When Anand Mahindra, the architect of the Mahindra Blues Festival introduced Rudy Wallang and Tipriti Kharbangar to his wife, he told her
SOULMATE was formed in Shillong, in October 2003 when Rudy Wallang and Tipriti Kharbangar decided to start a band dedicated to playing the Blues and committed to spread awareness about the music to the rest of India, whether the country was ready or not. Rudy was already a legend in North East India, making his name with the region’s most respected and seminal bands like Great Society and Mojo, while Tipriti was the little girl with the big pipes whom everyone knew was going places. It was not only an opportune meeting of kindred spirits but also of minds, talents, passions and souls that would charm the country and inspire countless bands, guitar players and artists. The stamp of their sound would be unique in India and those around the world who heard it, immediately identified with and embraced the call of this ‘back to roots’ music – a sonic canvas rooted in Rudy’s elegant blues guitar that channelled Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters and the Three Kings but also embracing every sound that Tipriti’s extensive vocal range could accommodate, from Koko Taylor, Etta James and Nina Simone to the recent addition of the earthy sounds of Khasi folk music. Perhaps being based in Shillong made it easier for them to ignore the country’s dominant soundscapes and for them to hold on steadfastly to the triumphant sounds and grooves of the blues and blues derived rock, funk, soul and R&B. In any case, don’t bother asking Soulmate why they chose the blues because you ought to know better – ‘the blues chose them’.
In a country still dominated by Bollywood music, Soulmate have become unlikely heroes for those on India’s artistic and cultural peripheries with Tipriti’s fiery stage presence and wide vocal range making her an easy fit as a feminist icon. As Aditi Ramesh, one of India’s most highly rated young singers says, ‘….her strong presence for years has brought about an increase in the number of strong female performers in the music scene’.
True as this is, gender and identity, though, has never been clear cut for Tipriti.
Growing up in Malki, in what was then a tough, working class neighbourhood, she recalls being ‘confused whether to behave like a boy or a girl’ right up till her teens. Tipriti was a sensitive yet tough girl who would cry over a sad Cinderella song but not afraid to stare down her ‘bad –ass brother’s’ gang rivals when they sought him out from her beloved but aging ancestral home. Girl friends were rare for her in Malki as she grew up playing with her brothers and male cousins, wanting to drive their wooden toy trucks but relegated instead to play the booze seller, in a child’s game of moonshine smuggling. Also, Tiptriti’s family is of English/Scottish extraction and she and her siblings were frequently called ‘Tommy Sahkhyrdong’ (leftover Tommy) by her Malki playmates. Her bloodline may invoke both envy and ridicule in Shillong but her Nongkrem-Khasi accent, proudly spoken by most in Malki, left no room for such ambiguity. Some of her school mates in St Mary’s School were openly contemptuous of its rustic provenance while others just simply failed to understand it. Tipriti, in those early school days, says that she was equally baffled by the refined Khasi that most people in Shillong used.
‘Anything you want, darling’ was what Carlos Santana would tell her, years later, when she refused his request to sing a Michelle Branch song with him and insisted instead that they jammed on ‘Smooth’. But such acquiescence, as displayed by the great man, was not something that her singing voice evoked when she was growing up. The Khasi ‘shapaid’ or loud was an adjective that she was more used to – always sent to the back of the choir, not allowed to take part in her gospel singing cousins’ rehearsals and frequently asked to stop torturing her mother’s ear drums as she sang while doing her chores; so Mem (her term of endearment before she acquired Tips) had a lot of gender, musical, linguistic and genealogical issues to wrestle with as a young girl.
Rudy, on the other hand, comes from an illustrious musical family. His grand-father, father, aunts and uncles have contributed immensely to the musical and cultural heritage of 20th century Shillong in both Khasi and English. Grandpa Hedronelle Nonglait was an accomplished Khasi singer/songwriter, Rudy’s aunt, Kong Ermina E. Wahlang, besides her rich body of work, is also the first Khasi female singer to be recorded in All India Radio, Shillong and Rudy’s father is the legendary Bah Toto Wahlang. Bah Toto was a star in the glory days of Calcutta’s Park Street and people there called him ‘The Golden Voice’. Rudy himself has contributed immeasurably to Shillong’s western music even beyond Soulmate, and, in the best possible way, his career may indeed stand in as a metaphor for the growth and evolution of western popular music here.
It’s impossible to recount all of Rudy’s contributions in this single article and I must, therefore, weigh in with only the Soulmate side of his story.
In the mid 1990s, Rudy Wallang found himself judging a community singing competition in Malki where a young girl accompanied herself on guitar and sang Alanis Morissette’s ‘Hand in My Pocket’. Rudy was struck not just by her talent but in his words ‘…how free she was’. At the time, Rudy had left the seminal band Great Society and was leading Mojo; another hugely influential blues based band but not quite the full on blues outfit that he was itching to start. A couple of years later, at the fag end of his Mojo days, Rudy struck out as a music producer and arranger with his own home based studio and it was here that he was asked to compose for a multi-artist gospel album where that Malki girl who sang ‘Hand In My Pocket’ would also feature. He grabbed the chance to arrange blues based tunes and convinced her that she was well suited to sing these (including a much jazzed up version of Amazing Grace). The pieces were coming together for Soulmate but it would be a while before they all fitted in.
