Note: Bah Webster Davis Jyrwa’s prologue to the book ‘Ka Marynthing Rupa’ (The Silver Harp) 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.
To read the original prologue in Khasi, click here
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.
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)
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.
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:
- Bah Bonarwell Lyngdoh – Viola and Guitar.
- Bah Harold Nongkynrih – Mandolin, Ukulele and Viola.
- Bah Everland Syiemlieh – Mandolin, Piano, Accordion.
- Bah Kyndwer Khongwar – Viola.
- Bah Rosswel Chyne – Viola.
- Bah Soken Kharshandi – Spanish Guitar and Banjo.
- Bah Betterland Syiemlieh – Spanish Guitar.
- Bah H.Methington – Hawaiian Guitar
- Bah Arthur Warren – Harmonica and Drums.
- Bah Hubert Dkhar – Spanish Guitar.
- Bah Mawrong Kharsati – Spanish Guitar and Banjo.
- Bah Borwin Nongrum – Maracas and Guitar.
- Bah Osland Nongrum – Viola.
- Bah John Ryntathiang – Viola.
- Bah Sainmanik Syiemlieh – Spanish Guitar.
- Bah Clader Rynjah – Spanish Guitar.
Beside their playing duities, Sainmalik Syiemlieh and Calder Rynjah were also singers. Later the following musicians also joined us:-
- Bah Marshal Blah – Viola.
- Bah Fredie Cholas (from Riatsamthiah) – Spanish Guitar.
- Bah Dodo (from Laban) – Spanish Guitar.
- Bah Orlando (from Mawlai) – Spanish Guitar.
- Bah Phil Lyngdoh – Spanish Guitar.
- Bah Horil – Viola.
- Bah Diren Swett – Viola.
- Bah Aibor Lyngdoh – Spanish Guitar.
- Bah Defend War – Viola.
Apart from these regular members, there were also those who joined us during concerts, like –
- Bah Pires – Drums.
- Kong Stella Rynjah – Piano.
- Kong Eugene Rynjah – Piano
- 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.
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.
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:
Ki Khun U Hynniewtrep
Ka um ka ding ia ia phi kim khang,
Lada phi iaid lang
Phi ia tylli bad ryntih lang.
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:
Ki por b’la leit kin wan pat
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
Ki lum ba jrong kin hiar madan
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.
Webster Davies Jyrwa,
Retired Senior Station Director,
All India Radio
Member, Plan Projects Committee,
National Academy of Arts,
Dated Jaiaw Langsning,
The 15th October 1984.
- Meghalaya’s biggest traditional market
- Followers of the traditional Khasi faith
- The Khasi honorific for men
- The Khasi honorific for women
- 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