KHASI FOXTROT TANGO

K Mark Swer translates & introduces Late Webster Davis Jyrwa’s priceless history of western music in #Khasi Hills & #Shillong

Bah Webster Davis Jyrwa’s prologue to the book ‘Ka Marynthing Rupa’ (The Silver Harp) by L Gilbert Shullai is a much longer piece where he talks about other aspects of Khasi culture, literature etc. The excerpts translated here by Mark Swer only deal with the sections about music. To read the original prologue in Khasi, click here.

INTRODUCTION BY K MARK SWER

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, IaidShaphrang’, 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. Wallang (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 Wallang’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.

Late Bah Webster Davis Jyrwa’s prologue

One of the ways in which music bewitches you is through the way its rhythm or beat is kept in what is called Timing or Measure – be it a 1 x 1 beat, a 2 x 4 or a 3 x 4 beat like in the Foxtrot, the Waltz, the Rumba, the Samba, the Beguine Tempo, the March. Songs can be set to a high or slow tempo. In days gone by, when Iewduh 1 was filled to the brim with tailors, one would hear such beats emanating from the rhythmic spinning of the wheels of sewing machines as they’re being controlled by the feet of the conductor or tailor or one could hear it in the ‘Walts’ as mothers are putting their babies to sleep or maybe even as children are performing drills.

These days, it seems that songs are being made just so that young and old alike can pound their feet and dance wildly. As soon as they hear the tunes, they’d start banging crudely on any available table or chair or they’d get up and dance whenever they feel like, as they do in the Jive, Rock or Disco. It seems that our youth especially are making songs where there is no effort to harmonise the music and lyrics. Most of the songs feel forced and haphazard. Sometimes the lyrics don’t make sense and the melodies are a blight to the ear. You can hear in most Khasi Cassettes these days that the lyrics mean one thing and the music something else. As a friend of mine says, it seems like Khasi cassettes these days come as a Three in One package –  the lyrics, the music and the sound of the words come as separate entities and have nothing to do with each other. That is why they are inadequate.

Each and every opening line of the songs featured in this book ‘Ka Marynthing Rupa’ by L. Gilbert Shullai takes me back to the time when western music took root in the flesh and blood of Khasi musicians and when it seemed like the music itself was going to be an integral part of Khasi culture. Perhaps, this was possible because there hadn’t emerged at the time Khasi musicians who were skilled enough to understand the intricacies of songwriting.  In those days, Khasi songs had a very strong mainland Indian influence and they were performed mainly in theatrical shows in places like Jowai, Mawphlang, Mawngap, Marbisu, Sohra, Mawsynram and among the Seng Khasis 2 in Mawkhar.

The craze for western music among the Khasis perhaps caught on after the First World War i.e. after 1918 when Khasi soldiers returned from France and Mesopotamia. When the Second World War happened, it enhanced our enthusiasm for western music even further.

marynthing-009

When I reminisce about the era before the Second World War, I am flooded by memories of the great musicians of that time. I remember Bah 3 Rishot the Viola player, Bah Destar who played Mandolin, Bah Kelly Diengdoh who was a master of the Viola, Accordion, Clarinet and other instruments, Bah Syndor who played the Clarinet, Bah Jokes the Accordion player, Bah Bishar played Banjo, Bah Baden played Ukulele, Bah Reban played the flute. Then there was Bah Theo Lyngdoh, Bah Soverine, Bah Orgheus Pakma, Bah Owen Rowie, and Kong 4 Trilian Pariat who all played the Viola. Bah Vie Swer, Bah Garlile Diengdoh and Kong Lenbuit played Hawaiian guitar while Bah Din Swer played the mandolin.

I remember Bah Kelly Lyngdoh playing the song ‘Ramona’ in the dead of the night in the streets of Jaiaw and one would see the lights coming on through the windows just so people can listen to the melody coming out of his Viola while Bah Syndor blew the clarinet. I’ve heard what the dexterous fingers of Bah Rishot Khongwir could do with the Viola and similarly what Bah Destar Khongwir could do with the mandolin and I’ve had the chance to accompany them on songs like “South of the Border”, “Little Girl of my dream”, “After the Ball”, “Merry Widow”, “Three O’clock in the Morning”, “Colonel Boogie” and many others. At that time I was honing my skills as a Mandolin and Viola player.

