Red Bull (shit) presents Fraud History of Shillong Music Scene

Standing By is a six part web series on ‘independent music in India’ produced by the Red Bull Media House- the media wing of the energy drink giant Red Bull- in association with Only Much Louder. One has been watching it with a sense of disquiet at how casually the series has hijacked the idea of independent music in India and made it the sole preserve of western popular music. In the spirit of this presumption, comes the third part of Standing By called Building of Colour- a chapter of which is reserved for Shillong.

The culture of western popular music in Shillong has no shortage of hagiographers. In fact most of the writing on this field has been gushy, uncritical and downright fallacious

It is fair to say that in any writing of the history of western music in India, Shillong would deserve a chapter. It is just that the writing of this chapter has become way too problematic – too many loose ends, too many grand unifying theories. The culture of western popular music in Shillong has no shortage of hagiographers. In fact most of the writing on this field has been gushy, uncritical and downright fallacious (there have been so many that it would be worthwhile to bring out a compendium of these). The most recent being NH7’s claim: ‘where every house has a guitar’. Shillong’s claims to exceptionalism with regards to western music defy belief and are made without any regard for empirical truth. Statements like ‘rock capital of the country’ are bandied about without any sense of irony as we sell ourselves to national magazines and TV channels who will happily slot us in this self-made pigeon hole. They must be relieved that we’ve just provided them with the latest mark to brand us with. It saves them the trouble of actually having to understand us and gives us the opportunity to ‘keep up with the Joneses’.

Myths like this are Shillong's counterfeit currency
Myths like this are Shillong’s counterfeit memes

It is exactly this space that the film in question inhabits. The section on Shillong starts with the filmmaker making a similarly asinine declaration that one is more likely to hear western music in the streets of Shillong than the latest Hindi film music. Really? Which streets, dude? The fabled Catholic streets of Laitumkhrah? Did you visit the musty streets of Iewduh or the notoriously dkhar streets of Laban? This equation of Shillong with western music (read culture) is clearly an elitist construct and it is fittingly mirrored in the film when a former Home Minister mouths some inanity about ‘400-500 tribes connected though western music’. A cursory visit to the outskirts of the city would relieve most of us of this tired notion but clearly an illusion needs to be maintained here. In a much more frightening way, this is the same illusion that is being peddled every day – a Times Square in Polo, Smart Cities, the New Shillong Township.

Standing By, the film, is a peddler of similar ideas. Watching the film is like watching an inept cop lining up the usual suspects after a crime. The dots are lazily connected, evidence is conveniently discarded and hurray the criminal is caught. But the real crime lies uncovered – the crime of simplifying an entire culture and turning it to a standardized and easily digestible set of meals. Here is the recipe –

  • State with a large Christian population (1 kilo)
  • Education hub of the North east (mix with beef stock)
  • A naturally gifted musical people (add to your liking)
  • Mix well, fry and garnish with a thousand guitars
Clearly this simple narrative suits a lot of people both from within the state and outside. Those seeking to document western music here arrive with these clichés in their travel bags, they speak to the perpetrators of these same clichés, have self serving conversations and feed it all back to us who hungrily devour this mythology because it makes us look good.


In a series obsessing with rock cred, pioneers like Bah Rana Kharkongor will find no place

There is a lot that this film gets wrong and the most glaring is blaming insurgency for choke-holding the growth of western music. How and in what way did this happen? Well, one of the explanations in the film seems to be that people got cowed down and stopped going out .There was violence yes, there were those dreary curfews yes, but to claim that everything came to a full stop is to claim total amnesia. The formative years of this writer were spent in those times and I seem to remember a quite vibrant scene.


U N Sun’s innovative K(hasi)-Pop deconstruction of Western dance music

There is a lot that this film gets wrong and the most glaring is blaming insurgency for choke-holding the growth of western music.

The Ceremony made Scary Truth, there were shows celebrating original songs and poetry and bands channeled the dominant music of the time (Grunge and other assorted Seattle forms) with as much energy as bands from other more supposedly peaceful decades. In fact, I’d venture to claim that much of the emphasis on putting out one’s own material by Shillong’s musicians today arose from a shift in the collective thinking of musicians of that insurgent era. But all this is again given short shrift in the film and replaced by the sensationalist narrative of ‘terror suppressing creativity’. Come to think of it, isn’t the basic premise of this assumption wrong? Hasn’t history has shown us that some of the best art comes out of turbulent times and places.

