Like all histories, this is not a definitive story. If you have similar stories, documents, photographs to share, please send them to [email protected]
A video was recently circulated around the usual social media outlets featuring a man singing Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’.
It was a recording of a live performance, probably in the mid 90s, in a Dylan tribute show and like the recording itself the performance was imperfect – the accompanying guitar seemed a little off and the voice singing it sounded unsure. It was as if the singer was searching for something, trying to remember an ability that he once had. But every once in a while he’d hit his stride and smile to himself, as if happy that the old gift hadn’t completely left him. Looking back now, it is a performance at once soulful and touching yet immensely sad, as we witness an artist working with just the bare bones of a skill that he once possessed in abundance.
Flash back to a fete in the late 80s. The venue was Assam Club in Laban and its lawns were decked with stalls offering people ways to make or lose money. Men and women were trying to fish for a beer or throwing hoops around soaps and perfumes while children burst balloons with an air rifle.[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] ‘Once more Ma Eddie’ people shouted and it didn’t matter what song he was singing; they were there for the Eddie Rynjah experience and boy were they getting it.[/perfectpullquote]The mandatory brawl was also brewing and young boys had arranged themselves into groups waiting for something to spark the said rumble but in spite of it, the atmosphere was that of a late night revelry where a community was letting its hair down. The hall inside boomed as the band struck up Motorhead’s ‘Killed by Death’. This was usually the place from where brawls emanated but not that night as a voice that was rich, assured, deep and mesmerizing was holding court. ‘Killed by Death’ was a strange song choice considering that it was preceded by Sultans of Swing but the man on stage was killing it, just as later in the night he would make a Cat Stevens song seem like a natural fit for such a boisterous occasion. ‘Once more Ma Eddie’ people shouted and it didn’t matter what song he was singing; they were there for the Eddie Rynjah experience and boy were they getting it.
Bah Eddie, Ma Eddie or simply Eddie Rynjah is considered by most – layman and musician alike – to be one of the most distinctive talents that this town has ever produced. That baritone could accommodate a range from Lemmy to Dylan, pour soul into worn out classics and all with the stage swagger of a man born to be on it – which is not surprising because he comes from a rich lineage indeed. Edward Raymond Rynjah was born on October 16, 1948 to Stella Rynjah, the first western music artist to be recorded in All India Radio, Shillong who was also a piano player with the Jaiaw Orchestra – one of the country’s finest and first string and horn ensembles. Eddie Rynjah’s uncles, Peter, David and Jimmy Rynjah, were the founders of one of Shillong’s earliest rock/beat groups, the Vaudevilles.
Eddie’s musical education would’ve started at a very early age when his mother Stella, as her daughter Yvonne would tell me, would never waste an opportunity to light up family gatherings with renditions of jazz classics of the day on the family piano. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Eddie picked up the guitar early and his first stage performance, at age 13, was also a family affair with his uncles in the Vaudevilles. Yvonne fondly remembers her younger brother crooning ‘Shooting Star’ by Cliff Richards on his coming out.
Eddie, YC, YS and YO
It was a blustery day in the summer of 2016 when I had tea with Yvonne Rynjah and before us were laid out the assorted newspaper cuttings, photocopied magazine articles, photographs, obituaries and even a memento prepared by the Guwahati band Month’s Mind that Yvonne had collected over the years as a memorial to her younger brother. She recalled their childhood in the home of her musician mother and her Irish father, Carlyle Edward Young – a soldier in the British Army who stayed back after Independence with his new family in Shillong. Yvonne struggles to recall what her father did for a living but remembers her mother leading the family by taking up odd jobs until she landed one with the Crompton Greaves Company. It was a great opportunity but also a conundrum as it meant that she would have to move to one of the company’s bases in Khulna (now in Bangladesh). It isn’t clear if Stella was given the option of taking her family along but in any case, her mother, Hesina Rynjah, stepped in and asked her daughter to pursue her career thereby taking up the mantle of raising her grand kids herself.
