There’s a curious boundary in Shillong marked by a marketplace that, in other circumstances, would’ve lent the city its name – had the British been able to manoeuvre their breath and cheeks around the two syllables ‘Iew’ and ‘Duh’, that would’ve been the city’s name but they could only muster an ‘Ido’, alas, a name already taken by our Japanese brethren. So, the divinity ‘Lei Shyllong via his kingdom was adapted as Shillong…
But Iewduh remains a landmark that, if you look hard enough, draws lines along the city from time to time. These lines sometimes point to a cultural chasm and at other times class, ethnicity and ideology. Once upon a time, the geography around Iewduh even acted as a macho-ness barometer – the more north you are from it, the tougher you were considered to be. But what concerns us here are the barely perceptible musical lines that it draws (or at least used to). I would venture to say that, between the 70s and the 90s, if a mapping of Shillong’s pop bands by genre had been undertaken, the area north of Iewduh (called ‘The West’ by everyone else but those living there) which would include the localities of Mawkhar, Jaiaw, Wahingdoh etc would emerge as our ‘Classic Rock Region’– shaped and blessed by the Highway Band, The Airheads and Conbrio among others. Similarly, the areas roughly east of Iewduh which would include Laitumkhrah, Nongthymmai, Malki etc would be our ‘Roots Region’ – the blues, reggae and early rock n roll defined by such luminaries as the Great Society, Mojo and the Fentones. The South (Laban, in particular) provides our city with the ‘Headbangers Region’ and I only have to drop one name – Adremelech – for all other localities in Shillong to acknowledge Laban’s primacy in this regard. I’m sure, a lot of people from the ‘West’ also loved Madonna and Boney M just as a lot from the ‘South’ would tuck their Bollywood music safely behind their Slayer LPs. As you can see, this mapping is not exactly scientific and my case is greatly weakened by the behemoth that was the Jaiaw Orchestra (they’re from ‘The West’) but nevertheless these general trends and musical geographies do emerge and Batlang Sohliya, one of the founders of Adremelech acknowledges this when he quips
We will touch upon the cultural, class, ethnic and ideological lines that Iewduh has unwittingly drawn around the city as we go along but for now, I would like to locate a young blues band (from ‘The West’) in this matrix and allow them to further Muddy the Waters.
In 2018, the musical North, West, East and South of Shillong have all combined to give us this very talented group of young musicians whose EP ‘Tempted’ is out now in all the world’s digital stores. They call themselves Blue Temptation and comprise, at some point or the other, Gregory Ford Nongrum, his elder brother El Nathan Ford Nongrum, Shepherd Najiar, Manavon Massar and Vincent Tariang (also of Soulmate). These five young men encapsulate Shillong’s old histories and musical geographies but, as they should, also burn them to the ground. Greg, El Nathan and Shepherd (Shep) are from ‘the West’ but they barely remember the Highway Band anymore and their journey into the blues was as simple and complex as the music itself. Manavon is a keyboard player/sound system blaster/DJ from the ‘Roots Region’ and his dreadlocks and patois, are therefore quite historically grounded. Vincent too is a direct descendant of the ‘Roots Region’ and I’m sure, his father Rudy Wallang must’ve played a small part in his love for the blues.
Greg, El Nathan and Shep met in church and had all filtered the blues in their musical journey; Shep more consciously so than the brothers. He can clearly recall being drawn in by the music he had heard at a Soulmate concert and that was a turning point for him. From then on, the standard fare of millennial rock that he had been feeding himself with became inadequate and as he says,
In the present, the roles have reversed- Greg is the guitar player of the band and El Nathan handles the bass; this is primarily due to Greg’s talent jumping in leaps and bounds from his ‘open string’ days. At 24, Greg is easily the most accomplished young guitar player in Shillong and he credits a neighbour for his initiation into the blues. He had been cutting his teeth with Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt when he came across his neighbour’s Jimi Hendrix collection. Hendrix bewitched him and slowly Greg began to understand how even his erstwhile hero – Nuno – was actually just trying to dream up again what Hendrix had imagined all those years ago. El Nathan too was getting tired of playing anything that he could, in his words “……even Sweet Child O Mine” and it was at this crucial juncture that the brothers heard Soulmate’s album ‘Shillong’. Now, here was a Shillong band not only ‘consciously’ playing the blues but also wearing it like a badge of honour. So, whatever fragments of the blues that was floating around in Shep’s, Greg’s and El Nathan’s musical understanding finally took shape and it gave three young kids, already thrashing at musical geographies, a calling and a name by which to call themselves.
Blue Temptation first played in 2010 (without Manav and Vinnie, Daryl was on the drums) at what was, then, one of Shillong’s most awaited annual music events– Meghalaya Icon. It was organised by the Meghalaya AIDS Control Society to spread awareness about the disease but it also gave a host of young bands from the state a platform to play and compete. The band played in two editions of this event, winning neither, but it cemented their belief in their musical direction especially after senior musicians would come over after their shows and compliment them on their set (a mix of their originals, Robben Ford, Steely Dan and Stevie Ray Vaughn). Their sound set them apart from all their contemporaries and little did they realise that they were also blurring the musical geographies around Iewduh; along with the rising hip hop artists they were embarking on a journey into a brave new world where the toughness of your neighbourhood mattered not, only the toughness of your ‘blues’.
