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Singing their own song
Roll over Mumbai and Delhi. Drumroll for Guwahati, Shillong and Aizawl, the new music capitals of India.
Tales of how even a taxi driver in Shillong can hold forth on John Lennon are not urban legend. In a city where children learn to strum a guitar as soon as they begin to walk, music is a huge part of daily life. And this is true not just in Shillong - called the rock capital of the country - but across the North-East. Chords are learnt just as religiously as multiplication tables and music teachers are, not surprisingly, everybody's favourite. Since English is widely spoken, learning the lyrics of Pink Floyd or Steely Dan songs are not difficult. Moreover, the North-East has been exposed to Western music for generations - the missionaries brought the tradition of choral music and British and American soldiers during World War II brought popular songs of the time. As Papon, the frontman of folk electronic group East India Company, and a huge draw in Assam, says, "Everyone here can carry a tune. "
With such a rich music legacy, the North-East's contribution to the musical landscape of India has, sadly and strangely, been very limited. This is largely because the North-East has been neglected and treated like the 'other'. While there was never any doubt that bands from the region were just as talented as - if not more than - counterparts in Delhi or Mumbai, the lack of visibility and a well-oiled PR network has meant that they were rarely nominated at music award shows or included in festival lineups outside of the North-East.
Soulmate, a blues-rock and soul band from Shillong, are perhaps the only success stories from the Seven Sister states. Lou Majaw, the Indian avatar of Bob Dylan, is another name that music aficionados are familiar with, while the Shillong Chamber Choir made headlines last year by winning the second season of the television show, India's Got Talent and performing for US President Barack Obama in November at Rashtrapati Bhawan. Naga band Abiogenesis have created their own exceptional genre of music, 'Howey', a mix of Naga folk tunes and modern music. The band, which has even created its own wind instrument, bamhum, have been listed for a Grammy thrice.
But whether or not the rest of India is listening in, the music scene in the North-East has blossomed and diversified. From Assamese death metal band to Naga folk blues and Mizo rap, no genre or sound has been left untouched.
"There are a few bands that are beginning to get out of the classic rock mould which has been prevalent in the region forever, " says Keith Wallang, the go-to man in Shillong. Wallang manages Soulmate and runs Springboard Surprises, an all-encompassing venture that doubles as a production and management firm in Shillong. "The classic rock bands still exist, but you'll find a lot of metal, alternative rock and indie sounds coming out of the region, " he says. "One good thing is that bands are finally composing their own music and it is good. "
Guwahati, the charming capital of Assam, has taken over as the music capital of the region. There are a lot of young bands which are experimenting and pushing the boundaries like never before. Bands like Warklung and Rocky Baba, formed by PhuNingDing - a Karbi Folk Rock singer and composer from Karbi Anglong district in Assam - have seamlessly fused elements of folk and rock to create a unique sound just as Reuben Mashangva, who is called the father of modern Naga folk blues, who plays with an indigenous violin-type instrument, tingtelia.
In the past two years, pubs and cafes have sprouted all over the city, giving musicians and bands an outlet for expression and performance. "Guwahati is where it's all coming together now, " is Nassif Ahmed's confident assertion. Ahmed, a free-spirited photographer, Bullet lover and filmmaker, has seen the transition unfold before his eyes. "Today, I can catch a live gig in the city every Saturday night, " he says.
In what must be much-needed encouragement for local talent, Hit7, a 24-hours music only channel began streaming in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura from August 1. Launched by the Mumbaibased LSD media, the free-to-air channel will also have its own version of Coke Studio, 'Bandstand', which will give upcoming bands a platform to showcase their talent.
Ahmed, the man behind Bandstand, was pleasantly surprised when he started going through the demo tapes that bands sent him. "I frankly wasn't expecting too much, since you normally don't find so much talent in most cities, but it was all here just waiting, " he says.
One of the bands that is being touted as perhaps the biggest thing to come out of Assam is Shades of Retribution. The death metal band from Duliajan featuring Vedant Kaushik on vocals, recently released their debut album Xongram (Struggle For Freedom ) to rave reviews, despite singing in their mother tongue, Assamese. Lucid Recess, a band formed by brothers Amitabh and Siddharth Barooa with Partha Boro on drums are considered to be among the most inventive and impressive alternative metal acts in Guwahati. Boomarang, a young band from Mizoram, won critical acclaim after doing a series of gigs in Delhi and performing at the Great Indian Rock show.
Rain of Hearts, another Assamese band, according to Ahmed, could become bigger than Papon. Ahmed echoes Wallang's view that original songs are what bands want to focus on, moving away from the habit of building a reputation on covers. "A lot of bands are doing original compositions and that's a great sign, " he says. "They are not doing covers anymore, and in fact look down on any band that chooses to. "
Inspired by Tipriti Kharbangar's fame and fortune - she's Soulmate raspy vocalist - several girl bands have sprouted too. Afflatus, an all-girls rocker outfit from Shillong, was formed in 2004 by sisters Grace and Mercy Miller, Karen Donoghue and Sharon Zadeng. "Girls playing guitar is a common sight in Shillong or Nagaland, not so much in Guwahati but it's getting better, " says Avanti, who quit her job in Vodafone to become a VJ for Hit7. Avanti, 25, who grew up in Mizoram and graduated from Delhi Univeristy, moved to Guwahati three years ago and knows what her peers are listening to and what they want. "The new generation is influenced by punk and a lot of EMO-style music (music of bands like My Chemical Romance and Dashboard Confessional). "
A strong gospel and choral culture has given rise to a genre like gospel rock in Nagaland. Bands like Alice in Wonderland, Felicity and Blended For Him have earned themselves fans after performing all over Nagaland and Manipur.
Nagaland, incidentally, was the first state to devote an entire government department to the promotion and development of music in the state - the Music Task Force, an initiative that other state governments haven't yet replicated. The biggest achievement of the MTF is the annual Hornbill Rock contest that offers a handsome purse of Rs 10 lakh to the winners.
While Guwahati and Shillong have got rock and metal covered, Aizawl in Mizoram has gained a reputation as a hip-hop and rap haven, mainly because of the success of Michael M Sailo. Sailo is perhaps the most accomplished rapper in the North-East, with two albums - Ka Duhaisam (My Ultimate Wish) released in 2004, and 2008's Chapter 2: A zual thin e (Chapter 2: It gets better) - to his name. Introduced to hip hop by his Kenyan friend when he was in college in Pune, Sailo quickly realised his talent for rhyming. Known as the Mizo prince of hip hop, his Mizo rap is enjoyed by everyone from teeny boppers to senior politicians. His song Tribal bounce that fuses a Mizo folk song with hip hop has become one of his biggest hits.
David Koch, who's heavily involved in promoting upcoming bands in the North-East with his company Rocka Rolla, is hopeful of things opening up. "There's a lot of interest from places like Delhi where they want to hear bands from the North-East, " he says. "In fact, I'm planning to take five bands like Shades of Retribution, Lucid Recess and Rocky Baba for a series of gigs. "
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