Eddie and his siblings attended junior school at Dr. Graham’s Homes in Kalimpong, Darjeeling. So their early schooling along with their mixed parentage meant that Yvonne, Yvette, Yolanda and Eddie Rynjah spent their early years in a very Anglo atmosphere. But this fact doesn’t allow one to make the facile connection that an Anglo upbringing and schooling was the direct result of Eddie’s tilt towards western music. If anything, Yvonne remembers, the strict, Protestant atmosphere afforded Eddie no liberties with music whatsoever. He never exhibited any musical skill there nor was he encouraged to do so. His only contact with music at this formative time was when he came back home for the winter holidays. The Kalimpong chapter didn’t last long as their grandmother decided that she wanted them closer to home and Eddie resumed his 6th standard in the Government Boys’ School in Mawkhar. Yvonne remembers being baffled by her grandmother’s decision at the time but now she smiles and tells me that even after all these years, she still can’t make sense of the contradictions that this remarkable woman embodied.
Kong Hesina Rynjah was strong willed and old-fashioned to the point that she would follow her grand-daughters to college to make sure that they were on the up and up. Yvonne and her sisters had to resort to hide and seek games to avoid their spying granny with shop keepers around the college serving as look outs for them. But she never left them in need of anything and encouraged Eddie, just like she did her daughter Stella, to pursue music by buying him his first guitar – it was a gift for passing his Matriculation exams. As dynamic and pioneering as his mother Stella was, she was less of an influence on Eddie Rynjah than his hard headed and somewhat conservative grandmother. I ask Yvonne if Eddie received special attention for being the only male in the family and she sips her tea thinking. She agrees that it was probably inevitable for Eddie to be sort of special for the family but their grandmother never let the sisters feel that way on an everyday level. Eddie for his part, Yvonne says, was a loving kid who loved to tease his sisters by referring to them by their initials – YC (Yvonne Clarissa), YS (Yvette Susan) and YO (Yolanda Olivia) – something that he continued to do till his last days.
The Artist as a Young Man
Eddie, as mentioned, was already doing the circuit with the Vaudevilles by age 13, handling bass guitar and backup singing duties. This was the early to mid 60s but the Vaudevilles were still a dressy band with their slick hair, sharp dinner jackets and pencil ties – more Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons than the Stones or the Beatles. The Jaiaw Orchestra had been playing the Waltz, Rumba, Samba, Tango and Beguine since 1948, so the Vaudevilles were already Shillong’s second or third generation pop musicians. They would play at weddings, jam sessions, college shows and developed enough of a reputation for people to develop personalized post cards for them. But as a collective they were like a revolving door of musicians flitting in and out with Peter and David Rynjah as the only constants. This meant that his uncles would call on Eddie whenever there was a slot to be filled. He didn’t play too many shows with them but whenever he did, he looked and sounded the part. Yvonne says that their grandmother wasn’t happy with Eddie spending too much time with music but he had a clever way of using tantrums to get his way.
His mother Stella, in the meantime, was moving up the Crompton Greaves ladder and was soon promoted to a managerial position in Calcutta. According to Yvonne, her father Carlyle found employment as a jockey in the Calcutta Maidan but his marriage to Stella ended after that. Stella would visit her kids once a year and soon she would be accompanied by a Goan man, whom Eddie and his sisters ended up calling ‘Papa Joe’. It’s not clear what Stella’s attitude to her son’s musical inclinations were but she was determined that he would pick up a skill other than the guitar. So after his matriculation, she set him up to join an engineering apprenticeship course in Calcutta. Yes, the Calcutta of the 60s! Man, did she send him to the wrong place.
By the 60s, what become known as the Golden Triangle (the musical exchange between Shillong, Calcutta and Darjeeling) had already developed. Hem Swett, Toto Wallang and Lou Majaw had already blazed a trail and as Rudy Wallang would recall ‘entering Park Street then is like entering Times Square now’. Rudy tells me about the lights, the pubs, bars and musical joints of Park Street in the 60s – Trinca’s, Blue Fox and Moulin Rouge to name a few.