Snow White at altspace, Shillong's only non corporate independent music space ever. Sadly shutdown by the Law enforcement agencies
Snow White at altspace, Shillong’s only non corporate independent music space ever. Sadly shutdown by the local Law enforcement agencies

One of the things the film does mention is the lack of promotion and patronage of the music and the musicians by the government and other assorted rich dudes. This is, of course, true for all creative endeavours in the State. The Government of Meghalaya does not have time for any form of creative expression, period. I’m sorry my funk-soul-rock brethren (hip hop-metal too), but that queue, as they say, stretches round the block. What the government has put in place instead is an event driven, consultant based machine (the target of 150 shows a year as set by our Chief Minister) to substitute for its lack of imagination. Events that are organized at the speed of rabbits multiplying and, to take the rabbit analogy further, that are organized only in the mating season take their comfort in numbers. So do the number crunching. Has the money spent on bringing inconsequential foreign acts to the state enriched or paupered our own artists?

Iconic poster of Soulmate's first album
Iconic poster of Soulmate’s first album

Yes, music needs a stage but rock n roll dreams are one thing and making music another. The lack of patronage, if shouted out too much from the rooftops, stops being the cause of a musical culture’s poverty and starts becoming an indictment of its own lack of DIY ethic. Musicians who can’t do without the bright lights and big bars will always suffer from the ‘benefactor syndrome’. This film casts our western music and its musicians as terminal patients of this affliction.

Then comes, as it had to, the all-encompassing Lou Majaw myth- created by the man himself but also created for him. When in doubt, plaster Lou Majaw on the screen, say his name, and print his quotes and there you have your film, your piece, your report. Never mind the waltz, the foxtrot and the bop. These song and dance forms livened up Shillong’s jam sessions in the 1950s and 60s with a host of local musicians starring in these genres. A lot of rock and rollers of Lou Majaw’s generation were obviously the off spring of these jazz and other pre- Rock n Roll musicians. But watching this film, you would never know it. The Vanguards, The Vaudevilles, The Fentones, Eddie Rynjah– these forebears and contemporaries of Lou Majaw’s music are never mentioned, though quite possibly their photographs were slapped across the screen as the token Oldies. As in, monochrome means the past and images of the past translate into research of some sort.

Lou Majaw with local media. Shockingly he doesn't get to speak in the film
Lou Majaw with local media. Shockingly he doesn’t get to speak in the film

All this is not to belittle Ma Lou’s achievements, for he has no doubt shaped a huge chunk of this rock n roll story, but with all these effusions it is becoming impossible to separate the chaff from the wheat. In the film, claims are made on his behalf and the man himself doesn’t appear but let’s just say that Lou Majaw awaits his chronicler. His, is after all, the tale of a complete outsider breaking in and challenging the complacency of lineaged musicians.

Cassette Cover of Bah U N Sun, master of Khasi words and 'Western' Music will not find a place in Standing By
Cassette Cover of Bah U N Sun, master of Khasi words and ‘Western’ Music will not find a place in Standing By

So, by the same token, any history of Lou Majaw is also a history of the joyous release of a popular art form with its attendant fete fights, its tragic drunken deaths, its Pnar, War and Bhoi renditions of Bollywood tunes, its Tipriti Kharbangar and its U.N Sunn. But the film, as expected, has no time for this side of the story

The filmmakers can, of course, cite the compulsions of brevity as a defence. Who can after all fit everything in a six part series? But brevity is no defence for lethargic assumptions just as the limitations of a 3 minute song is any excuse for Moon-June lyrics (Okay, you can do Moon-June but there are others who have ventured farther). So, from all the popular forms of western music this film attempts to ‘uncover’ and ‘document the history’ of, it ends up best equated with the pop of Barry Manilow- tired old, lazy, formulaic. As for the underdog pretensions, shove them because this particular (under)dog don’t hunt.

If you still want to watch this chapter of the Red Bull(shit) series, scroll down:

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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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