The Hills Are Alive

This November Singapore will reverberate to the sound of music by the Shillong Chamber Choir

10/12/2018 12:51:10 AM
written By : Nithya Subramanian Print

It would not be too much of a stretch to say that Asia’s rock capital lies in a little hill town in Northeast India - Shillong, where Bob Dylan is worshipped above all others. For several decades now, the city has hosted an informal celebratory concert every year on his birthday - 24 May - and its grand old man of music, Lou Majaw, a Dylan impresario, has even been featured in the New York Times.

Shillong, the capital city of the scenic state of Meghalaya – 5,500 ft above sea level -  thrives on music. In the last few decades, the town has become the mecca for western music all across the country thanks to its many music festivals and world-class local bands like Soulmate, which have now made a name for themselves across the country and abroad.

It is almost a given that to be from Shillong is to be musical. Western music in this highly literate hill-state is a matter of tradition. In a largely Christian community where gospel singing is a part of daily life, performing on the stage is a natural process.
It was in such a musically fecund environment that the much-lauded Shillong Chamber Choir was founded in 2001 by Neil Nongkynrih, a gifted pianist and chamber music professional trained in London and Europe.

The multi-genre choir sprung to national prominence when it won the reality TV show India’s Got Talent in 2010. The same year also saw the choir winning three gold awards at the 6th World Choir Games for Musica Sacra, Gospel and Popular Music. They also performed for President Barack Obama and his wife during their state music to India.

They will be performing in Singapore on November 4 at the Esplanade Theatre.

Here are some excerpts from an interview with the founder and winner of India’s Padmabhusan, Neil Nongkynrih:

India Se:Let’s rewind a bit. You returned and started the choir in 2001. What were you doing in Europe and why did you choose to return?

Neil Nongkynrih:My life in Europe was basically spent a lot with just the piano and myself because I would practice 8-10 hours a day. I studied music, mainly piano in Europe and London specifically. I also taught music in Oxfordshire and I was starting to do the rounds, doing little concerts, solo recitals and concertos. I never thought that I would come back to India because I was doing western classical music and at that juncture I didn’t see much scope for western classical music in India, let alone in the North-east. So what made me come back was actually a sort of a holiday because I had a bad back and I needed to rest after so many years, having been away for 13 years. I hadn’t really been back home, except for the one time, so I decided to come  for a long holiday. But that long holiday has turned out to be almost 20 years now and as they say, the rest is history. It’s too long a story to be condensed under one question as to how and why I stayed but I definitely did not come here with the intension of staying.

India Se: How did the idea of starting the SCC come to you? We know Shillong has a reputation for having very musically inclined people and that you do talent scouting among poor village children. Is there such a huge talent pool in Meghalaya?

Neil Nongkynrih:Well, first and foremost the Shillong Chamber Choir does not consist of poor village children. It consists of mainly middle class to, in some cases slightly above that, young people. The idea started very simply as little get-togethers in a wonderful person’s house - Christine Iralu’s. She was very supportive. You could say it was actually Christine Iralu and I who started the choir with the help of another generous friend, Patricia Mukhim. We just came up with the idea of singing together and yes that was the time I discovered there was so much talent here. But I felt I could do something with the voice; although there was a lot of talent, there were not enough people who played musical instruments to form an orchestra. A lot of people tinkled a bit on the piano but there wasn’t enough variety of instruments to form an orchestra, so the best alternative I could see was to go into choral singing. So that’s how it started; one thing led to another.

Is there a huge talent pool in Meghalaya? Yes there is a huge talent pool in Meghalaya but most of it is untapped and ungroomed. 

India Se:The choir has also started singing new renditions of Hindi film songs. Was that something you were compelled to do in order to gain mass appeal and how do you keep it from diluting your image as a Chamber choir?

Neil Nongkynrih: Yes it’s true, we were forced in the beginning to do it, because I never saw myself doing film music, whether Hollywood or Bollywood. But because of a television programme that asked us to do something and because television is for the masses, we considered doing it. At first I didn’t think I would be able to do it but when I got my hands into it and when I found that I could still do this and at the same time retain my own identity, it opened up a whole new world. It became something very exciting because I’d never done something like this - taking old, since I prefer to go a lot into the retro, and going back to the  older films, tunes of the bygone days or melodies that people reminisce about. I’d take that and use it to create our own sound and style. I am not doing cover versions, I’m simply taking something and recreating it; making it my own, which is great fun and which needs a lot of thinking and creativity in this particular art form. I would call it a different art form.

Thus our image as a Chamber Choir is not diluted because we’re adding harmonies that you wouldn’t get in an ordinary pop song. You could take something like ‘Ye Dosti’, which is predominantly a one-part piece and make it into a 4 to 5-part harmony piece with other melodies intersecting. It becomes something that only a choir can do and that’s what has kept us within the framework of choral music.

India Se:Despite having been colonised by the British, Dutch and French, Western classical music has not flourished much in India where regional Indian music and Bollywood music dominate everything. Does this mean there isn’t an infrastructure to support the grooming of Western musical talent?

Neil Nongkynrih: I think there is a very close connection between western classical music and the spread of Christianity and hence its presence is most felt in those areas of the country where this influence has settled, apart from the Parsis in Bombay who have driven this form of music through their own culture. And the development of this particular infrastructure is predominantly within these spheres.  

If you are going to look at other Christian states like Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya and maybe Goa, because of their connection with the church, the offshoot of that is western classical and western music in general.

The Parsis are the prime examples of promoting western classical music in India, and this happens primarily in Bombay and they’ve had wonderful infrastructures to uphold it and for this reason the big events generally happen here. Then again, that’s because of their connection with the British, and their love for western classical music is so ingrained that it almost seems part of their culture. 

India Se: There is also a lot of emphasis on prayers in the home. Do members have to be Christian to be a part of the choir?

Neil Nongkynrih: Prayer is very important for me because it gives me a lot of strength and it also gives me a sense of unburdening and asking God for grace. Grace means help and power in time of need. Do members have to be Christian? That has never been a law, but the group that won India’s Got Talent and the group that is still here with us are all Christians. We have had a lot of people from different faiths come and be part of our lives in various forms but the actual singers are all Christians.  

India Se: You have won many awards including the Padmashri. What are your future plans for SCC?

Neil Nongkynrih: Yes I have won many awards and when I look at my awards I sometimes see there’re two different people because the guy who wins the awards is somebody else. I’m basically a very simple person at home and my future plans for the SCC is that I want them all to settle down at the right time and basically be happy and content with whatever they do. They might not sing professionally in the future, maybe there will be a final goodbye tour which is kind of sad when I think of it now but all good things have to come to an end. Then again when one chapter ends a new one opens. So I just hope that as it says, ‘From glory to glory, from strength to strength’ is fulfilled.   


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