It is pleasing to remember how those greats took pains to gain proficiency first, to the extent of learning how to read sheet music, before they made themselves known to the public. They were free, broad minded thinkers and never stood in anyone’s way. Music, at that time, was cheerfulness for oneself and merriment to be shared with others. Even when these musicians played in the streets no one would say or do anything unpleasant. There were those among them who when not sufficiently ‘warmed’ or not having gotten into the spirit of things yet would not play at all or would just fiddle with the strings. One gentleman recalls an incident that took place when these musicians were invited to play at the Shillong Club at a time when its members were mostly white. At the end of the show, when the chowkidar was cleaning up the bottles he found quite a few of them without labels and which had been corked with banana leaves. 5

In the years that followed, there emerged a highly skillful Viola player by the name of Besterwel Soanes. People tell the story about the concert that Bah Besterwel played in Gauhati Cotton College and how all the acts that followed him had to be cancelled because the crowd wanted him to play all night long.

The Viola player who surpassed all other Khasi musicians was Bah Ramsong but he passed away when I was very young so I have no memory of him and I never heard him play. But people say that when Bah Ramsong played, even the ‘Mems’  who were accomplished at the piano couldn’t keep up with him though they were following the same music sheet.  He could play even the most difficult Classical pieces because of his mastery of staff notation.  Shouldn’t we be building a memorial in the name of this genius who has surpassed all others and the likes of whom we will never see again especially now that imitation is rife and music is played without any understanding of it basics?  (I mean staff notation and Tonic Sol Fa)

Jaiaw Orchestra

In the years 1939-45 when the Second World War took place, white soldiers – the Johnies and the Tommies, arrived in Shillong and the enthusiasm for western music in the city got a revival. At this time a British musical and theatrical troupe called ENSA came to Shillong to entertain the troops stationed here. Almost every night there would be music and entertainment at the Garrison Theater Cantonment which also included a screening of English films. A large Khasi contingent would throng to the Garrison Theater Cantonment not to watch the films but to soak in the music and entertainment there and also to participate in a sing along which took place in the cinema hall. Before the show started there would always be a sing along of the popular tunes of the day like You are my sunshine, Lily Marlane, Sierra Sue, Goodnight Irene, Lay that pistol down, With someone like you, White Cliff of Dover, Slow boat to China, Home on the range, My wild Irish Rose, Rose of Tralee.

This period also saw the emergence of many talented and popular Khasi musicians like Bah John Shome, Bah Hebress Marbaniang, Kong Semina, Bah Rosbell Chyne, Bah Gretan Sun, Bah Richard Nalle, Bah Beriwell Kyndiah, Bah Lebi, and Bah Filkin Laloo who all played the Viola. There were mandolin players like Bah Noel Arbor Khongwir and Lursingh Jyrwa and also Bah Thomlin, Bah Kynsai Nalle and Kong Icydian Swer who played Hawaiian Guitar. Bah Cyril Lyngdoh and Bah Harvey played Spanish Guitar. It was also around this time that Bah Andreas Shome opened the Shillong Music School in the locality of Umsohsun. This was the first school to impart musical training and a lot of people benefitted from it. But when Bah Andreas Shome passed on the school also closed down and there hasn’t been another one ever since.

John Shome played in many concerts where his musicianship was clearly displayed. Bah Gretan Sun had incredibly soft hands. Bah Noel Arbor Khongwir was perhaps the best mandolin player of his time and I used to listen to him playing in ‘Peak Hour’ where he played the Tango in pieces like ‘Jealousy’ and ‘La Cumparsita’ along with De Mello bad De Suza. Bah P.Ripple Kyndiah was also one of the more talented and popular mandolin players.  We performed together in a concert once at Dinam Hall, along with Kong Trilian, Bah Orpheus, Kong Semina, and Richard Nalle, which left the audience mesmerized. A lot of great singers also emerged after the Second world war like Bah Jes Nongkynrih who could sing all night accompanied by his guitar and he really had the English songs of the time down pat. I still remember the tunes that he favoured like “Sheik of Araby”, “Slow boat to China”, “I’ll get by”, “Lay that pistol down”, “Come on and hear” and a few more.  Bah Jes could entertain even with just two stings left on his guitar.

