Forgotten melodies

Are Khasi singers and their compositions losing popularity as Western music takes over? Sunday Shillong meets these artistes and tries to find out what is plaguing Khasi music industry today

By Olivia Lyngdoh Mawlong

As the tune of Tiew Kulab travelled from a distance and melted in the afternoon sun that filled my room with warmth and memories, I imagined my grandmother readying her gramophone. I remembered the lazy afternoons of my childhood and the familiar songs which we hummed leisurely. That was December 2017.
It was after many years that I heard the popular Khasi song that made Rana Kharkongor, then a young and handsome man, a household name here in the eighties. With time, many old singers and their Khasi songs have been forgotten as Western music gains popularity among youngsters. While some songs can still be found on YouTube, many have become part of our memory.
For over a year, I had been trying to trace the favourite singers of my childhood but circumstances had held me back. Finally, I thought it was time to pay tribute to the great artistes. It was not difficult to find the singers as many of them are still active performers at All India Radio. The long conversations which followed not only gave an insight into their life and career but also highlighted the problems plaguing the Khasi music industry today. While some are hopeful that technology will go a long way to better the situation, many are sceptical.
Excerpts from the interviews:

Rana Kharkongor

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The singer was a sensation during his young days. He wrote the lyrics of several Khasi songs and was part of the famous album Jingkieng Ksiar. His one of the most famous songs, Tiew Kulab, won hearts, especially of women.

Kharkongor now lives in solitude in his small two-storeyed house in Umpling. He stopped singing four years ago due to ailing health. He seldom meets visitors and was surprised and annoyed at the same time when he saw an uninvited guest knocking on the door. For him, interviews are banal. “So many people come to speak to me and after some time, they forget. What’s the point,” the singer said, a hint of annoyance in his voice was palpable as he showed the living room and went inside.
“What is it about,” he asked, settling down on another sofa, a cigarette loosely hanging between his two fingers. When the purpose was made clear, he agreed to talk, albeit nonchalantly.
Kharkongor started his singing career in the early seventies and had even performed in cities outside Meghalaya. “I had been to (erstwhile) Calcutta for recording,” he said.
Later, I found out that almost all artistes of yesteryear would go to Kolkata for recording as there was no studio in Shillong back then.
Kharkongor has 29 albums to his credit. Among his other famous songs are Nga long tang U Nongbylla and Imat ka don ka daw.
Tiew Kulab is on YouTube and has over 40,500 views. However, the singer was unaware of this. “I have not uploaded any song online. There is no good response to the songs nowadays. There is no incentive either,” said the award-winning singer.
A sketch of a young Kharkongor, framed with care, hangs on one of the walls. He looks different, more charismatic and energetic. The look in his eyes is intense in contrast to the despair that the 67-year-old’s eyes reflect.

John Gualbert Soanes

The senior artiste is oblivious to age. Music, he said, keeps him going. Soanes’ “music room” in the first floor is his small world where he experiments with sounds and tunes. A large framed photograph of Rabindranath Tagore sits comfortably on top of a showcase.
Born on April 24, 1946, Soanes started his singing career in the early sixties. With 300 compositions, Soanes’ contribution to Khasi music is immense. A Grade ‘A’ singer at All India Radio (AIR), the singer writes his own lyrics and composes music. He also records his songs. “I have all the sound recording set-up here. My youngest daughter is a singer too and I have recorded her songs,” said the singer as he showed the wired equipment in the music room.

Phi dei o phi dei is one of his compositions dedicated to his wife. Soanes, who can play several instruments including guitar and piano, said Jingphohsniew is one of his favourite songs. The 73-year-old artiste is still an active performer on radio.
Soanes, who resigned from his government job in 1984, is a multi-lingual singer and sings Hindi, Bengali and Assamese songs. “I had been to Mumbai in the seventies and met some of the famous music directors and composers of the time like Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Shankar Jaikishen and Jaidev. Jaidev asked me to learn sargam and so I came back to Shillong and got into the only music school then in Laitumkhrah,” recollected the singer as he narrated the story of his learning Hindi and Bengali.
Soanes said he was fascinated by Tagore’s songs. He took out a copy of Geetobitan, a collection of Tagore’s songs, and sang a few lines in Bengali.
When asked about an old wooden box in a corner, Soanes smiled and went up to the box to reveal the secret.
A gramophone, and that too in a working condition, is his proud possession. Soanes fished out a record from a bunch and adjusted the pin of the old player. Instantly, the ambience changed and the clear baritone filled the room. “I still listen to the old records. Nothing can match the sound of gramophone,” the proud owner said.

Tanbor Swer

No one can miss Bah Tan’s house in Nongshilliang, I was told. One can see music everywhere. Musical notes decorate the gates and window grills.
Swer is one of the oldest artistes who sings Khasi and Gospel songs. He became associated with AIR in 1967. “Late Webster Davies Jyrwa and B Kyndiah were present during my audition. I became a Grade ‘A’ artiste at one go,” remembered the 71-year-old singer who is now a member of the AIR audition board.
Swer started composing songs in 1963 and began singing a year later. He was the first Khasi playback singer and sang for the film Ka Ri ki Laiphew Syiem, which was released in 1982. In the same year, he made the first Khasi cassette Na La Rympei. He also won the first open-to-all Khasi songs competition in 1997.
Swer has closely worked with other famous singers like Headingson Ryntathiang and Rana Kharkongor for a literacy album Hikai ia u ‘A’. The song, which is on YouTube, has over 46,000 views and another song, Sha skul ngan leit, with other atistes has around 42,000 hits.

