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How home-grown blues band Soulmate found a cult following

Over the last decade or so, Soulmate, the blues duo from Shillong, have found cult following, and the reclusive, whimsical attitude of rock stars

HT48HRS_Special Updated: May 20, 2016 19:23 IST
Soulmate is known for its unique blues-laden sound
Soulmate is known for its unique blues-laden sound

Over the last decade or so, Soulmate, the blues duo from Shillong, have found cult following, and the reclusive, whimsical attitude of rock stars.

The last time Shillong-based blues band Soulmate performed in Mumbai was during the annual Mahindra Blues Festival in February. They are returning to play in the city and though this mid-year gig is highly unusual, we aren’t complaining. Can we expect something interesting to transpire? “Actually, the fewer the expectations the better,” says Rudy Wallang, the songwriting force and guitarist of Soulmate. “We have a ‘couple’ of surprises for everyone who comes to the gig though. Really good surprises,” writes Wallang, over email from Goa.

It’s been an uphill battle getting Soulmate to talk. Their replies to a slim list of questions is even slimmer. Their reluctance to interact altogether, our requests and the PR’s coaxing notwithstanding, is obvious in their replies. It’s a bit of an oxymoron for a band that has, back in the day, been as expressive as their music.

Also read: The Tetseo Sisters on keeping the music of Nagaland alive

Three albums and 13 years old, Soulmate, comprising Wallang and vocalist Tipriti ‘tips’ Kharbangar has given Indian indie its unique blues-laden sound. You think Soulmate, you think long Hendrix-like guitar solos from Wallang and power vocals alternating with mellow blues from Kharbangar. Their songwriting prowess draws upon personal inspirations from The Allman Brothers Band and Freddie King, to Janis Joplin and Alanis Morissette. You hear blues, jazz and psychedelic rock in their albums Shillong, Moving On and Ten Stories Up. Their sound isn’t hurried and maniacal, but slow and exploratory. A deviation from today’s fast-paced, consistently upbeat times.

(From left) Vicent Tariang, Rudy Wallang, Tipriti Kharbangar, Leon Wallang (Photo: Baia Marbaniang)

“A lot of people have told us, ‘Why don’t you move to Mumbai or Delhi? There is more there.’ But we don’t want to. We will not sound the way we do if we live in the city,” says Kharbangar in an episode of the TV show, Soundtrek, sitting on the edge of the protected Sacred Groove forest in Meghalaya. In the music-jam series episode, Soulmate collaborate with local Khasi musicians to recreate their popular song, Set Me Free. It’s this connection to their city that gives real soul to Soulmate. “Our songs are about our life experiences,” says Wallang in the same episode.

The assumption, then, is that Soulmate is always writing and recording new songs. But they have only released three full-length albums, no EPs, and no singles in the long gaps. Are they perhaps working on anything new we could hear at tonight’s gig? “Not at the moment. We have been working on a few new song, but we will wait a while before we decide to bring out another album. Then again, who knows,” writes Wallang, punctuating most of his answers whimsically with emoticons and ample teasers. True rock star attitude. Straight, earnest answers are for lesser mortals, and those seeking fame. Not those who’ve found it.

Soulmate’s greatest moments, according to Wallang

Whisky with Buddy Guy

One moment that sticks in memory is the time we met Buddy Guy in his green room just before he went on stage. He sat us down and told us briefly about how, in his younger days , blues musicians would travel and play for “a drink of whisky and the eye of a beautiful woman”.

Steaks on the road

In Bengaluru once, we’d finished our set, packed our gear and were getting ready to eat when the cops came in and said it was past the permitted time.They didn’t even allow us to eat. So we decided to grab the steaks, some bread, and walk out. The cops were amused. But we were not about to let those juicy chunks of beef go to waste. There we were, on the pavement, guitars on our backs and steaks in hand. Wish we had pictures.

That Santana jam

While opening for Carlos Santana in 2012 at Formula One Rocks in Delhi, we were in the middle of playing a song called Lie, which is a slow blues song. I glanced to my right and saw him (Santana) by the side of the stage with a guitar strapped on. He gestured to ask if he could join. I was stunned. I waved at him, but Tips was fully into the song. I kept trying to tell her “Hey Tips, Tips, Carlos is here.’’ Finally, she heard something and turned back to see Santana playing to her right. She started crying.

- With inputs from the documentary A Day in the Life of Tips (Tipriti Kharbangar) Soulmate, India, presented by Hungry Cat.

Gig alert

What: Soulmate will perform on May 20, 9.30pm onward.

Where: Blue Frog, Mathuradas Mills Compound, Lower Parel

Call: 6158 6158

Entry: Rs 350; Rs 1,000 (full cover, post 9pm)