HT Brunch Cover Story: From Shillong, with love and music
If you’ve heard of the Shillong Chamber Choir, or better yet, heard them sing, you would know William Richmond Basaiawmoit, their lead singer. As he gains popularity by the day, attending celebrity weddings and brushing shoulders with the likes of Shah Rukh Khan, what many people don’t know is that he has more in common with King Khan than just parties. William was mentored by Brother D’Souza, also SRK’s mentor. Something they’ve discussed whenever they’ve met.
He also didn’t pick up singing at a church choir. But William quotes the Bible often, calling himself a spiritual believer with a non-religious equation with God. This is something the 32-year-old has in common with the members of the choir he leads – though he wasn’t there when they won India’s Got Talent, 2010. The fact that he was not part of that winning choir was an early reality check: chasing fame, he realised, is a mistake. Instead, he decided, he should embrace working with the choir as though it were a family with a collective goal.
Members of the Shillong Chamber Choir, whose recent Christmas release is an album called Come Home Christmas, are never auditioned. Instead, they’re ‘spotted’ and signed up. William was spotted by ‘Uncle Neil’ (Neil Nongkynrih, founder of the choir), when he was back home for the summer break while pursuing English Honours from Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College.
“Uncle Neil was part of the audience of a show I did. He came up to me after that and asked me to sing. And then I was in the choir! This was 12 years ago and SCC already had a name and reputation, so it was a big thing for me,” says William, who was 19 years old then.
“Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown” —William Richmond
A tenor, he was made the lead soloist shortly after he joined. “Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown,” he says when we ask him about it. Yes, being the soloist means you are the face of the choir, but William knows he’s nothing without the choir. He’s learned this modesty from his choir family. “Uncle Neil is very particular about that, so there’s no googling ourselves,” he smiles.
His most humbling experience as a member of the choir was when the choir won India’s Got Talent while William was in Paris, studying Western classical music and opera. “I regret it but I also don’t regret it. I am the frontman, doing all the stunts and moves, but this will always be a grounding thorn in the flesh – I need the choir, it doesn’t need me,” he says. Funnily enough, this makes him feel safe. “It shows that if you improve, you will be appreciated fairly,” he shrugs.
Win some, lose some
There are temptations to pursue a solo career, complete with Bollywood projects. But, as fate would have it, one particular project involving the choir fell apart because the content of the song’s video was inappropriate. And though the choir does not flaunt a religious tag, they do have morals and principles they refuse to compromise on. “It’s like puncturing a hole in the ark – the water will come in,” comes another biblical reference from the young soloist, as he reveals that they recently released a song with Shekhar Ravjiani as a part of a fundraiser concert for artists.
Have relationships taken a hit due to his pre-Covid hectic lifestyle? “In life, when you make a particular decision and let it absorb you in a good way, you need to make sacrifices in relationships. It’s a good test to know who’s going to be there in life and who won’t,” William says. It’s never been smooth sailing in any case, even with his family. They have had moments of doubt. “But when you stick to something; don’t act like a leaf blown around by every gust of wind that comes along; respect grows. They know your heart’s in it and start supporting you,” he explains.
Given the biblical references, I can’t help but ask how religious he is. Not very, it turns out. He doesn’t associate music with religion, but with spirituality. “I do believe in God. I don’t think love for God is an emotion. But years of trusting and seeing that trust go against you and yet bear fruit if you hold onto your faith in God, is something you realise later,” says William. Prayer has helped him through breakups, betrayal, anxiety and the likes. “Music will boost you. But faith in the verse, ‘All things happen for the very best to those who love God’ will have a lasting impact,” he says.
“When you make a decision and let it absorb you in a good way, you need to make sacrifices in relationships” —William richmond
Any regrets? “Abandoning my piano lessons! I had a boyish restlessness and stopped learning at Grade 3. My father predicted I would regret it… but it’s never too late,” says the self-declared ‘scatter-brained student’. But doing theatre and music on stage in college has made him the outspoken and confident choir leader he is today. Traits that come in handy when he bumps into CEOs and celebrities at award shows and celebrity weddings!
His fame is based on old-school word-of-mouth, not PR or management. “Our audience comprises people who’ve heard about our music, not those who have seen an ad that said we are the best choir in the world,” he says. “Today, young people are chasing after the wrong definition of ‘fame’. We have stereotyped it as a number of Instagram or Facebook likes. That doesn’t mean you ignore the market. You just make sure you retain your soul.”
William is now used to being recognised on the streets of Shillong, when he’s out and about running errands or eating at his favourite momo joints. In the pre-Covid days, he often chatted with people along the way, but on one occasion, the fans were too shy to speak to him, so they whistled the tune of a choir song! “I laughed and smiled… and walked slightly faster,” he laughs!
The foodie has also taken up a new hobby – he’s the butcher at Uncle’s Ark, the home delivery service for groceries the choir has started. “When people find out, they are shocked!” But his meat dressings are quite the talk of the town! All this as he does online concerts to raise funds to feed six villages and run the SCC school.
What he’s even more proud of is his contribution to the gourmet section of Uncle’s Ark – a South Indian fried meat recipe he picked up when they went to perform in Cochin, he explains, promising a taste during my maiden trip to Shillong. Impeccable music, amazing food, and a fellow DU alumnus-turned-celebrity to guide me. Post-Covid trip sorted!
Follow @Kkuenzang on Twitter and Instagram
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, January 10, 2021
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