting force. "Mainstreaming of artists from the Northeastern regions will facilitate cultural exchange. This artistic musical integration promotes a sense of ownership and pride—because India belongs to everyone in this country, whether you are in Delhi or Bombay, or Shillong."