FOXTROT TANGO KHASI

Webster Davis Jyrwa’s prologue to L. Gilbert Shullai’s book ‘Ka Marynthing Rupa’ (The Silver Harp) is a rare document.  It could be one of the few surviving testimonies about western music in Shillong from the 1920s through to the 1960s. This is the era that one has grown up hearing about but which one can’t quite seem to put a finger on.  It is all a hazy blur of stories about the foxtrot, the waltz, tea gardens, dance parties, ‘Tommy’ soldiers, their ‘mems’ and their mistresses. Once in a while it is brought alive by our grandparents’ tales about their legendary jams where spoons and forks were turned into percussion instruments and where there was nothing like a tea cask to pump up that bass. And if one was lucky enough one may have witnessed recreations of such jams as a kid when an elderly neighbor would do the foxtrot with your grandaunt as your grandfather’s friends play ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. The grandfather would make it a point to school you about ‘good music’ at such times and remind you why he bought you that guitar in the first place.  It was a world far removed the alternative pretensions of 90s rock and perhaps even more distant from the ‘flower power’ affectation of our parents. It was fascinating to watch those old folks put such passion into the foxtrot, the waltz, the march, the rumba and to hear about the strange (at least in the limited collective imagination of one’s youth) instruments they used – the viola, the mandolin, the Hawaiian guitar, the clarinet, the maracas and so on. What’s more is that these instruments were always talked about with the names of local masters attached to them as if nothing existed or mattered beyond the alchemy of player and instrument and where no one else but the narrator was allowed to inhabit that space. These maestros were elevated from normalcy but regular enough to dine, wine, hung out with and invariably take pride of place in the jams that people organized at home.

One can now recollect those ‘Down Memory Lane’ type shows that were ubiquitous in the mid to late 1990s where some promoters realized there was money to me made in invoking the past and getting old folks to attend encomiums to the music of their youth.  But the memory lanes by the 1990s had been clogged where the past was an indistinct collective of all acts who evoked even a bit of nostalgia.  So, the songs of Gene Autry were clubbed with those of the Who, Louis Armstrong with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and so on.  In the same way, older musicians like Iris Thomas and Bernard Khongmen were made to share the same stage with less older artists like Headingson Ryntathiang, the Highway band et al without an iota of curation or perspective added to these shows. The 60s were the 40s which were in turn were the swinging 20s, no one cared anymore. As far as the media was concerned everything started with the Great Society with a perfunctory nod given to the Fentones and the Vaudevilles every now and then. By this time Shillong’s collective memory of its musical past had become tangled in a web of misinformation and complacency. It had accepted its storied past without bothering to remember it properly.  And it speaks volumes of our amnesia and myopia that such a thing should come to pass when a rough diamond like Webster Davis Jyrwa’s prologue to L. Gilbert Shullai’s book ‘Ka Marynthing Rupa’ had been published as far back as 1985.

In his foreword to the book, Webster Davis Jyrwa or Bah Webb as he is fondly known gives us an intriguing account of western music in Shillong in the years after the First World War and well into the 1960s.  Bah Webb is the perfect chronicler of that era as he is both an observer and participant in the making of that era’s music. Born in 1923, he is well placed to narrate tales of his forbears like the famed viola player, Bah Ramsong from whom he is probably just a generation removed, and he can also offer his observations on contemporaries like Kelly Lyngdoh and the Tham Sisters with whom he has performed. But more than anything else, as the leader of the Jaiaw Orchestra, he had a ring side view of the emergence and progression of a host of musicians and musical styles of that period. And so it is that he untangles for us the foxtrot from the jive, the rumba from the rock and the orchestra from the beat group and hence releases the names of musicians and their musical instruments long caught in the cobweb of our forgetfulness.

In this account, we start our journey after the First World War when the Khasi Labour Corps retuned from France and Iraq. Bah Webb suggests that this period is seminal though he doesn’t specify how. But we do learn of the viola player named Bah Ramsong whom Bah Webb has no memory of anymore and whose heyday would probably be in the 1920s or earlier. He was probably someone who was part of the Labour Corps or benefitted enough from them to bamboozle “even the ‘Mems’ who were accomplished at the piano” that they “couldn’t keep up with him even though they were following the same music sheet”. Bah Webb then goes on to tell us about a generation of musicians in Shillong who before the Second World War were already playing the Viola, Accordion, Clarinet, Banjo, Ukulele, Flute, Mandolin and Hawaiian guitar and were covering the popular waltzes, marches and dance band tunes of the 20s and 30s. We also learn the name of the local maestros – Kelly Diengdoh, Bah Rishot, Bah Orgheus Pakma, Kong Trilian Pariat, Kong Lenbuit and so on. This is an incredible flowering of musicians who played a wide variety of instruments

Unfortunately, what this account does not refer to is the infrastructure that supported this incredible flowering of musicians, especially before the Second World War.  There are fleeting references to the Shillong Club, Gauhati Cotton College and a few other places but surely these would account only for a few concerts a year at most. So what sustained these musicians and what encouraged them to take up such a wide variety of instruments? Where did they play? Who was the audience? Where did they learn to play these instruments?

