Caught In A Time Warp Soutik Biswas The Times of India Saturday, June 17, 2006
On a balmy Friday night in Shillong, Tipriti Kharbangar and her band Soulmate are belting out gut-wrenching blues in a cavernous pub called Cloud Nine. "The blues is my teacher/ The blues is my friend/ The blues never hurts me/ It just heals me in the end", sings Tipriti, as her mates plunge into a gritty sound. The audience is a mix of the young and old who have paid Rs 200 each to go in and listen to blues and fusion acts like Soulmate and Mermaid, a grungy girl band playing out lead singer Gweneth Mawlong's angst-ridden takes on life and times, alternated with her mate Lolly's sedate guitar licks.
Shillong is a place where the music stopped - in no other city in India possibly do rock and roll, blues and country music rule so strongly. Even hard metal, really. There are almost no DJs scratching records and playing hip-hop, and there are no 50 Cent and Snoop Dog clones. It's also a place where people take to the floor listening to peppier 12-bar blues. Where a politician and ex-minister is an ace blues harp player. The once-pretty hill town is also home to ageing Elvis Presley imitators, and two music festivals to celebrate the music of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley.
Fifty-nine-year-old Lou Majaw with his flowing hair, skin-tight denim shorts, yellow socks, white sneakers and a giddy stage presence that is a mix of James Brown and Angus Young. He is Shillong's own Bob Dylan playing out the essential Dylan songbook without a break for the past three decades on the legend's birthday. Cabbies play Deep Purple and Jethro Tull on stereo as they weave in and out of diesel fume-spewing traffic, and muscled bikers roam around town in AC/DC T-shirts. The place teems with bands with names like Mojo, Meghalaya Love Project, The Honey Drippers, Euphonic Trance, Brain Damage - and yes, Jerk. And they all take their music seriously. Mermaid's Gweneth, locally called the 'poetess singer', writes doleful angsty lyrics. Soulmate's sassy singer Tipriti writes a lot of her own songs because covers can be such a bore. She says their music is sometimes even influenced by local Khasi tribal folk, but in the end all musical roads lead to the blues.
"When I listen to my local Khasi folk, it reminds me of the Mississippi delta blues", says Tipriti. When people are not singing the blues in Shillong, they are trying to imitate Elvis Presley. On a slate-grey afternoon recently, Felix Ranee is in mourning after losing his wife and nephew, but mention Elvis and his face brightens up and he breaks into an impromptu Elvis act, belting out Blue Suede Shoes with frenetic air guitaring and nifty pelvic thrusts and footwork. At 47, Felix is an unusual Elvis clone - he is short, squat and balding. He says his life changed after watching the singer's movie That's The Way It Is. He got himself Elvis suits, glasses and silver belts, and began singing his songs. And nothing else mattered to him after that, "nothing at all".
Then there's 61-year-old Shandaland Talang, who began worshipping Elvis ever since he read somewhere that the star "loved his mother, only later fell in love with his wife, and gave away charity to friends". The music of Bob Marley also hangs heavy over the cloudy town. So much so that a local fan Keith Wallang grew dreadlocks, read up Rastafarian texts, and decided that the reggae legend's music was better than his Rastaman vibrations and reed. So a decade back, Wallang launched a music festival on the reggae star's birthday on February 6 where three local bands participate regularly and a few thousand fans turn up at a farmside lake. "Marley speaks the truth", says Wallang.
It is difficult to pin down precise reasons but observers reckon Shillong, like most north-eastern states, got its bluesy musical groove thanks to a strong Christian missionary movement in the region, and a consequent affinity to western cultural mores. Many of the musicians cut their teeth in church choirs singing gospels - like Tipriti - and have a more limpid, honest approach to their words and music unlike the spoilt, flashy and unimaginative rock bands in mainline Indian cities. But for all their musi-cal virtuosity, Shillong's rockers simply cannot think of making a living off music.
Though there is an increasingly thriving rock music scene in India's main cities, Bollywood's stranglehold will mean that Indian rockers will always remain second- or even third-class citizens in the industry churning out retreads of western standards. But not all is lost. The world is beginning to take note of Shillong's love for music - some spotty international acts like Petra, Michael Learns to Rock, Firehouse and Air Supply have played in town. The local bands are getting invited to pubs and festivals outside the state. And hey, even musical time in Shillong may be beginning to crawl forward. Felix Ranee rues his children don't like their father doing the Elvis routine anymore. "They listen to hip-hop and rap". The times they are a changin'? The writer is deputy editor with BBC News site.