The Telegraph
Saturday , February 1 , 2014

Songs sung true

They lovingly call him ‘Uncle Neil’, the man behind the dizzying success of Shillong Chamber Choir. We met up with Neil Nongkynrih, the conductor and pianist, who has a “not-so-serious” passion for making movies! For him the Choir represents “Freddie meets Lata and they both have a fling with Mozart!”

You made us laugh, dance and then at the end left us very emotional!

Yes! Cry…. I do all those things. I feel that’s the whole package. When you come to an evening and if it’s all dance and enjoyment, there is an emptiness. The people who are here today are a very small minority of the Calcutta population. Just when I came here today, I remember giving a Rs 100 note to a beggar. So, when we are enjoying ourselves... there is a lovely proverb, sorrow and joy have danced together. It is a psalm from the Bible. And I am a great believer that sorrow and joy dance together. In my concert, there is always an element of sorrow, meaning there is an angst.

How has life changed in the last few years, since you won India’s Got Talent (2010)?

Obviously, it has changed in the sense that our production has become more professional, which is great for the Northeast. There is a lot of raw talent. There is good maida (flour), eggs, sugar, butter and an oven, but there is nobody to bake the cake. So, I feel in Shillong, I have basically been a chef. I have taken all these wonderful talents, put them together and produced this that people are enjoying. There is definitely no lack of talent, but lack of guidance, in production and mentoring. Not just Shillong, but Northeast generally has a huge reservoir of music, which gets expressed often in the voice because for that you don’t need to buy an instrument. You are the instrument. That’s why often they sing beautifully. Unfortunately, up till today, I feel there is a lack in production.

Is this new-found fame pressure?

Yes, a lot of a pressure because people expect more now, but I don’t allow the pressure to affect me. I am not competitive. I remember we did a concert recently with other choirs in Shillong and before we went to the concert, we prayed that there would be goodwill. We are not there to compete or show that we are better than others. When you live in that environment, you are putting unnecessary stress on yourself. If you have integrity in what you do and you enjoy what you do…. I remember I was on the BBC about a year ago, on primetime, and they actually played some of my Bollywood stuff along with some of the major European composers. I think they found it very refreshing that I had the courage to do something different and not follow the usual trait of a choir. It can be a whole variety of music. And as long as our message is not violence and lust and it is just a family event where everybody is enjoying, we are singing Heal The World… okay, till a point we stretched it to We Will Rock You, I mean I don’t see anything wrong in that.

[Victor Banerjee walks in. “We’ll get together. Next year… I would like to sing with you all! I will rehearse with you for 10 days!” says the veteran actor before a quick picture and a warm goodbye.]

How was it singing for Barack Obama?

It was a beautiful experience, a memorable performance. I had my piano… a Rs 40-50 lakh piano… that I asked for. They gave it to me. The sound was fantastic and the setting (Rashtrapati Bhavan) was beautiful. They stopped having soup when we started singing! I live in a house, which belongs to his very good friends. The owner’s wife is from Shillong and the husband was an American ambassador. It’s a small world. We used to know about Obama before he became the President. So, we followed his career. Then he became the President. The concept of a choir is that you don’t make too much of anybody. We treat every performance with respect. [CC&FC got to hear what they performed for Obama — Yeh dosti and Ajeeb dastan]

Finally, who is your favourite musician from Calcutta?

Usha Uthup. I love her! I just think she is the best. She is full of energy and she is so original. I love her sneakers with her saris. I love her personality and her voice, her big heart. We have done stuff with her before but Calcutta should hear Usha Uthup with the Shillong Chamber Choir next. That would be a fantastic combination.

Is the Shillong Chamber Choir the best musical group in the country? Tell

three cheers for the northeast at cc&FC

Victor Banerjee was there in the front row, with wife Maya, throughout the evening. “Aami Shillong er chheley… era aamar… what do I say? They are our pride. Let people hear them here and see what talent comes from the Northeast. Their spirit is my favourite. Wherever they are, they are always in my heart. They are an incredible talent and they spread goodwill and love and unadulterated love, everywhere,” he smiled.

“We are all from Shillong. The way the Choir mixes their songs is unique!” chorused (R-L) Kareen Langstieh, Nicola Langstieh, Darity Sawian and Sweety Langstieh, who have been living in Calcutta for more than 15 years.

Actor Indrajit was there with his wife Rupam and four-year-old daughter Jiya. “We have been in Calcutta for the last 10 years. We have heard them on India’s Got Talent, but this is the first time we are hearing them live. We wanted to meet them actually! They are unique in their own way. From Shillong they have made it big and they are so talented! And we are artistes. So, we appreciate each other,” chorused the couple.

Josephine was there with her banker-husband Abhishek Gupta. “I have heard them before in Shillong, but outside my hometown, this is the first time I am hearing them live. They are total stars in Shillong. There is nothing that I don’t like about the band,” said Josephine. For husband Abhishek, the Choir’s rendition of Yeh dosti was a favourite.

Text: Saionee Chakraborty

Pictures: Pabitra Das and Anindya Shankar Ray

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