Among his other popular songs are Ki nongpyniap and Ia im suk lang. Swer founded the first Gospel Band — The Endeavourers in 1975. He is also the founder leader of the group Relations. Swer said his interest in music started at a tender age when his parents and relatives would take him to concerts of famous Khasi artistes like NC Shabong (his father), Khain Manik Syiem, Helen Giri, Siken Swer (his uncle), Elken Swer at Dinam hall. He would admire these artistes and they inspired him to take up singing.
When asked about the notes on the gates and grills, Swer said they were not mere designs but tunes. “I composed them and gave for wielding. Once the man making the grills got a note wrong and I made him do it again,” Swer said as he took the visitor around the house and the small garden.

Roytre Waroh Pde

The senior artiste looks more of a humble government employee, which he is, than a singer. But those who know him and his songs can instantly see the artiste in him.

Pde started singing in 1998. He has also composed Khasi songs and produced around 18 albums. The artiste took a break from his office work to meet Sunday Shillong outside the Secretariat building. Among his famous songs are jadu aiu sha and Jingim nongkyndong, both of which are on YouTube. While the first one has over 2 lakh views the second has over 45,000. But the artiste said he was unaware of the songs online.

The singer, who never had any formal training in singing, said he takes his talent as “a gift of God”.
“I am happy to be a singer. But at present, singing or composing songs is only a hobby,” said Pde, who is also a playback singer and member of SBUK.

Justine Sunn

The 53-year-old singer is the youngest among the artistes that Sunday Shillong spoke to. Sunn is also a Grade ‘A’ artiste at AIR Shillong. One of his famous songs is ‘Shi eh ka khwai dohkha’, which is also on YouTube and has more than thousand hits.
“Shi eh ka khwai dohkha is based on my experience about going fishing,” said Sunn who has sung around 100 songs.
Sunn is also a composer and has written lyrics for other artistes. He too feels his talent is God’s gift as there was no formal training. “A singer is a messenger of God, love, humanity and environment,” said Sunn, who finds time from his government job to sing and teach a choir group.

Phyrnai Marbaniang

The music composer and singer said he does not know the “A, B, C” of music and follows his own notes. “It comes from within as music is in my genes. My elder brother (Fluentist Marbaniang) was an established composer and singer. I make my own notes and nobody understands that. I am semi-literate,” said Marbaniang as he burst out laughing.
According to him, the only Khasi classical song writer was EBR Wanswett, the writer of the famous Khasi song Kynriam u pnar, u bhoi u war…, who was a great inspiration for him.
Marbaniang had also worked in Mumbai for some time. He recently helped in the composition of the song Mei Ramew for Terra Madre. “It was a joint effort and I especially helped with the chorus tune,” he said. The humble artiste said Fluentist was a name in the Khasi music industry and was the composer of Khasi folk song Ha Syrngiew Jong U Bnai.

Headingson Ryntathiang

The singer, who is more popular for his Western songs, has sung several famous Khasi songs like Kong Tyngkoi, La Shet U 57 and Por Ba Lah Leit kin ym wan phai composed by Loren Marbaniang. Ryntathiang said he still performs at functions, concert and for AIR Shillong.

Ailing industry

As the wheel of time spins, the popular singers of yesteryear feel technology has done much harm to the local music industry. All the singers whom Sunday Shillong spoke to feel piracy and online streaming of songs have ruined the market for music CDs. “To be a singer today, one has to struggle to earn a living. There is no money and no profit in selling CDs,” said Sunn.
Songs of several artistes are on YouTube without their knowledge. Despite high viewership, the artistes fail to earn any royalty. There is also no action from authorities concerned to stop such leakages.
Many singers rue the waning popularity of old artistes and their songs. Local artistes should be appreciated and given a platform to showcase their talent. They should be invited to perform at functions and programmes and the Arts and Culture Department should also play an important role to promote these artistes, they feel.
With the rising cost of sound recording and tepid sale of CDs, artistes hardly make money by selling songs, informed Rana Kharkongor.
“Also, singers these days are well-trained but they lack natural talent,” said Ryntathiang.
Swer, while appreciating young singers and their compositions, said they should come with meaningful songs “which can help revive our culture and tradition”.
“There is too much imitation. Artistes should be original,” he added.
Soanes feels new-age gadgets are a value addition and Khasi music should be upgraded by adding more instruments.
Despite grievances and the onslaught of technology, veteran artistes and elderly listeners believe that old lyrics are melodious and meaningful. “They have strong lyrics with deep meaning. Some songs virtually take you down memory lane. I think with proper preservation and promotion, old songs too can retain their popularity,” said a young listener who is an admirer of Rana Kharkongor’s love songs.

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