At this juncture, one can point to the church, especially the Presbyterian Church, where the missionaries had introduced Welsh hymns (albeit in the local language) to the Khasis as far back as 1842. But as any church historian will tell you, this tradition is largely a vocal one. Important though this vocal tradition is, as it was our introduction to western musical arrangement, it should be noted that there is no definite account of when musical instruments were introduced to church and evangelizing services and most would agree that the Presbyterian Church has been very conservative in the choice of musical instruments that it allows into its services.  According to W.R Laitphlang, a deacon of the Khasi Jaintia Presbyterian Church and one of our earliest music chroniclers, the first instrument allowed in the church was the folding organ which arrived here in the early 1900s. It took another 30 years for the piano to be accepted in church service and as late as the 1960s even the harmless acoustic guitar was still frowned upon when brought into the liturgy of the Presbyterian Church. But the Catholic Church ran by the Salvatorians were more encouraging of musical instruments. Some accounts attribute the introduction of instruments like the viola and mandolin to the Italian and German Salvatorian priests when they set up shop first in the village of Laitkynsew and then later Shillong around 1891.  So it is possible that by the early 1900s Khasi Catholics would have picked up these instruments.

W.R Laitphlang in 1951
W.R Laitphlang in 1951

All these dots remain to be connected in a meaningful manner just as how this largely church based exposure and training interacted with the more secular mores of the British army remains to be explored. The army set up a proper base in these hills in 1830 when a sanatorium for British soldiers was set up in Sohra (Cherrapunjee) and by the 1840s there are already stories of a ‘drink and dance set’ emerging around the military station. So the twin western agencies of the cross and the army have had a long time to blend and act on the imagination of their hosts. W.R. Laitphlang in his essay ‘Katto Katne Shaphang Ka Jingrwai’ (A Short Discourse on Music), also mentions that that even before the great earthquake of 1897, such western folk and traditional classics like Auld Lang Syne, Old Folks at Home, Loch Lomond and The Last Rose of Summer were sung among the Khasis. By the Second World War, there were already Khasi bands and musicians who were playing for the entertainment of the soldiers and Bah Webb gives us an account of the time when Shillong was an R & R centre for the British Army. This must have been a particularly formative period for local musicians as they came into contact with British cultural troupes and spent their evenings at the Garrison Theater singing ‘Lay that pistol down’, ‘With someone like you’, ‘White Cliff of Dover’ etc . Bah Webb takes us there and reels off the names of the musicians who emerged along with their instruments, their songs and their achievements. We learn about a Khasi woman (Kong Icydian Swer) who played Hawaiian guitar and also about the Shillong Music School (the town’s first). The timeline becomes a little unclear after this but Bah Webb opens a window for us when he mentions the musicians De Mello, De Suza and the band ‘The Dynamites’ who were led by Mark Fernandes. This interaction between local and Goan musicians is another fascinating insight about which not much is known or at least not much has been documented.

Bah Webb’s prologue to ‘Marynthing Rupa’ also mentions the names of probably the first Khasi musicians to play in Calcutta – Hem Swett and Toto Wahlang. Although much of the stories about the Shillong-Calcutta connection have passed into hyperbole, a lot is still not known about how the connection came to be established in the first place. What were the circumstances that led to the first musicians from Shillong to travel to Calcutta? Were they taken there by the white sahibs or was it a case of them striking it out on their own? How did Trinca’s in Calcutta become much more known in Shillong than say The Jorhat Gymkhana Club which is much closer? What was in Calcutta that the musicians didn’t find in the tea gardens of Assam? Also was the Calcutta of Hem Swett and Toto Wahlang different from the one that Lou Majaw and Eddie Rynjah later inhabited? In this regard, Bah Webb’s account provides us with the earliest link to what become known as the Golden Triangle (the musical exchange between Shillong, Calcutta and Darjeeling) and what would later produce the storied exploits of our musicians.

The section on the Jaiaw orchestra is the most illuminating which is not surprising since Bah Webb was its leader and driving force. But for a small town the sheer scope of the Jaiaw Orchestra’s aspirations boggles the mind. Formed in 1948, the number of musicians, musical instruments and musical styles that it embraced could just make it one of the first ‘big bands’ playing western popular music in the country. At any rate, and without meaning to sound parochial, a string orchestra backed by (and backing) all girl vocal harmony groups playing the Waltz, Rumba, Samba, Tango and Beguine would have been extremely rare in India in the 1940s and 50s.  Since recordings of the early Jaiaw Orchestra are yet to be tracked down, one can only imagine The Tham or The Warbah Sisters transforming a bland version of ‘Mexicali Rose’ (at least the Gene Autry version) by adding layer upon layer of harmony while the violas, mandolins and guitars sizzle and illuminate their voices.

