Is Shillong really the 'rock capital' of India?
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Is Shillong really the 'rock capital' of India?

History has it that the people of Shillong have never really experienced a contemporary outstanding act. The absence of mainstream ensembles in the town has prompted many to ask the longstanding question, 'Is Shillong truly the rock capital of India'? We try to find out.

music Updated: Nov 11, 2014 17:49 IST
Debarun Borthakur
Debarun Borthakur
Hindustan Times

It’s been a while since audiophiles in Shillong, the so-called ’rock capital of the country’, got to experience a topnotch international rock act, something which the well-informed rock music buffs would anonymously associate with the hilly town.

The 70s rock veterans, Smokie, would be performing in the Hornbill Festival, Nagaland, on December 3.

We know they got a taste of international death metal last June when Dying Fetus headlined Shillong Open Air festival, but for a town that swears by names such as Queensryche, Fire House, White Lion, White Snake and the likes, don’t you think that of late, Shillong-iites are missing out on their staple diet of classic rock? And when veteran English rockers, Smokie, will be paying the Northeast a visit this December to perform at the coveted Hornbill Festival 2014, Shillong will yet again miss out on something which they cherish and love.

This is not the first time when an international act of worth has given Shillong a miss. History has it that other than a few, the people of Shillong have never experienced a contemporary outstanding act. The absence of mainstream ensembles in the town has prompted many to ask the longstanding question - Is Shillong truly the rock capital of India? We tried to find out.

The issues

Soulmate is one of the best musical export for Shillong in terms of blues and rock 'n' roll. They have performed in many gigs around the world including 23rd International Blues Challenge organized by The Blues Foundation of America, in Memphis, Tennessee, USA, in February 2007 and 2010 and have opened for rock giants like Carlos Santana.

So, what makes a place the rock capital of a country? Can it be gauged from the number of international acts visiting the place? Is it about the overall musical vibrancy of the town? Or is it simply the musical soft spot of a majority of its people towards a particular genre? Finding the answer to the query is not only difficult, but at times is tricky. "Being in a seismic zone, yes you can say Shillong is the rock capital of the country," jokes former home minister of Meghalaya and acclaimed musician RG Lyngdoh.

He adds that if the enthusiasm of the people of the town towards rock music is anything to go by, Shillong is indeed one. But infrastructure-wise, it is not. "There are limitations in the town, but things are changing for good," he says.

Recent times have seen many international bands visiting the capital of Meghalaya. But if we are to consider their popularity in the mainstream circuit, it is indeed waning. Bands such as Sepultura, White Lion, Firehouse or for that matter Mr. Big, which were once forerunners of the late 1980s and early 90s rock, have lost their grandeur and are surviving merely on their glorious past.

"These bands are no one in the market. I think they come to Shillong because they have no other place to go. There is no demand for them elsewhere," says veteran musician Lou Majaw. So, even if their concerts were sold out in Shillong it cannot be counted as a great merit. Instead if Shillong could have brought Mumford & Sons or Foo Fighters to play a concert in 2012, many would have agreed that the hill town has the culture of rock alive and kicking. "At the first place it is not easy to get an international act to perform, and if they are at the top of their career, it can be even more arduous," says Lyngdoh.

So, the next best option is to get the second or third rung acts? "Reigning bands will ask a lot of money that will shoot up the ticket prices making in unaffordable for the audience. Instead, why not get someone at half the price," he says.

Infrastructural limitations too are a case in point. International bands are very particular about their sound and hence many prefer carrying their own equipments in tours (remember Iron Maiden’s chartered flight 666?). And let’s be honest, to provide the kind of sound many of these bands are acquainted with or prefer is not available anywhere in Meghalaya.

After having performed in the hill town three times in last eight years, Firehouse indeed has a soft corners for Shillong. Rumours were afloat when they first came to Shillong in 2004 that even the pan shops were closed before there performances as whole of Shillong was at the concert.

