British rock band Coldplay’s first concert in India in front of an audience of over 80,000 was as star-studded as it could get. While it was undoubtedly Chris Martin and his band who stole the show at the Global Citizen India concert, another unique band also made its presence felt – the Shillong Chamber Choir who joined Amitabh Bachchan on stage for a stellar symphony of poetry and patriotism.
A blend of Khasi folklore and western classical sounds composed by Neil Nongkynrih (the founder of Shillong Chamber Choir), the song Mr Bachchan sang at the concert was a musical rendition of his famous poem on gender equality from the movie ‘Pink‘. As their mellifluous music filled the air, the audience was left enthralled.
This is the story of the Shillong Chamber Choir, a brilliant band that has held the nation spellbound with their exuberance and delightful repertoire of musical medleys for 15 years.
Shillong Chamber Choir was formed in 2001 by Neil Nongkynrih, a concert pianist who returned to Shillong after thirteen years in Europe. The media-shy artist had studied music at Trinity College in London, and had also tutored Grammy winner Philip Selway of the British rock group Radiohead.
Nongkynrih (Uncle Neil to his pupils) decided to become a music teacher and converted his residence in Pokseh, in the heart of Shillong, into a home music school. He then searched out talented children from villages or from modest backgrounds and trained them in music.
Under his tutelage, 25 young boys and girls of the Shillong Chamber Choir performed for the first time at Pinewood Hotel in Shillong in 2001. Their outstanding music, that included pieces from Khasi folk music as well as Handel, Bach, Gershwin, Mozart and Nongkynrih’s own compositions, ensured that there was no turning back after that.
In 2009, for the first time in the musical history of northeast India, the Shillong Chamber Choir collaborated with the famed Vienna Orchestra for a couple of concerts in Shillong and Kolkata. In 2010, the choir also won Gold awards at the World Choir Games in Shaoxing, China for all the three categories in which they had participated – Music Sacra, Gospel and Popular.
However, it was after winning the reality talent show, India’s Got Talent (Season 2) in October 2010 that the choir finally shot to fame. Few people know that, initially, the choir was reluctant to participate in the show because of their classical repertoire which they thought would not be appreciated by the masses. When they finally made it to the audition in Kolkata, they sang ‘Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar’, the only Hindi song that the only Hindi-speaker in the group, Donna Myrthong, knew. However, the judges loved their music and they were selected. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since then, have gone where no Indian choir has gone before – from crooning for the Obamas on their India visit to winning medals in World Choir Championships and now to performing with Amitabh Bachchan in the Global Citizen India concert. Their story was even featured as a study chapter in the English Syllabus of the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) in 2013. In 2015, Nongkynrih, who believes that music is the true expression of who he is within, was honoured with a Padma Shri for his immense contribution to music in India.
Today, the Shillong Chamber Choir has a choc-a-bloc schedule, with concerts lined up well into 2017. Over the years, the choir’s repertoire has expanded rapidly to include fresh and funky renditions of popular Hindi songs like ‘Eena Meena Deeka’, ‘ Humma Humma’ and ‘Senorita’ – a long way from the time when ‘Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar’ was the only Hindi song they could sing.
With concerts lined up till the end of this year and into 2017, audiences can look forward to fresh renditions by the SCC of medleys of “Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu“, “Eena Meena Deeka” and “I Got Rhythm“; “Lag Ja Gale” with the Godfather theme; “Humma Humma” with a popular western funk tune and many more.
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Shillong Chamber Choir’s USP has always been their ability to give an interesting twist to medleys that offer listeners a blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Each concert throws up surprising, yet crazy fusions of Bollywood and western classical numbers, like the ‘My Heart will go on’/’Dil Hai Chhota Sa’ and ‘Eena Meena Deeka/’I Got Rhythym’ medleys. One of the concerts that remains closest to the choir’s hearts is when they performed in Patna to an audience that included professionals to rickshaw-wallahs. They warmly remember how everyone, regardless of what background, had loved their folk opera.
For the members of the brilliant Shillong Chamber Choir, home is a bungalow in the heart of Meghalaya’s capital city that belongs to the choir director, Neil Nongkynrih. All the members stay like a family, sharing the responsibility of the household work, rehearsing their songs, practising their instruments, writing new compositions and some also preparing for their school and college examinations. Asked to describe life at Uncle Neil’s home, the choir members say that it all revolves around a lot of discipline, a lot of music and a lot of warmth.
While discipline is a key factor in the choir’s rehearsals, there is no regimented time set aside for practice sessions that go beyond rote-learning of sound and words. One room in the sprawling bungalow is a workout studio where the group performs cardio exercises to loosen up the body or rehearses dance moves to warm up. This is followed by singing western classical pieces like those of Gershwin, Schubert or Mozart pieces before rehearsing their latest compositions.
Constant reinvention is another thing the choir pays a lot of attention to. The choir has sung in over 15 different languages, both regional and western. However, it’s their innate humility and deep love for music that forms the backbone of the choir. The story of every member of the Shillong Chamber Choir is a testimony to the healing power of music.
Jessica Shaw Lyngdoh, a 27-year-old English Honours graduate, says the choir helped her discover something deeper and meaningful in life while 23-year-old Dorea Rangad, who performed her first concert at age 14, believes that the Saturday music lessons with ‘Uncle Neil’ transformed her life completely.
Rishilla Jamir, a graduate from New Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, met the choir in Delhi and came to Shillong with them. She feels that singing with the choir has helped make her musical foundations stronger. Ibarisha Lyngdoh, the young lead soloist, joined the choir when she was just 12 and believed that her music is her way of giving back to her country. These are just a few of the many examples of how music transformed the lives of the choir members.
Choir director, Neil Nongkynrih, feels that it is this process of metamorphosis, along with the peace they all find in the chaos of concerts, that has helped the band stay together for so long. As for what makes each of their renditions touch a chord in every heart, a choir member replies in an interview to the Firstpost,
“It’s perhaps got to do with the surroundings we live in. The calm and pristine hills leave an impression on our souls so clearly as to reflect in our music. And music is very sensitive to the condition of one’s heart. We practise more on how to work as a team, on humility, on how to love our neighbour more than ourselves and then the melodies follow.”
Next in the pipeline is a restaurant where the choir will serenade guests with a live performance over a gourmet menu. Also, along with live associations, they are also looking forward to YouTube collaborations in the near future. Nongkynrih has also written an entire folk opera in Khasi with the aim of preserving the little-known language – the choir also makes it a point to include a song or two in Khasi in every concert they do.