He remembers the sharply dressed people, the sailors, Anglo-Indians, Jews, Europeans and Armenians. On any given day, there would be cabaret, magic shows, ventriloquism, stand-up comic acts, even fire-eating and, of course, music. Calcutta’s prolific night life was centred on Park Street and some have described it as the ‘Broadway of India’. Toto Wallang, was then the toast of the Park Street Scene earning the moniker ‘Golden Voice’. So when the Park Street Scene hit peak season, Bah Toto would be invited to play and was provided with the best facilities that the scene could offer. Rudy recalls being put up with his parents in an apartment complex called ‘Kanani Mansions’ in Park Street and there was a car to drive his father to and from his gigs. Rudy would receive gifts from ‘uncle Joshua’ (Ellis Joshua, the man who ran Trinca’s) by day and in the evenings, he would watch his father enthrall an audience at the joint – filled with Calcutta’s English speaking elite, expats and ‘shippies’. So this was the possibility when Eddie Rynjah, age 18, arrived in Calcutta.
He wasted no time in dropping out of his engineering apprenticeship course and hit the Park Street Scene running – an action that would result in a major falling out with his mother. Yvonne tells me about Stella informing their grandmother on the phone and swearing that she will wash her hands off her errant son. At this point, the details of ER’s life in Calcutta become a little hazy as he immersed himself in the Park Street Scene and had irregular contact with his family in Shillong.[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Nondon recalls Eddie getting drunk at a party and repeatedly saying that he wanted to go home.[/perfectpullquote] But from what can be pieced together, it emerges that he first found himself playing bass guitar and singing in an all-Anglo band called the Flintstones. They quickly became popular in Trinca’s where they played the 3-5 pm slot with Eddie especially standing out. They would occasionally back Usha Uthup at this famed joint and also helped her out when she made her recordings of ‘Jambalaya’ and ‘Greenback Dollar’ in 1968. After a few years with the Flintstones, Great Bear came calling and Eddie probably hit the height of his fame in this period. Great Bear featured such luminaries as Dilip Balakrishnan and Nondon Bagchi and was probably as accomplished a rock band as any in the entire country at that time. He formed a special bond with Nondon Bagchi and whatever little we know of Eddie Rynjah as a man in Calcutta comes from him.
Nondon remembers that Eddie could be enigmatic – shy and withdrawn one minute but easy going with a sharp sense of humour and an eye for the ladies the next. What was constant was an electric stage presence, especially when he sang. Park Street attracted glamour and glamorous women like Moon Moon Sen and Manjula Sinha frequented it. Eddie is said to have had ‘close friendships’ with both these women. Yvonne tells us that he also lived with an Anglo Indian lady named Kitty and had a daughter named Natalie with her. Nondon says that Eddie sang infrequently for Great Bear, so his prominence in the scene must have come from his work as a solo artist. But the dots on this one are yet to be connected at this point.
Anyway, it seemed that Eddie was living a musician’s dream and Great Bear was really going places. Apart from scorching the Park Street Scene, in 1970, they were also finalists of the country’s premier rock platform at the time – the Simla Beat Contest. They were on the road often and they travelled first class. Nondon remembers a particularly hilarious incident on one of their travels. They were on a train and had closed the door of their compartment for a drink when someone knocked. It turned out to be a cop but Eddie took the uniform to be that of a train sweeper’s. So drink in hand, he tells the cop ‘Andar ao aur aacha se saaf karo’ (Come on in and clean up properly).
Eddie Rynjah would go on to achieve whatever fame that Park Street could offer and Nondon Bagchi says that he was as close to being a household name as any musician of that scene. But this was also a limited scene driven by Calcutta’s position as India’s premier eastern port and I suppose a few decades was as long as it could’ve run. People have attributed a lot factors to the decline of the Park Street Scene – the Naxalite movement, the flight of corporate munificence and the Anglo-Indian community, a higher entertainment tax regime and a more militant cultural morality. What we know is that as the fortunes of Park Street dwindled, so did Eddie’s patience with the city. Nondon recalls Eddie getting drunk at a party and repeatedly saying that he wanted to go home. Nondon thought he meant his place in Calcutta but realized later that Eddie meant going back to Shillong.