Hence, the event organisers are left with little option but to hire them which ultimately shoot up the overall cost. "As far as I know organisers who get international bands usually hire the sound from Mizoram. I don’t think Meghalaya has such hi-end sound to pull off an international band," informs Victor, vocalist of the band Scavenger Project.

A lot of people say that Shillong lacks proper accommodation facilities to house international acts, which is true, but do musicians really care about it? Music veterans in Shillong are of the opinion that when you visit a place to perform or rather share your music, accommodation and food are petty issues, and musicians actually don’t care about them.

"If you invite someone to your house, you offer whatever you have. You are inviting your guest to your environment, so you should offer him an experience of your place and that needn’t have to be a five star treatment," says Majaw. He adds that people come to Shillong not stay in a five star hotel (which of course the state doesn’t have).

The local scene too seems a bit gloomy as there are hardly any gigs happening in the town. Though there are bands mushrooming everyday hoping to make it big in the circle, there are not enough venues for them to perform and gather laurels in Shillong. "Even in weekends there are no gigs," confirms Lyngdoh. Except for a performance once in a while in Cloud 9 or Tango, the scene doesn’t have anything exceptional to offer.

In short, there is no rock musical vibrancy in the town so that it could be called the rock capital of the country. More importantly, visiting any one of these places will not help you discover any new sound, something which is a trademark of any musical hub. So, don’t expect a 1960s Liverpool, which holds the distinction of being the "city of pop" (thanks to The Beatles) of the world or a late 1980s Seattle, which gave the world the gift of grunge, out of Shillong.

The capital of Meghalaya indeed has bands, but they are still stuck playing covers and don’t really care about inventing something exclusive to the place or style. "At times I feel we still have a colonial hangover. We are obsessed with white skin. Young boys in Shillong blindly follow whatever foreigners have to offer. They should come up with their own thing," Lou adds. Many like Lou are of the opinion that the heydays of Shillong’s rock scene are past and all that is remaining is its hangover.

"We have always heard about Shillong being this, being that… if the scene is so vibrant there why we don’t have enough good bands other than Soulmate. It seems people there are living in past glory," opines a veteran musician from Delhi who didn’t wanted to be named.

The undying spirit

However, if there is one thing that can bring Shillong anywhere closer to be called as a rock capital is its undying love for rock. From fashion to food habits, rock is more than a genre of music for its society. In short, the general enthusiasm of the people towards rock can add a different dimension to the whole notion of its being the rock capital.

"One might say Bangaluru or Mumbai are the actual rock hubs of India, but in Shillong it is not just rock as any Western music has takers. I want to know do families in the metros talk about rock music on a dinner table like the way we do in here," asks Lyngdoh.

Lou Majaw has been organsing Bob Dylan birthday celebrations for the last two decades though the maestro hasn't ever visited the town.

Sounds true, doesn't it? Especially, if one takes into account how religiously the people of Shillong have been celebrating birthdays of virtuosos such as Bob Dylan and Bob Marley for years without them ever visiting the town, it’s delightfully surprising. So, can the town’s indomitable spirit of rock alone justify it as a center of it in the country?

"Having enthusiasm alone cannot achieve anything. And I think whatever little interest people used to have too has faded away with time. A lot people who turn up for gigs in Shillong are usually from outside. I think only 10% of them are from Shillong," says Lou, who have been celebrating Dylan’s birthday every May 24 for many years with gigs around Shillong.

In a nutshell, Shillong indeed has a history of rock music which was affluent in the 1970s and 80s, but today it’s only the stories that have remained. With bands like The Great Society, which kicked off proceedings way back in the 70s, the scene picked up well, but it failed to sustain itself. Today the youth from the town has been pushed to believe the town still reigns as the so called "rock capital" of the country, which actually it’s is not. If we are to term Shillong in reference to rock music, we would rather go with - Shillong, the heritage rock capital of India.

First Published: Nov 11, 2014 17:36 IST