The years that followed, though, were a bit of a mixed blessing for the band. Their drummer, Daryl, decided to study music- first with a short course at Berkelee and then a longer one at ICOM, Malaysia. Greg jokes that they became a ‘vacation band’ at this point because they would play only when Daryl came back for his vacations. On the other hand, the other members found work as session players; Shep with Lou Majaw’s band, El Nathan and Greg with collectives such as Na La Rympei and The Aroha Choir. Individually, they were blossoming and all they needed was another showcase to explode into Shillong’s consciousness. So they staged it themselves, in 2014, during one of Daryl’s vacations and called it ‘Live at La View’. The session was a ‘filmed live performance’ and it propelled them into the social media pages of every music lover in Shillong. It featured four of their originals, including the remarkable ‘Ramblin’ On’ – a force of nature complete with blues-derived apocalyptic prophesies and calls for our ‘Hallelujahs’ and ‘Amens’. This was a band now that not only played the blues but understood its syntax, its history and its potential. It razed the musical boundaries in Shillong to the ground and for a while ‘The West’ showed the rest of city how things were done.
‘The West’, apparently derived from ‘The Wild West’ was the name to localities north of Iewduh because of the tough youth that they bred. They bore the brunt of police action during Shillong’s sporadic uprisings and they were perceived to be bastions of Khasi nationalist sentiments. They tended to look at askance at mixed localities like Laban and Laitumkhrah (though these areas had no shortage of young, angry Khasi boys) and back in the day, youth gangs from ‘The West’ were feared and respected throughout Shillong. Shep points out that the divisions didn’t stop there “……the good schools were all located beyond Iewduh, so we had to crossover for a good education and not the other way around and as the recent scrapes in Motphran show, we’re still in the heart of trouble’. He adds
‘The West’ is, of course, more complex than all this. When they came to Shillong, the Welsh missionaries first set up shop in the area around Mawkhar and hence ‘The West’ and can boast of the first schools, hospitals and presses in the city. The foundation for modern education in Shillong was laid in these areas and some of Shillong’s best and brightest lived and died here. To this day, neighbourhoods of the ‘West’ are some of the most picturesque and well maintained. And yes, you will also find that some of the most articulate, talented and forward-thinking young people, like the members of Blue Temptation, live here. It is also equally true though, as Shep points out about the recent Motphran troubles, that the area continues to be stage where the city’s pent up anger is performed, as and when it flares up. So, is it the perfect muse for a young blues band?
Yes and no.
Going by the songs in the EP, Blue Temptation has not produced a document of these turbulent times but a collection that places them in the vicinity. It is possible to hear in ‘Wash Your Sins’, a premonition of the troubles and a commentary of drug abuse in the city and in ‘Blessing’, a call for closure and reconciliation. You can also hear a sort of ache in Shep’s gravelly voice and minimalist delivery but where the EP really stands out is in the musical promise that the band collectively exhibit – the tight, interlocked guitars of Shep and Greg, the wonderful shuffle and rhythm section in ‘Make Me’, Manavon’s lively keys and above all the explosive guitar playing of Greg when he lets go. They’re a work in progress and they know that but in abandoning the wonderful madness of ‘Ramblin On’ for these set of songs, Greg thinks that they’ve become ‘…… more mature and better song writers’ and he could well be right; for all its glory ‘Ramblin On’ can also be faulted for falling prey to blues clichés and the band has clearly moved on from an infatuation to, now, a constant engagement with the blues. With regard to the content of the songs, Greg also says that the band was never ‘politically charged’ and sees the EP more as a personal statement – a document of growing up in turbulent times rather than a response to that time.
In my view, Blue Temptation gives us a good exposition of the blues in this EP but in as much as they don’t fail, they also don’t astound – and for a group of such gifted, young musicians they really should’ve aimed a little higher. So, for the moment, we are left waiting for them to deliver on their promise and I hope their next effort is more like the surging water that breaks the levee.
Musical geographies are purely academic now and Iewduh no longer draws any musical lines around the city not only because of technology but also because musicians are more willing to reach out to each other. Greg plays with Summersalt like Manav gigs all around in his many avatars and ensembles; Vincent continues to refine his skills with Soulmate as he branches out with Blue Temptation and a host of other musicians are feeding off each other dragging their respective audiences into new territories.
I don’t know if people still understand cultural tropes like ‘The West’ and ‘the Laimu’ type (complete with its own omnibus of jokes) but they once existed for a reason i.e. the ‘the turf mentality’ of the time and the hence the subsequent ridicule of anything different. Musically, it seems, we have moved on but in other ways, the entire city continues to fight its blues…