So it was that he bid adieu to his mates at Great Bear and headed back home. Great Bear later became High and went on to achieve great critical acclaim – they are now regarded as one of the most influential Indian bands ever. Eddie would meet up with High again only in 1984 when the band played Mokokchung in Nagaland and Nondon remembers that they had a pretty lively jam session.
The Abode of Doubts
The Shillong that Eddie Rynjah left behind was vastly different from the one that he stepped into. First of all, it was no longer the capital of Assam but the seat of a small hill state called Meghalaya. Its tribal identity was strongly being asserted and in a few years the riots of 1979 would hit the town.[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Popular music was seeping through class barriers and manifested itself in locality ‘fetes’[/perfectpullquote]The tea gardens of Assam were no longer venues for local musicians and beat groups were now replaced by rock bands that played newly opened venues and not small, elitist jam sessions. People were listening to the Doors, Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Radio Ceylon and widely available EPs had closed the gap between musician and listener. Popular music was seeping through class barriers and manifested itself in locality ‘fetes’, which were now at the cutting edge of this cultural transformation. Great Society loomed large over the music scene then but there were also a host of working class bands from working class localities playing plank and tarpaulin stages in violent community fetes. Coming from a scene like Park Street, this would not have been intimidating to Eddie but surely it must have been strange – the lights of the ‘Broadway of India’ replaced by the hustle and grind of everyday fans and venues.
As always, though, his family was there to help out and the man who blooded him into the Vaudevilles, Peter Rynjah, this time too helped him set up The Super Sound Factory along with Pete Khongmen and a few others. (Lou Majaw was also associated at some point with the band). The appeal of Park Street helped as Eddie Rynjah was seen by many as someone who had made it in Calcutta and legends grew around his escapades there (musical and otherwise). Anyway, they started small playing church and school fetes at first but slowly graduated to the more robust jam sessions at the Pinewood Hotel. Along the way they even won a few beat contests and gradually built a loyal following with their blend of Dire Straits, Pink Floyd and Cat Stevens. Eddie’s deep, distinctive voice cut himself out from the rest of the pack and people would often compliment an upcoming singer by saying ‘you sound like Eddie Rynjah’.[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] People would often compliment an upcoming singer by saying ‘you sound like Eddie Rynjah’.[/perfectpullquote]
But Eddie Rynjah was changing – he got a job with the State Electricity Board and married Judith Rymbai, with whom he’d have four children. Stylistically too, he was becoming more of a solo artist who wanted to explore the moodiness of people like Cat Stevens and Gordon Lightfoot than to play out the usual rock band repertoire. More tragically, though, he started hitting the bottle more than he needed to.
Despite his lively stage demeanour, Eddie was a private person who chose a close circle of friends over a gathering and it was to this circle that he retreated more and more. Was it that he lost interest? Cushioned by a regular job, did he lose his fire? Or more interestingly, did he lack an outlet to express himself? The music scene at this point was almost entirely ‘covers’ only. Yes, Great Society made ‘Dance Your Ass Off’ but to no great effect. Shillong didn’t want its own artists, it wanted a slice of the ‘western’ pie and the purpose of musicians at that time was to make people realize that fantasy. Nothing could’ve been more dreary than listening to locally made music.[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Shillong didn’t want its own artists, it wanted a slice of the ‘western’ pie and the purpose of musicians at that time was to make people realize that fantasy.[/perfectpullquote]
Eddie Rynjah wrote his own material and some reports suggest that he even tried putting together something called ‘It’s you I came here for’. It’s not clear whether this is a collection of songs and there are suggestions that he did record something but despite his sister Yvonne’s best efforts, this material can’t be located anymore. So, did he become disillusioned by the limitations of a small town and never quite got over the lights of Park Street? I asked Yvonne all these questions but she has no answers, only memories.
She tells me that Eddie didn’t give up completely. He went on to form bands called New Era and Blue Sky but decided that it was best to stick to himself backed by a band. On the side, he also formed an all employee band for the State Electricity Board called ‘Powerhouse’. Apparently, the Director, V.S Jaffa played a hand in this and also in organizing the band to go around town singing Christmas Carols on the back of a truck.
