Back in the 60s and 70s, the Dinam Hall in Jaiaw was the hub of live music performances in Shillong. With its sound-proof walls and Assam-type frame said to be built by the British, the hall was where all top local musicians performed.
Therisia War recalls the performers tying a string to a plywood tea box and playing it to produce a sound similar to bass guitar and also using two tablespoons as percussion instruments. “We were very poor at the time. We had to make do with whatever produced musical sounds,” she says.
Those were the days when radio was the medium playing the best of the Western music world. Reminiscing about the radio days, veteran singer Phom Lyttan says he would carefully listen to each and every word of an Elvis song playing on Binaca Hit Parade programme of Radio Ceylon with the sole intent to later perform it on stage.
“Print media was non-existent at the time. We never heard of lyrics booklet. So what we did was memorise the wordings any time our favourite song played on the radio,” he says as he closes his eyes to remember the visuals of the yesteryear.
Shillong in those years had only one small local publication called Junior Statesman magazine, a supplement of The Statesman newspaper from Calcutta, which was a tabloid. It catered mostly to lovers of music in the town by writing on local bands and artistes with advertisements of upcoming beat contests.
The Fentones’ win of Best Rock Group in India in the Simla All-India Beat Contest 1970 was also reported in the magazine.
Variety Shows in Parish Cathedral Hall and Don Bosco Hall organised mostly by Laitumkhrah Sports Club and Malki Sports Club were also pioneering. In these shows there would be choirs, bands, solo artistes and comedians performing. “St Cecelia Choir, which comprised me, my brothers, sisters and uncles as members, regularly performed in Variety Shows in Parish Cathedral Hall,” says War.
Shillong has a rich musical history, especially western, as during the 60s and 70s musicians performed all western genres ranging from folk-oldies to rock and also jazz. The Berrywell Kyndiah Orchestra and The Jaiaw Orchestra were said to be the first jazz bands of Shillong. The Jaiaw Orchestra was regularly invited to perform in The Shillong Club and Pinewood Hotel to entertain oil estate officers and tea planters from Assam.
These wealthy Assamese oil estate officers and tea planters, having been impressed with performances of local musicians, then invited them to perform in their oil estates and tea garden clubs in Upper and Lower Assam.
“Old people in Digboi and Dibrugarh would remember me as I sang there many a time,” says Lyttan, who was missing from the music scene for years till Fashion Society Shillong brought together the old-day sensations on stage last month.
Calcutta, as it was called in those days, also has a special place in the hearts of senior musicians of Shillong. Pubs like Moulin Rouge, Trincas, Barbeque, The Great Eastern Hotel mostly had Shillong musicians as performers.
Trincas in Park Street especially had always been a favourite joint of Toto Wallang, Headingson Ryntathiang, The Fentones, The Vaudivilles, The Vanguards, The Living Dead, Blood and Thunder, Supersound Factory, Lou Majaw and Eddie Rynjah.
“Trincas for us was a gateway to touring the rest of India. We knew that if we strutted our stuff well, we would get offers from honchos in the industry,” says Headingson Ryntathiang, who was famously called ‘Engelbert Humperdick of the East’.
Fetes were also one of the platforms for musicians at the time. Rock bands and solo artistes would perform their originals and covers. Cover songs for the audience to choose to make the artistes play were listed in a register.
Halcome Tariang recalls those years in the 70s and 80s when people from different localities would walk to see his band King Apple perform in a fete in Mawlai.
“There was just peace and love around as we played our classic hits. The audience danced feeling those vibes to the core,” says Tariang.
These fetes started from 3 o’clock in the evening and went past midnight. “But it was very safe during those times,” says Ryntathiang.
The fete culture, however, suffered much in the 90s with the rise in insurgency as administrators laid restrictions on late timings.
At a time when television (or internet) was unheard of, All India Radio was a boon to local artistes as it provided a platform and helped launch the careers of many legends. “I recall my first audition in AIR. Usha Uthup was one of the judges. I did very well and soon people of Shillong came to know of my voice listening to their radio sets,” says Ryntathiang, who had received the National Icon Award from the Election Commission of India and Tirot Singh Award twice from the Government of Meghalaya.
The walls in his living room are adorned with picture frames of his music records released in contracts with HMV.
Reflecting on changing trends in music today, singer-songwriter Jop Wahlang says, “Ours was timeless, well-composed song-writing rich with meaning and refined taste. Our era was the Golden Age of music!”
Yes music today is devoid of intelligent thematic and lyrical ideas. Bob Dylan who welcomed literary techniques like beat poetry, black humour and existentialism is the best example of how intellectual the art of song-writing was in the 70s and 80s.
(Top:The Beat Five)
“The music back in our parents’ time was composed with real musical instruments rather than programmed gadgets like nowadays. We play classic rock because we want to revive a timeless genre,” says Hubert Malngiang, keyboardist of Colors.
Candice Kharshiing, a college student, says, “I grew up reading the beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and found Dylan was very much like them.”
The narrative of the flower-power hippie generation was that the youths were disillusioned with the Vietnam War and hence became escapists to run from home joining the Woodstock and Isle of Wight festivals.
“This only led to better song-writing by artistes of that age as there were themes of war, isolation, disillusionment, quest for love and peace. These subjects are never found in music today,” adds Kharshiing.
“A song like Imagine by John Lennon with the words imagine there’s no country with no one to live or die for is the most profound commentary. And yet it has a time-tested relevance to it,” says Bakyrmen Nongkynrih, a teenager.
Many like Aubrey Suting are disillusioned with the music today. She says, “Nowadays artistes release just singles or few music videos, which have a lot of impropriety. There haven’t been explorations in song-writing as Joni Mitchell or Neil Young did.”
With the Rewind concert organised by Fashion Society Shillong, the city once again experienced the old Shillong music and the legendary artistes like Ryntathiang, Lyttan, War and Tariang performing was like a musical time machine.
These artistes took the audience on a journey down memory lane entertaining them with hits of The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Connie Francis, Hank Williams and Elton John, among others.
The sole objective of the concert was “to give a new platform to these old artistes”, says Wanisha Pyrbot Lyngdoh, advisor to FSS.
And indeed it was a crowd puller as both the old and the young danced to the classic tunes of oldies pop, country and rock sung by the artistes. Pyrbot said, “We feel this music has more purpose and meaning.”
Ryntathiang and War echoed the same view saying that music of their generation had good messages. Ryntathiang dreamily recalls those times, “We quoted these songs when writing love letters. And they were always a success!”
Tariang praised the initiative by FSS, “This is a wonderful effort. But we need to organise more concerts to revive classic songs.”
Aldous Mawlong, Chairman of FSS whose personal favourite is Tariang, confirmed, “Rewind has bridged the gap between then and now. We will come up with an Elvis and Beatles concert come December”.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Supplement of The Shillong Times newspaper September 3, 2017 (link: http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2017/09/03/blast-from-the-past/)