By this time, Tipriti was a confident Dr. Graham’s Homes, Kalimpong returned girl who had blown away her competition in that school singing ‘Don’t Cry for me Argentina’. In Shillong, she had fronted Conbrio backed by another influential guitar player (the late Manfulson Lyngdoh) and played in demanding community fetes, sometimes as the only female artist around (though her brother or dad always accompanied her on gigs). A few years earlier, she had stormed into Shillong’s consciousness at a Millennium concert and the song and video for her collaborative effort called ‘I’m Free This Christmas’ was much talked about.
She was keeping herself on a steady diet of Alanis Morisette, Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos and The Cranberries when Rudy asked her to back Mojo in a Marley Tribute gig that featured one of India’s leading guitar players at the time, Roy Venkataraman. Following the gospel collaboration, this gig cemented Rudy’s belief that with his blues guitar and Tipriti’s voice, he finally had the all-out blues combination he had been looking for all these years. Tipriti, in turn, decided to fully put her trust in Rudy’s vision and thus began her journey into the blues. She would recall
But things were changing in India, popular culture beyond Bollywood, was starting to thrive in the country’s cultural borders – the Rock Street Journal had taken off a few years earlier and now music channels like MTV and Channel V were putting their weight behind this brave (but ultimately tractable) new world. Rudy and Tipriti smile, remembering that it was at this formative period that ‘we decided to dump the blues on them’.
Soulmate was formed in 2003 and their initial shows rode the wave of this new interest in India’s ‘alternative popular culture’. Rudy’s brother Keith managed them and pretty soon they were hooked up to this moment in popular culture where Indian bands were getting a chance to perform regularly. Rudy though was
This was also a particularly tough time for Tipriti and Rudy on a personal level; the Shillong grapevine was rife with stories of the personal dynamics between them. She was in her 20s and Rudy was a single father; it was no one’s business so it became everyone’s business. It caused unbearable tension within Tipriti’s family and made it very difficult for her to return home after a gig or a rehearsal. She felt for her mother and the gossip she had to face but she says
It was at this time of intense personal turmoil for both Rudy and Tipriti that the turning point also came. Soulmate’s road manager at the time, who also worked for RSJ, thought it would be a good idea for them to meet this blues enthusiast, Kiran Sant. He owned a live music joint in New Delhi called Haze but was on the verge of closing it down. The road manager was right – Rudy, Tipriti and Kiran hit it off spectacularly and soon all plans to close down Haze were abandoned. Instead Kiran Sant offered Soulmate a residency of 2 gigs a month and Rudy fondly recalls ‘playing there for 6-7 years. That’s 24 gigs a year for 6-7 years. We lit the spark for the New Delhi live music scene’. Soon, employees of foreign embassies, overseas travellers in India and college students were thronging Haze. Tipriti recalls that her earliest fans ‘were students from JNU’. Soulmate was talked about, written about and even Kiran Sant found his name in the papers often (which Rudy says Kiran loved). So, twice a month for 6-7 years, they’d fly into New Delhi on a Friday morning, play on Friday and Saturday evenings and take the 5am flight back to Shillong on a Sunday – an aerial round trip of 2988 kilometers . Tipriti also remembers Bruce Ashby at this point, the CEO of Indigo, India’s first low cost airline which had just recently launched. Bruce loved Soulmate so much that he gave Kiran Sant a deal on his airline just so he could come and watch Soulmate play during the weekends. The passenger fare on their ticket was waived and Kiran Sant had to pay only the dues on fuel, tax and maintenance which amounted to less than Rs 5000 per ticket.
Soon they were also dubbed ‘the Darlings of NDTV’ on account of them being featured so often on India’s premier English news channel. It was this network of India’s working professionals, students and foreigners that sustained Soulmate and both of them are cool enough to admit it. Tipriti smiles playfully when she says
But again, Tipriti doesn’t read much into this. She admits that
Soulmate has hit highs that few other Indian bands have and that too by unapologetically playing the blues. In their journey, they’ve played to audiences and fans all over the world and they’ve been on the same bill as Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Keb Mo, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Jimmie Vaughn and other blues greats. They savour all these moments but their favourite remains when Carlos Santana signaled Rudy if he could join them in the middle of their set. ‘We were opening for him, so for Carlos Santana to signal from backstage if he could join us was just my biggest fan moment’, says Rudy while Tipriti adds ‘….and that too for ‘Lie’, a song that I wrote’.
Soulmate still get booked for an average of 35-40 gigs a year and they are now backed by Rudy’s sons, Leon and Vincent. They also tour as Soulmate and the Clansmen in which both Tipriti’s and Rudy’s increasing interest in Khasi folk music gets an outlet. They’ll be around for a while yet but they’ve also played long enough to leave a legacy – the robust health that the blues finds itself in India at this point of time. Shillong itself has a number of serious blues and blues derived artists like Blue Temptation, L.B King and 4th Element, all of whom openly own up to the debt they owe Soulmate.
Soulmate has three albums to their name, ”Shillong”, “Moving On” and ‘Ten Stories Up’ in 2014 – all of them uncompromising discourses on the blues both as homage and re-imagination. These recordings coupled with their live prowess have spurred interest and fascination for them well beyond India’s borders. They’ve toured Europe, played in Memphis – the home of the blues, regaled audiences in Bangladesh, Dubai, Indonesia, Singapore, and Nepal. Their work can be found across multiple platforms like documentary films and web series just as their music now seeks to expand the vocabulary of roots music by exploring the common origin and yet differing histories of the blues and folk music.
Rudy has over 38 years of musical experience while Tipriti is probably entering her most creative phase and has taken on more responsibilities as a song-writer. With Leon and Vincent around they are also set up by way of age, experience, prowess and potential for their best work to lie ahead of them and not behind.