Their voices seem to descend from the heavens. The melody that transcends from the high pitched opera and cascades to soft tenor is a fusion of the genres that so define music. Young, vibrant, these are the members of the Shillong Chamber Choir (SCC).
Founded by Padamshri Neil Nongkynrih in 2001, the SCC shot to fame winning India’s Got Talent in 2010 and went on to perform with Amitabh Bachchan and across the world; for the US President and his wife at Rashtrapati Bhavan, among others.
Amid a spate of performances in Delhi and Noida, SCC took some time to talk us about their journey, reviving and promoting Khasi (their native language), the process of selecting medleys and how they’ve made opera a rage in India.
“Music to me is an expression of who I am," says Neil. "What my goals and aspirations are. And often, it tells in my music when we are able to reach out to ordinary listeners with our blend of the familiar and unfamiliar — by giving an interesting twist to the various genres of music in our performances. This aspect is important for nourishing the intellect not only of the singer but the listener as well. That’s been our USP."
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.
Even as they work on new medleys — their unique fusion of western classical songs and Hindi film numbers — in the pipeline are “film projects, musical collaborations, music videos and an array of live shows," says William Richmond, 27, the lead soloist, who also handles the entire performance of the group on stage. An English Literature student from St Stephen's, Delhi, he joined the choir in 2008 and went to Paris the next year to study western classical vocal but decided to come back. Why?
“Things were becoming too self-centered for me, too much of ‘me’, and the choir was where I could serve and make a difference to society, and give to my country what I had learnt, and yes, I did miss the choir as well," says the young patriot. No wonder he delivers a heart-rending performance of "Saare Jahan Se Acha" and peps it up with "Rang De Basanti".
Along with Ibarisha Lyngdoh, 22, who joined the choir at age 12, and is a soloist, William has performed "Tum Hi Ho". Unaffected by the universal acclaim that held their rendition to be better even than the original, Ibarisha says, “It was team effort”.
Jessica Shaw Lyngdoh, 27, also an English Honours graduate, says she “found the choir by god’s leading” and now being a part of it has discovered something “deeper and meaningful”. Dorea Rangad, all of 23, studied in Shillong and performed her first concert at age 14. For her, “the Saturday music lessons with Uncle Neil” transformed her life completely.
Patricia Lyngdoh, 31, was introduced to the choir by her cousin Ibarisha as was Sandon Lyndem, 26, by his brother Damon who studied piano with Neil. “I never knew I could sing," he says, “but now being in the choir is like healing every day”.
Unlike the others who all belong to Shillong, Rishila Jamir, 27, is from Nagaland, belonging to the AO and Angami tribe. Introduced to the choir by William in 2008, her motivation to join was “the bunch of fantastic human beings. That’s what attracted me. Since then, it's been a wonderful journey”.
Banlam Hame Lyndem (also Damon’s brother), 28, says that since 2006 “the journey of the choir has been incredible and exciting with so many adventurous twists and turns that I love every bit of it.”
Ryan Lamin, 21, does not come from a family of musicians and was recommended to Uncle Neil by his Sunday school teacher, Iris Ingty. The young and effervescent Ryan sees his journey in the choir as a process of metamorphosis. “I joined the choir as a student, went on to be a singer, now a teacher and who knows what’s next”. That’s quite a bit at 21!
Riewbankit Lyndem, 25, became part of the choir in 2006 with the thought of “helping Uncle Neil to look after children in the music school. But I ended up being one of the chosen few”.
Each of the members say destiny has definitely had a role to play in their journeys. Keviseno Terhuja, 27, came to Shillong after her schooling in Kohima, Nagaland, to study further and to continue her piano education with Neil. “I was 19 then and had no intention of taking up singing as a profession. It was meant only as a hobby with friends. On meeting Uncle Neil, I was exposed to a wide world of music. I learnt about so many aspects of singing, teaching and composition. He also said I could join the choir. I thought I'd give it a try and it fit perfectly with my college routine. But on completion of college, the choir began to travel and perform intensely and it was a tough decision to continue with them. It’s been eight years now. The things we've experienced and learnt during this time have taught us that life just comes your way without expectation and I’d rather face it with people who seek the same goal rather than on my own!"
As for what makes each of their renditions touch a chord in every heart, William replies, “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."
Q and A with William Richmond:
The fusion of western classical and Bollywood numbers performed by SCC are at times soulful (Love Story Medley, Dil Tadap Tadap/Lara's Theme), at times full of fun (Baar Baar Dekho/'S Wonderful, Disco Deewane) and always interesting, taking the audience by surprise. How exactly do you choose the songs and decide on a particular medley/fusion?
Choosing songs for the SCC repertoire requires some screening. Since the choir upholds old fashioned family values, our songs are also chosen on that basis. This is important.
Once the songs have been chosen, Mr Neil Nongkynrih then at the piano and stitches an unpredictable medley that is tailor-made and designed to suit the sound of the choir. As singers, this is a privilege to be a part of. All our songs are musically noted so that nothing is left to chance or guess work, considering the size of the ensemble which could go up to more than 50 people on stage (this includes the Shillong Chamber Orchestra that is part of SCC now).
The process is time consuming but now several of the singers are coming up with their own medleys and compositions as well. It’s a team effort.
You've made opera singing a rage in India. Irrespective of language, people queue up for your concerts. What do you think attracts crowds to the SCC performances?
In 90 minutes, we wish to take our audiences on a musical journey around the world. We do high end German opera translated into Hindi so that it becomes approachable, our beloved Bollywood medleys with all their twists and turns, some classic British Rock, Rock & Roll, Funk, Jazz and a tribal song of celebration to give it a local flavour. Then rousing patriotic and soul stirring pieces, some comedy in music and all this is woven together by interactive repartee. It’s quite a wholesome experience.
Any collaborations coming up like the ones with Ustad Zakir Hussain or Shankar Ehsaan Loy, Usha Uthup earlier?
There are several collaborations that are under discussion but until they are confirmed, I can’t say much. There are YouTube collaborations that await us in the near future, along with live associations as well.
When you started, the group did not know the language they have so beautifully slipped into: Hindi. Today, how many members of SCC understand and speak the language they sing in?
The choir has sung in over 15 different languages, both regional and western. Apart from Donna, the rest of us speak basic Hindi. However, when it comes to singing in the many different languages that we do, we first understand the heart of the piece by learning the meaning to the words and then we work on the phonetics. As trained musicians, our ear is better tuned to the subtle nuances that are present in the pronunciations.
What is life at Uncle Neil's Tovya like?
A lot of discipline, a lot of music and a lot of warmth.
How does SCC plan to revive Khasi folk? Would that mean taking a step towards traditional folk singing too?
Neil has written an entire folk opera in Khasi with the aim of preserving our language through the tunes and narrative of this grand piece of art. In each of our concerts we always try to include a song or two in Khasi, introducing the people around the world to the beauty of our language.