The Jaiaw Orchestra performing 'Wah Umiam' (Bah Webster Davis Jyrwa's composition) with Amis Swer and 'Blue Spanish Eyes' with Headingson Ryntathiang
The Jaiaw Orchestra performing ‘Wah Umiam’ (Bah Webster Davis Jyrwa’s composition) with Amis Swer and ‘Blue Spanish Eyes’ with Headingson Ryntathiang

There were also singers like Hem Swett who excelled as a Tenor Voice. Bah Hem had a mellifluous voice and he could sing high pitched songs by Slim Whitman like “Indian Love Call” and “China Doll” and “May Time” by Nelson Eddie and Janet Macdonald. They say that when he sang and played piano in one of the big hotels in Calcutta, the white audience would just shake their heads in amazement. And who can forget the beautiful voice of Siken Swer who could hit the highest note on the octave unerringly. I remember, when he was younger, Bah Siken used to sing ‘Ave Maria’ in Italian and he would deliver it with such ‘expression’ and emotion that even the Catholic priests would be amazed. There was no problem with his pronunciation of the words and it felt like listening to a Viola piece. Then there was A.B. Wahlang better known as Bah Toto playing in the big clubs in Calcutta; he had a natural flair for western music and his name would grace the English papers very often.  In the later years there emerged a band called ‘The Dynamites’ who were quite good and played together for a while.

In the year 1948, a group of young musicians from Jaiaw got together and formed the musical collective called ‘Jaiaw Orchestra’. I was chosen as its leader and I worked tirelessly for many years to shape it and lead it.  The first members of the orchestra were:

  1. Bah Bonarwell Lyngdoh – Viola and Guitar.
  2. Bah Harold Nongkynrih – Mandolin, Ukulele and Viola.
  3. Bah Everland Syiemlieh – Mandolin, Piano, Accordion.
  4. Bah Kyndwer Khongwar – Viola.
  5. Bah Rosswel Chyne – Viola.
  6. Bah Soken Kharshandi – Spanish Guitar and Banjo.
  7. Bah Betterland Syiemlieh – Spanish Guitar.
  8. Bah H.Methington – Hawaiian Guitar
  9. Bah Arthur Warren – Harmonica and Drums.
  10. Bah Hubert Dkhar – Spanish Guitar.
  11. Bah Mawrong Kharsati – Spanish Guitar and Banjo.
  12. Bah Borwin Nongrum – Maracas and Guitar.
  13. Bah Osland Nongrum – Viola.
  14. Bah John Ryntathiang – Viola.
  15. Bah Sainmanik Syiemlieh – Spanish Guitar.
  16. Bah Clader Rynjah – Spanish Guitar.

Beside their playing duities, Sainmalik Syiemlieh and Calder Rynjah were also singers. Later the following musicians also joined us:-

  1. Bah Marshal Blah – Viola.
  2. Bah Fredie Cholas (from Riatsamthiah) – Spanish Guitar.
  3. Bah Dodo (from Laban) – Spanish Guitar.
  4. Bah Orlando (from Mawlai) – Spanish Guitar.
  5. Bah Phil Lyngdoh – Spanish Guitar.
  6. Bah Horil – Viola.
  7. Bah Diren Swett – Viola.
  8. Bah Aibor Lyngdoh – Spanish Guitar.
  9. Bah Defend War – Viola.

Apart from these regular members, there were also those who joined us during concerts, like –

  1. Bah Pires – Drums.
  2. Kong Stella Rynjah – Piano.
  3. Kong Eugene Rynjah – Piano
  4. Bah Phersingh Lyngdoh – Piano

The Tham Sisters – Deidora, Ivora and Balmora – were one of the best singers of the time and they would sing with the Jaiaw Orchestra even though they weren’t regular members. The Jaiaw Orchestra existed for many years. It would organize concerts to raise funds for hospitals, schools and victims of natural disasters. It would celebrate its anniversary every year. The opening numbers at these concerts would be “Danawelin” or “Waves of the Danube” and the closing number would be “Look for the Silver lining” where all the singers and musicians would join in.

Iris Thomas and The Jaiaw Orchestra playing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'
Iris Thomas and The Jaiaw Orchestra playing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’

The Orchestra specialized in western styles like the Waltz, Rhumba, Samba, Tango, Beguine, Quick Step, Slow Step and many more. Along with the music and under the guidance of B.R Dohling, it also brought out short plays like “Discovery” and “Bishop’s Candlesticks”. The Tham Sisters accompanied us often in our concerts and the beauty and harmony of their voices meant that the audience would never tire of hearing them sing “Harbour Lights”, “My Happiness”, “Souvenir”, “Juanita”, “Sweet Marie”, “Mexicali Rose” and a few others.

Similarly, Sainmanik Syiemlieh and Clader Rynjah were singers with great voices and energy who could really express themselves, i.e. their heads and hearts always worked in tandem. Sainmanik Syiemlieh would regularly sing – “I love those dear hearts”, “Have I told you lately”, “Broken Hearts” while Clader Rynjah favoured  “Damino”, “Begin the Beguine”, “Delilah” and a few others.

Around this time, there also emerged a young singer from Jaiaw – Markos Sawian- who had a silky, honeyed voice and who could carry difficult songs by the Platters like “Only You”, “Twilight Time”, “Great Pretender” etc.

