In the late 1977-78, a band fronted by a diminutive, muscular, longhaired man wearing incredibly tight, frayed shorts, made a Breakthrough. It was perhaps an apt title for one of India’s first original English rock albums at a time when rocking meant swinging primarily to Dum Maro Dum. At 60, Lou Majaw still sports long hair— albeit with a receded hairline —and tight and frayed shorts, and belts out songs with the vigour of a 16-year-old. But he hardly pens soul-stirring songs like Sea of Sorrow and Girls.
However, the “grand old man of rock” in the Northeast has inspired a new crop of rockers who are not content with singing cover versions of their idols ranging from Elvis Presley and The Beatles to Iron Maiden, Styx and U2. And they have been fortifying the “last bastion of rock” in India, reaching out to a wider audience with experimental fusion of haunting tribal tunes.
“Last bastion? This is the first bastion of western music in India, and its musical tastes set the tone for the rest of the country,” says music critic SB D’com, a walking encyclopedia on Northeast bands. He recalls how Delhi IITians were ignorant of the Great Punk Railroad band despite hosting a rock show in 1993.
For many in the Northeast, music is in their blood. No one exemplifies it better than Meghalaya former home minister RG Lyngdoh, guitarist and ex-member of the legendary Great Society. He was one of the catalysts behind Shillong’s two Guinness records—the largest drum ensemble and the biggest guitar ensemble. “If anything can elevate the Northeast from monotony and hardship, it is music, which also helps this divergent region unite,” he says.
That music brings acrimonious ethnic groups together was demonstrated when tribal people backed non-tribal Amit Paul all the way to the Indian Idol final. Similarly, Debojit Paul’s victory in Sa Re Ga Ma Pa last year bridged the divide between the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra Valley and the Bengali-heavy Barak Valley in Assam. And on both occasions, a majority of voters were western music lovers who had little or no idea about Bollywood.
“Music is the panacea for this strife-torn region, and if the region produces bands by the bakers dozen, it is because of a certain madness for music,” says D’com. Harmony was primarily the reason why Guwahati-based bands like Friends and Moonwind got together to celebrate John Lennon’s birthday on October 9 with a Concert for Peace. The first of its kind, the concert aimed at promoting melody since “very few sing cover versions of The Beatles these days”. Lennon, incidentally, is the third musician after Bob Dylan and Bob Marley whose birthday is celebrated across the Northeast. For the past five years, Shillong-based musician Keith Wahlang has been organising The Roots festival across the region to commemorate Bob Marley’s birthday. And Majaw has been organising a bash on Bob Dylan’s birthday every May 24 since 1972.
The emphasis on peace is understandable. For all the appreciation, western music in the region went through a rough patch in the eighties when militancy was on the upswing. Lack of patrons and places to perform made most bands travel to the metros for sustenance. “Shillong, for instance, no longer is the rock capital of India mainly because it has lost its nightclub culture,” says Majaw. On the flipside, however, boomtown Guwahati has over the years become the hub of music with lounge bars and discotheques offering “jobs”. Mizoram band Black Stone Cherry, for instance, is a regular in the discotheque circuit. The upswing, apparently, is due to the general perception that the Northeast is no more dangerous than other parts of the country today.
Hitherto un-happening places like Nagaland capital Kohima and Mizoram capital Aizawl too are taking to music like never before. The Nagaland government, the first in India to declare music as an industry, has taken the lead in sponsoring rock shows such as Rattle & Hum. Musician-entrepreneurs like Theja Meru started Dream Cafe in Kohima for the youth to hang out and discuss music, believing that music can bring peace in a state torn by separatism. “We are looking at music as a creative employment avenue,” says Meru.
In Aizawl, a group of music lovers have come together to form M-Plat or Musician’s Platform. “We want to encourage youngsters to be actively interested in music,” says M-Plat catalyst Nono. “For the past three years, we have been sponsoring equipment and venues for upcoming bands besides assisting artists in recording, marketing and distribution.”
According to D’com, bands playing rock, jazz, blues, reggae or pop in the Northeast have the advantage of catering to all classes of people ranging from bureaucrats and students to villagers and even cabbies who often play Credence Clearwater Revival, Bee Gees and The Carpenters on their car stereo. “The bands know they have to be really good for there are many to catch on to mediocrity. It is the reason why they become so popular elsewhere in the country, and of late, abroad too,” he says.
The Northeast bands, though, lag behind when it comes to professional approach. But as Nono says, they are getting better with more tours on the domestic circuit.