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Music in Shillong: At the Brink of Change?

Sound Plunge

Music in Shillong: At the Brink of Change?

The verdant valley of Shillong wakes up to its passionate music vibe. While the residents are known for having music in their blood, are independent musicians in Shillong getting a fair deal, soundplunge_test finds out.

If ever there were a city museum to be made dedicated to Shillong, maybe half of the museum would be dedicated to music, and an entire section to Bob Dylan. Shillong’s debonair Uncle Lou or Lou Majaw as he is popularly known there would feature prominently in the Dylan section, a tribute to his own lifelong tribute to the former genius.

However, Ma Lou (Uncle Lou), did not hear his first Dylan song in Shillong. He heard it first around 1968 as a pauper musician in Moulin Rouge, the then ‘it’ lounge of Park Street, Kolkata. Lou came back to the place he loved, starkly different from the noisy din of Park Street nightlife and in 1972 decided to celebrate Dylan’s birthday by starting an annual concert with musicians covering Bob Dylan songs. For the past years, Lou has been organising the annual concert and in 2013 he organised a Sunrise to Sunset concert at Umiam Lake near Shillong, reminiscent of Woodstock in 1969.

Lou Majaw however, is not the only one who would go this far for Dylan in a music-crazed city. Music and the city of Shillong go far back as intimate acquaintances. Taxis plying on the serene streets of this whimsical city have playlists that can open up new worlds for dedicated music lovers. Cover bands play everything – from The Beatles, AC/DC and ABBA to indie bands from the West in sync with contemporary times. According to some students of IIM Shillong, it is not uncommon to find trucks sporting Rastafarian flags while they go about everyday business in Shillong.

Lou Majaw in an interview with soundplunge talking about the Dylan phenomenon in Shillong.

Lou Majaw in an interview with soundplunge_test talking about the Dylan phenomenon in Shillong.

Andreas War, Programme Head of 93.5 Red FM, says there are three things that encapsulate the music culture of Shillong – according to him the citizens of Shillong are open to music of all genres, as long as the music is good. “People who don’t listen to metal will still go to a metal concert; I personally am not a big fan of the blues but I will not miss a good blues act.” He also thinks there is thriving talent in Shillong, over a wide diversity of genres. Estimating over 25 decent annual metal acts in the city (which is a huge number considering it’s relatively small population), other genres like rock, blues, jazz and progressive metal also thrive in the city. Leading independent bands of India like Soulmate, MGF and Abberant make up the diverse range of original music coming from Shillong.

Rudy Wallang of Soulmate, the leading blues band of Shillong says that there is an inherent love for music amongst Shillong’s residents. However, there is a curious lack of venues to perform. “Also the fact that most music lovers here expect bands and organizers to put up good shows without having to pay for them,” Rudy points out.

The ephemeral money and poor infrastructure situation in the city seems to be a common grouse. Carl Marbaniang, a musician and government official from Shillong says, “Music is seasonal. Most opportunities for musicians come during winter time.” According to Carl, who has stayed in Shillong for many years now, it is pointless to call Shillong the rock capital of India. “Though being called the rock capital of India the frequency of shows here is less and subsequently there is less performance space for (any) budding talent. This plays a major negative factor when considering the longevity of a band or an artist. So very few sustain for a long time in the scene.”

Andreas from Red FM agrees with Carl on this. Sustaining oneself and making a living as a musician is difficult if one decides to stay in Shillong, and as Andreas says, everyone who has made it big as a musician has had to go out to get recognition, “When it comes to sustaining oneself every pro act from Shillong makes a living by performing outside unless of course if it is a wedding band.” However that being said musicians here are very passionate about their music but without ways and means to sustain that passion, their dreams are short lived.”

Most musicians agree about the unfair treatment meted out to them, without opportunities for growth or even eking out a living. According to Rudy Wallang, the ‘music lovers’ of Shillong expect organisers and musicians to host good shows without having to pay for them. The now-Delhi based band Tarik has come out before and talked about the unfortunate nexus of corporate politics on the one hand and the government’s heavy-handedness on the other which has led to bands not finding a scope and space to survive in Shillong. According to the band, while Shillong has often been touted as the venue which attracts international talent, that is but an eye-wash. (In the recent past, Hoobastank, Firehouse, MLTR and Scorpion have performed at Shillong.)

While ‘safe’ events like evangelical events organised by the church communities or conflict resolution events organised by the government funded body are encouraged, live shows for the local talent is much more difficult to organise and get permission for. Chongthu from Tarik mentioned in an interview done last year in a Delhi-based magazine “…because of the insurgency, the government put a blanket ban on live shows. When the international band comes, the red carpet is rolled out. It’s a tourism event.”

Shillong’s ancient legends have often been beautifully mired in music. Not just in ancient times, Shillong has consistently produced musicians and bands known for their avant garde music, attracting an interest in this town worldwide. While music still remains close to the heart of its residents, evidently the people of Shillong are dissatisfied with the stifling atmosphere in which the local talent languishes for lack of opportunity to express freely and often. Political instability, the government paranoia about insurgency and money-minded corporate greed might have come in the way of independent musicians often in the last decade. Hence, it is not enough for the local musicians to be respected in the capital for their music, for real recognition most look beyond the borders of Shillong. It remains to be seen whether the status quo is broken when it comes to providing more opportunities and support to musicians and encouraging live acts in Shillong.

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