The Warbah Sisters, Merinda, Itymon and Liomon Warbah, were another highly regarded group with a wonderful blend of voices.  They would join the Jaiaw Orchestra on numbers like “Lightning Express”, “My Lonely Footsteps”, “Carolina Moon” “Tennessee Waltz” and a few other songs.

In those years, I would also take the more accomplished musicians and singers from the Orchestra to play in the ‘Annual Meet’ of the Bakisha Sahibs in the big clubs of Assam. These were Bonerwell Lyngdoh (Guitar), Everland Syiemlieh (Piano, Accordion), John Ryntathiang (Viola) and Arthur Warren (Drums). I had also taken with us on these trips two very gifted musicians – Noel Arbor Khongwir (Mandolin) and Miss Eugene Rynjah (Piano).

Before playing at these clubs we would rehearse many songs for months on end focusing specially on newer songs. At that time we would get songs in pamphlets sent from Calcutta and Bombay which were printed with Staff Notation and Tonic Sol-fa. We would prepare hundreds of songs in styles like the Waltz, Rumba, Samba, Tango, Foxtrot, Beguine and Reel and we had to be ready to play any song requests by the members of these clubs. Along with the musicians mentioned above, we would also take Sainmanik Syiemlieh and Clader Rynjah as our singers. The English songs featured in the book ‘Marynthing Rupa’ are just a small sample of the many songs that we played at that time.

We had to be well prepared and really adept because we were playing western music for a western audience. To play western music for a Khasi audience is one thing; it’s like being a lion in the company of wolves but to stand proud as a lion amongst a pride? Well, you understand.

In those times, there were a lot of good singers like A.B.Wahlang (Bah Toto) who played even in Calcutta’s big clubs and then there was Peter Shylla, Herman Lyngdoh, Bernard Khongmen, Lok Jyrwa and a few others.

A piano player who often accompanied the Jaiaw Orchestra was Phersing Lyngdoh. He was the most accomplished piano player among the Khasis and could play any piece from the sheet because of his command over staff notation but he could also play even the most difficult pieces by ear.

Another singer we shouldn’t forget is Phrangsngi Kharlukhi. His forte was not English songs but he had an ability to mimic even wind instruments with his voice. I remember him singing like Bing Crosby in one of the All Assam Inter-College Music Competitions in Gauhati where he had the audience in his thrall and in the end they were chanting “Phrangki”, “Phrangki”. Then there was also Bransley Marbaniang and Khain Maink Roy who were fine crooners in their own right.

When we turn to the Khasi songs in ‘Marynthing Rupa’, we can’t help but admire the songwriting skill of Bah Gilbert Shullai because it’s never easy to create and especially so at the rate that he’s done it. To simply turn English songs into Khasi ones is one thing but to make your own material requires a special gift. When I say gift, I mean the imagination and the ability to excel at whatever one does. Here I might point something out – there are people who write books but when one interacts with them one finds no wisdom but just a mere possession of facts. But there are those whose wisdom transcends the printed page and when one picks their brains one will find ideas and thoughts that contributes to the benefit of others, be it in making music or producing texts.

Bah Gilbert, though we’ve never seen or heard him play, is a great lover of music and song. I remember Bah Gilbert as one of the volunteers who helped organize the All Assam Inter-College Music Competition in Tezpur in the year 1959. I recall going as a Judge (along with Bah H. Teslet Pariat and Bah Nando E Wankhar) to that All Assam Inter-college Music Competition, which would make it about 35 years ago. There were some Khasi students representing various different colleges under Gauhati University who were in competition like Sumar Singh Sawian, Newland Sohliya, Teddy Pakynteiñ, Ganold S. Massar, Bevan L. Swer, Neston Dkhar and Densil Lyngdoh. Besides competing individually they also competed as a group and won the Trophy for best group. This trophy still stands in my house as a testament to the musical gifts of that special group of young men. I am yet to remember young Khasis ever winning such a title and taking home a trophy like that. While we were still in Tezpur for the Inter College Music Competition we also played at the Mental Hospital and the Baptist Mission Hospital there.