The Jaiaw Orchestra had the musical rigor to rehearse for months on end and the musical literacy to learn songs from pamphlets printed with Staff Notation and Tonic Sol-fa for their big shows (Annual Meet of the Bakisha Sahibs or Tea Garden Balls) and one would imagine that they had acquired a certain degree of musical accomplishment to be covering the popular foxtrot, waltz, tango and beguine tunes of their day. So when their leader speaks of Persing Lyngdoh as the ‘most accomplished piano player among the Khasis’ or when he admires Markos Sawian, Noel Arbor Khongwir, Eugene Rynjah, Siken Swer etc for their exceptional gifts, we’d have to hold his estimation in high regard. But these names are mostly lost to modern Shillong’s (and its hagiographers’) imagination. Isn’t it the bitterest irony of all that a town that likes to call itself ‘Rock Capital’ has largely forgotten or remains ignorant about a period of their history that might actually measure up to some claim of exceptionalism? The Jaiaw Orchestra, the era that shaped it, the musicians that was it influenced by, the ones it nourished, their achievements, their stories, their musical talents – now that is a story. Barring Goa’s rich jazz history, this might well be the only other western popular musical tradition in the country that dates as far back as the 1920s.

The book ‘Marynthing Rupa’ by L. Gilbert Shullai, is in itself an intriguing one because it is a collection of Khasi lyrics (in Appendix A) that he has written to be put to the music of popular western tunes that he has listed in Appendix B. For example, he suggests that his lyric ‘Ki Khun U Hynniewtrep, Iaid Shaphrang’, listed as number 1 in Appendix A, could be put to the music of ‘Way up down the Swanee River’ listed as number 1 in Appendix B. In this manner he has written 80 Khasi lyric poems and suggested that they be put to the music of the waltzes, folk, country, polka, spirituals and ballads that were popular in their day. Some of the suggestions are rather dubious, like when he suggests that one of lyrics be put to the tune of Rule Britannia. It is unclear, however, whether this juxtaposition of Khasi lyrics and western tunes was ever put into practice and what the author’s intentions were for suggesting such an exercise. But as Bah Webb points out that he is ‘…of the opinion that Khasi tunes would be better suited to accompany some of the lyrics instead of the English tunes’ and in any case L. Gilbert Shullai has allowed composers to lay whatever tunes they see fit over the lyrics.

Also Bah Webb’s prologue to the book is a much longer piece where he talks about other aspects of Khasi culture, literature etc. The excerpts translated here only deal with the sections where he writes about music.

As an ending note, one can’t help but marvel at the names that Bah Webb mentions in his account and how closely they were associated with the early development of western music in Shillong. Some of them had gone on to shape the state’s politics, policies, poetry, folklore etc (not always in a good way) while some had fathered (and mothered) the next generation of musicians, here are some of them:

Ripple Kyndiah, who in Bah Webb’s account was ‘one of the more talented and popular mandolin players’ was also a 3 time Member of Parliament from Shillong, a member of the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly for 23 years and a former Governor of Mizoram.

Bevan L. Swer, part of the group that won the All Assam Inter-college Music Competition in 1959 was also a highly accomplished Khasi poet, author and much respected professor of the North Eastern Hill University.

Sumar Singh Sawian, part of the group that won the All Assam Inter-college Music Competition in 1959, is also a celebrated writer, folklorist and a leading authority on Khasi indigenous culture. He has translated Rabindranath Tagore’s “Gitanjali” into Khasi.

B. Wahlang (Bah Toto), who Bah Webb describes as having ‘a natural flair for western music’, was also known as Golden Voice in the Park Street Scene and one of Shillong’s earliest stars. He played saxophone for the seminal beat groups the Fentones and the Vanguards besides being Rudy Wahlang’s father.

Kong Stella Rynjah, part time pianist with the Jaiaw Orchestra, was also the first female singer and pianist (western music obviously) to be recorded in All India Radio, Shillong. She is the mother of Eddie Rynjah – one of Shillong’s most well known musicians who achieved fame in the Park Street Scene in Calcutta with the Flintstones and Great Bear. Stella Rynjah retired as a Senior Manager of the Compton Greaves Company.

Bernard Khongmen, referred to as one of the ‘good singers’ in the piece, he retired as a high ranking bureaucrat.

Teddy Pakynteiñ, part of the group that won the All Assam Inter-college Music Competition in 1959, was also one of the first tribal I.A.S officers from Meghalaya.

Ganold S. Massar, part of the group that won the All Assam Inter-college Music Competition in 1959, was also a member of the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly and one of the state’s leading legal practitioners even serving as its Advocate General for a while.

 

 

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K Mark Swer Written by:

K Mark Swer is a filmmaker, writer and a radio artist. He is a resident rock critic for raiot.

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