Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

A few years ago British comedian Paul Merton visited Shillong as a part of his unimaginatively titled program ‘Paul Merton In India’. Told in advance that it was India’s Rock Capital, or ‘Rock City’, he’d been expecting something big: hot bands, new sounds, a certain edge. He didn’t bargain on what he got, which was some balding, grey-haired dudes strumming folk tunes and proclaiming – with a certain amount of religious fervour – that Shillong was not just the Rock Capital of India, but The World.

Merton was a non-believer, and thought that the citizens of Shillong had been ‘brain-washed’ into believing that the city was the peak of Rock ‘N’ Roll. He came to this conclusion after spending a tuneless afternoon in the rubbish-filled Police Bazaar, shopping for a leather jacket, before being talked into attending a Lou Majaw concert at Cloud 9 – billed as Shillong’s ‘premier Rock Venue’.

Either Merton’s team were lazy in their research or Ma Lou is the only musical story in town. It’s certainly true that any writer or TV crew who comes to this part of the world is told to look up Majaw, Über celebrant of Bob Dylan’s birthday and founder of The Great Society – proclaimed recently by Vivek Menezes in 3 Quarks Daily as ‘probably the greatest original Indian rock band of all time’. But Ma Lou is in his sixties, and being permalinked to Señor Dylan has only obscured his own achievements, making him the focus of a patronising story for an international audience; come and see the sleepy hill station that worships Bob.

But besides Ma Lou’s yearly tribute to Dylan, there is little other evidence to support the idea of Shillong as a rock hub. There is no doubt that The Scorpions, White Lion, Air Supply and Sepultura were once huge, but their best days are a long way behind them. The same can be said for Eric Martin – soloist and former lead singer of Mr Big. In fact, when looking at the bands and artists who have come to perform in Shillong over the last decade – Firehouse and Michael Learns To Rock are perfect examples – one comes across a few common themes. Namely, that these bands were most active in the 80s and 90s and their popularity is on the wane in every market except Asia.

It’s not feasible to give Shillong the title of Rock Capital of the World based on these acts having played here, even if twenty thousand punters turned up for Eric Martin’s show. If anything, the huge crowds for Martin, Firehouse and White Lion only prove how starved for live entertainment the people of the Northeast are. It also points to the fact that local promoters don’t have the money or the clout to compete for the big names and instead have to go after bands that are sinking back into obscurity.

Is it possible (and I may have my residential permit revoked for saying so) that, as a musical destination, Shillong just doesn’t matter anymore?  Did it ever matter?

The answer is probably no. Just because you can play the three chords required for Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door does not make you or your town special. It means you can play a Bob Dylan cover. To buy the story that Shillong is a rock hub, you have to believe that musical literacy deserves the same status as creative ability. Singing the song is not the same as writing the song, something that Bryan Adams alluded to this week when he answered, in reply to a request for advice to young musicians here in India, that they should write their own material and work hard.

Yet even if promoters in Shillong could lure the megastars like Adams, there is nowhere for them to play. When Merton repeated that Cloud 9 was the premier rock venue in Shillong, he wasn’t lying. That’s because it is the only venue for live music, and shows there are few and far between. Perched on top of the Hotel Centre Point (overlooking the 25 year old unfinished cement monstrosity that is the Hotel Crowborough, and the mind-bending traffic of Khyndai Lad) Cloud 9 is a small restaurant and bar which doubles as a night club – ideally the type of venue that would suit a lounge act, not Coldplay.

In reality, if you want to see any live music on a regular basis, you have two options; either hit one of the numerous churches for a dose of Gospel, or head off to a wedding reception – where you can listen to a cover band playing Dire Straits with a country twang.

To advertise itself as the true Rock Capital of the world, or even India, Shillong should be getting visited by current acts and developing some more original ones of its own. Kings Of Leon are not there on the list of bands who have visited, nor is Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Eminem, Antony & The Johnsons or even the ageing U2 – but Shillong is not a destination for artists that are now. It’s for performers that were. If the title was for Heritage Rock Capital of the World, then we’d be in the running. Even then, the aforementioned Adams, currently on his heavily hyped four-city tour of India, has not found the room to make it to Rock City – even though he is huge here. And the man himself, Bob Dylan, who has been on a Never Ending World Tour since the late 80s, playing over two thousand shows, has not managed to grace Shillong with His presence.

The opposite trend is reflected in CD sales locally. On the walls of the little music shop in Glory’s Plaza, downtown Shillong, I saw Kesha, Jet, Justin Bieber, Kid Rock, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, The Killers and Lil Wayne; these are the types of bands and artists that the youth of Shillong are listening to and would love to see, given the chance. And cultural hegemony can be damned; according to the owner, Modern American Rock and Hip Hop are what sell the most.

The music-wallahs give the best indication of where things stand. While lamenting that mp3 downloads had really eaten into his business, the proprietor at Diengdoh’s Audio Visual (which specialises in ‘Oldies’: Dolly Parton, Elvis, Bread) still had cassettes for sale. And if you tramp up the hill to Iewduh, the roadside shops there – which specialise mainly in Khasi artists – have as many tapes on offer as they do CDs. We’re not talking second hand tapes either; many local artists will have cassettes as well as CDs made of their music, and have set up their own distribution network to sell them. Cassettes. They haven’t been given up and then returned to, in a nostalgic retro moment. They just never went out of fashion.

Although, if there is a future for Shillong’s music scene – mixed-tapes aside – the vernacular artists will be the ones to sing it. In shop after shop, when I enquired about Khasi music, I got offered a copy of Desmond Sunn’s jing kylla ka por (the changing of time) which is the most popular current local release listened to by the kids – urban and rural alike. It came in a snazzy little black digipack, covered in clear plastic, and did not look at all out of place next to his more high profile foreign contemporaries. (Check out katno mynsiem ka kmen on YouTube for a taste; if you get past the dodgy drum machine and guitar intro, it’s a damn catchy tune.)

It’s just a shame that there isn’t a place to go and watch him regularly. When music-lovers in Shillong get around to demanding more live venues, the Khasi artists – who are leading the pack when it comes to writing original material – will finally have a chance to sharpen their chops and build an audience.

Perhaps it’s best to leave the last word to a bunch of local kids who think that music in Shillong does matter. The only time I saw them play – at a 1st birthday soiree twelve months ago – The Hifi Tramps performed an energetic, earnest set of covers. A year later they have their own Facebook page, with over 400 friends, a growing set-list and a 1st runner-up prize at last year’s inter-college comp. I ran into the drummer this week and asked him if they played any self-written compositions. ‘We currently have a few originals,’ said Azriel. ‘We’re also coming up with new tracks. It’s a work in progress.’

He could have been talking about the city.

Motherland, Volume 2, Issue 4 April 2011.