ALL ASSAM INTER-COLLEGE MUSIC COMPETITION, 1959 (TEZPUR) — Standing (left to right) : Bah Ganold S Massar, Bah L.Gilbert Shullai, Bah Nando E Wankhar, Bah H. Teslett Pariat, Bah Bevan L Swer, Bah Webster Davies Jyrwa, Bah Densil Lyngdoh. Sitting (left to right) : Bah Newland Sohliya, Bah Sumar Singh Sawain, Bah Teddy Pakyntein, Bah Nestor Dkhar
ALL ASSAM INTER-COLLEGE MUSIC COMPETITION, 1959 (TEZPUR) — Standing (left to right) : Bah Ganold S Massar, Bah L.Gilbert Shullai, Bah Nando E Wankhar, Bah H. Teslett Pariat, Bah Bevan L Swer, Bah Webster Davies Jyrwa, Bah Densil Lyngdoh. Sitting (left to right) : Bah Newland Sohliya, Bah Sumar Singh Sawain, Bah Teddy Pakyntein, Bah Nestor Dkhar

I’ve examined the lines and lyrics of the songs in KA MARYNTHING RUPA and I’m of the opinion that Khasi tunes would be better suited to accompany some of the lyrics instead of the English tunes that have been suggested. But mind you, Bah Gilbert himself has afforded songwriters the freedom to put down whatever musical arrangements they see fit.   There are songs, though, that go quite well with the arrangements laid down in the book. To cite an example, let us take the song “Colonel Bogey” or “Bridge over the River Kwai”, tunes that most are familiar with, and place over them these lines that I had written some time back:

Shaphrang

Ki Khun U Hynniewtrep

Shaphrang
Ka um ka ding ia ia phi kim khang,
Lada phi iaid lang
Phi ia tylli bad ryntih lang.

Shirup
Shirup u lai ko Khon ka Ri
Naduh Rilang haduh Kupli
Ban skhem la riti
Ban sah nam burom
Ban im ka Ri.

This song will serve well as an anthem to rouse up collective enthusiasm in public gatherings that are held to celebrate our regional identity. Or take the tune of “Ramona” and place these words over it:

Lanosha,
Ki por b’la leit kin wan pat

Lanosha,
Phin wan ummat jong nga kin rngat
Sa tang ha jingphohsniew
Ia dur bhabriew jong phi nang i,
Ban da don ki thapniang
Sha kut pyrthei nga ruh ngan jngi

Lanosha,
Ki lum ba jrong kin hiar madan

Lanosha,
Phin wan ia nga nangne ban tan
Sha Ri ba suk ban im bad phi baroh shirta
Lanosha – iathuh seh – ia nga.

When one sings the song this way there is just a right balance between the tune and the words to enable the singer to find the required emotion and ‘expression’ that I had written about earlier. There were a lot of English tunes that we had turned into Khasi songs in the time after the World War but their names escape me mow.  What I can remember is the song – “When Whip-poor-wills Call” being translated like this:

Ha la i ïingtrep ba kynjah marwei,

Duitara kynud sngewsynei.
Ki khla ki dngiem ki kitbru bad ki ñiangkynjah
Sawdong i ïingtrep ki wan kynoi thiah.

The songs in KA MARYNTHING RUPA will not only delight readers and musicians but they’ll help enrich the understanding of one’s own land, the land I love – The Land Where Our Forefathers Bled. I respect Bah Gilbert for reminding us old folks once again about the times gone by – The Days of the Golden Past – and for imparting more knowledge about our land through the words and verses contained in these songs. I hope that Bah L.Gilbert Shullai will continue to do research and write books to advance our culture – Khasi Culture.

Bah Webb

Webster Davies Jyrwa,
Retired Senior Station Director,
All India Radio
and
Member, Plan Projects Committee,
National Academy of Arts,
New Delhi.

Dated Jaiaw Langsning,

Shillong

The 15th October 1984.

Notes:

  1. Meghalaya’s biggest traditional market
  2. Followers of the traditional Khasi faith
  3. The Khasi honorific for men
  4. The Khasi honorific for women
  5. Local toddy is usually sold in bottles without labels and corked with banana leaves

 It should also be noted that names of the songs mentioned in this account may not necessarily correspond to their original names. For example, ‘When Whip-poor-wills call’ could well be the song ‘My Blue Heaven’ by Walter Donaldson and the same goes for ‘Danawelin’, ‘Damino’ etc

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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.

One Comment

  1. Rudy Wallang
    February 26, 2017
    Reply

    Very well written Mark 🙂 Just that there a couple of places where repititions occur… also my Dad’s initials are A.B Wallang…. the A is missing in the list.
    If i may mention other names, that i can remember, of musicians and singers during the Fentone’s and Vanguards days.. People that i grew up listening to.. Bah Sherlock Giri, Bah Radbah, Bah Charlie Domes, Bah Bing, Bah Ben Khongmen … 🙂 🙂 When i remember more names, i will jot them down here.

    Thanks for the read 🙂

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