The North East states of India have an establishment for independent musicians and bands playing original contemporary gospel music compositions. soundplunge_test finds out whom and what to look out for in the gospel music scene, and what it is about gospel rock that finds ready patrons here.
When “Alone Yet Not Alone” bagged one of the six Oscar nominations for Best Original Song in January this year, it opened up a hornet’s nest. Coming from a little known Christian film, it toppled over ready contenders like Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift and Coldplay making several Oscar trackers cry foul. Gospel music, or what is commonly known as Christian music in contemporary times has always had a run in with other independent genres of music from its very inception. It’s very inception, in fact in the 50s, was as a reaction to the suggestive anti-Church, sexualised rock-and-roll, the leading proponent of which was of course, Elvis Presley. (Even though later Elvis’ church gospel rock album sold over a million copies in the US alone, and has been reproduced, distributed, pirated and illegally transported across borders everywhere else in the world, including India.) By the 60s, gospel rock stood as a stark alternative to the radical counter-culture flowing through in the independent music scene, with John Lennon having famously remarked once about how The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. In the Beatles-loving North Eastern belt of India however, both gospel rock and the Beatles variety of pop and rock-and-roll exist peacefully, side by side for decades now.
While gospel music often gets left out in the contemporary youth’s identity in the world for its often clear religious priorities, except in the deeply Christian pockets in parts of the world (the current generation tiptoes around religion gingerly at best), gospel rock concerts draw throngs amongst the Christian network of the North Eastern states of India. In fact, Mizo band Boomarang, who are trying to establish a mainstream base in the country have come out and said how it is difficult to sell rock albums in the state due to the immense popularity of gospel music. In an interview with a local newspaper, their lead vocalist Atea said, “Most of us are Christians (nearly 90 percent of Mizoram’s one million population); so a major part of the population listens to gospel songs.”
In anthropologist Duncan Mc Duie Ra’s recently released book North East Migrants in Delhi: Race Refuge and Retail, the author goes on to explain how the North East fosters and participates in a global Christian culture. Duncan in his book – which explores the North Eastern migrants’ inevitable alienation on several counts in a falsely cosmopolitan Delhi writes, “Global Christian networks bring visitors to the North East from other parts of the world. The growth in the local music scene in the North East has spawned a number of Christian Rock bands (and many non-Christian rock bands too), and it is common to have concerts combined with Christian events. Choirs are also popular, and the Shillong Chamber Choir is highly regarded in the North East and around the world.”
Victor Vanlalhruaia, guitarist for the popular Christian rock band Magdalene from Mizoram says, “I guess it is our lyrics that make us gospel rock. We consider bands like Linkin Park as our influences.” Listing his fondest memory of playing at The Great Indian Rock Festival in Delhi, where they were playing with bands like Demonic Resurrection, Joint Family and Scribe, Magdalene has played all over the North-East (Manipur, Guwahati, Tripura, Shillong, Dispur, Itanagar) apart from other college festivals like IIT Roorkee and IIT Delhi, IIT Kanpur. “Recently we played in Bodoland which was a wonderful experience as they have a strong connection with gospel music.”
Victor thinks that while Christian rock bands might be jostling for popularity with bands playing other genres in the North East, it remains a fact that there is an audience across generations for gospel music. Further, gospel music need not be specific to rock. “DownDoubt, a band from Aizawl, describe their music as gospel but what they play can range from new metal to progressive. So it is not necessary that every Christian band plays only rock music.”
Victor goes on to say that their music is good enough to find resonance even in secular spaces. “It happens many a-time that we play to a mixed audience outside the realm of a ‘Christian’ concert and our audiences, including people from other religions sing along despite the song lyrics being about Jesus. India is a secular state at the end of the day.”
While gospel rock in the country is popular in pockets encouraged by church community concerts, it gets mainstream recognition in the North East. Magdalene, which started in 2005, sold 30000 copies collectively of their first and second albums. “That is not taking into account the number of CDs that get pirated in the North Eastern states and even across borders. A few of our songs which have become hit songs like ‘Life Beyond Death’ are sung as covers by many gospel bands that have sprung up.
Victor thinks that the popularity for gospel seems to be ebbing at the moment, as the audiences move towards pop. However, he seems confident that this must be a temporary shift since gospel music in the form of gospel rock, Christian rock, Rap Gospel or Contemporary Gospel has existed in the world for decades now.
It only seems appropriate to note in this context how music’s expression and purpose is perhaps bigger than personal conceptions and beliefs. Johnny Cash’s life comes to mind and indeed that taut moment in Walk The Line where while auditioning for a record label, Joaquin Phoenix as Cash gets as instruction these very words, “…when you were hit by a truck, and you were lying in the gutter dying, and you had time to sing that one song, people would remember after you’re dead, one song that would let God know about what you felt about time here on Earth, one song that would sum you up, you’re telling me that’s what you’d sing… something you felt. So I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. That got nothing to do with believing in God, Mr Cash.”