Was Eddie Rynjah an accidental pioneer of what is such a common sight (or eyesore) now? But this was no more the man who cut his teeth at Park Street. It would seem at this point that Eddie had drifted into a kind of stupor – on the one hand, the misleading comfort of the patronage and praise of his bosses, colleagues and hanger-ons and, on the other, the seduction of the bottle. The audience too had changed and concert goers were no more of Eddie’s generation. It was the era of ‘hair metal’ and Shillong didn’t escape it – for a Scorpions and Def Leppard in the west there was a Rock Galaxy and Living High here. People would respectfully listen to ‘Ma Eddie’ but they were also just waiting for the time when bands playing ‘their’ music would come on. Eddie would try to adapt but how many ‘Killed by Deaths’ could he accommodate? The music concert experience hadn’t been as compartmentalized as it is now, so a man who should’ve been playing for 50 year old parents was baring his soul instead to their long haired kids in their skin tight jeans and double breasted leather jackets.
Through it all though, he never lost his sense of humour – playing the truant brother to YC, YS and YO and even tried his hand at a game that he loved, cricket. He was too old to play, so he managed the 3 Pines Cricket Club and went on to win quite a few trophies with them. As a manager, he clearly belonged to the tough love school and wasn’t afraid to browbeat his players with that baritone. Members of the club still can’t help laughing at Ajit Malakar, a young player who was terrified of Eddie Rynjah. Young Ajit, as the story goes, finally got a chance to make the first XI and played as a wicket keeper. So when he took his first catch, he immediately turned to Eddie and said ‘Bah Eddie, catch pakar liya’ (Bah Eddie, I’ve taken a catch). Incensed, Eddie shouted back ‘Arre, hum ko kyun bol raha hai? Buddhu, appeal kar’. (Why are you telling me? Idiot, start appealing). His interest in the game was apparently quite serious, so it would have been something for him to collect the Runner’s up trophy for the Cricket for Peace tournament organized by the YMCA in 1988. The trophy was presented by none other than Sunil Gavaskar himself.[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Many afflicted musicians before and after him have died younger but the tragedy with Eddie Rynjah was that he lived long enough to realize his immense potential but either chose not to or was not allowed to – or both.[/perfectpullquote]
Eddie Rynjah never really withdrew from his family or his immediate community in Laban. Old wounds had healed and Eddie was always there when his mother Stella visited. She had retired as a Senior Manager with Crompton Greaves and spent her old age with ‘Papa Joe’ in the United States. Old photographs also show Eddie as a contented man when he was with his extended family and he continued to play whenever a community occasion came calling.
The name Eddie Rynjah was still known and respected around the country, so when the Rock Street Journal attempted to codify ‘Indian Rock’ with their compilation albums and shows, they naturally zeroed in on Lou Majaw and Eddie Rynjah as the north eastern representatives. We all know that Lou Majaw’s ‘Sea of Sorrow’ was featured on the Great Indian Rock 1 compilation but their deal with Eddie Rynjah is not quite clear. Some reports suggest that he was invited to play on RSJ’s first ever Great Indian Rock (GIR) show that was to be held on April 19, 1997 in Calcutta, others say that his songs too were to be featured on the GIR 2 compilation. Sadly, the first would not be possible and the second just never happened. Eddie’s family says that the RSJ people never got back to them. I ask Yvonne how Eddie felt about RSJ’s interest and she says that he was excited to get something on tape but fate had other plans. Eddie Rynjah died on 12th March, 1997 due to complications related to alcohol. He was 49.
Many afflicted musicians before and after him have died younger but the tragedy with Eddie Rynjah was that he lived long enough to realize his immense potential but either chose not to or was not allowed to – or both.
Some of his children took after him but they sing strictly for the Lord and of the generation of his grand nephews and nieces only one has taken up music seriously – Debra (Demi) Martina Rynjah, his sister Yvonne’s granddaughter. Yvonne remembers Demi’s first performance at a community youth week where she sang Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’. Who else would teach her that song but old Eddie Rynjah himself.
PS: Shortly after his 1st death anniversary, Eddie’s family organized a tribute concert for him. It was well attended by the music fraternity and fans from Shillong and outside, including his old friend Nondon Bagchi.