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Soulmate: Green Hill Blues

Soulmate, the blues rock band from Shillong is now a cult phenomenon with steady gigs across India, a growing fan following and a second album in the works


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Soulmate

It’s been pissing rain and Rudy Wallang has just spent the morning vacuuming his studio, clearing the clutter. In a few minutes, three boys from faraway tribal villages in Meghalaya are going to show to record some social message songs.Rudy Wallang’s been on the road too often these past months with his blues band Soulmate to attack cobwebs and mustiness at Springboard, the same poky home-studio in the genteel neighbourhood of Upper Lummawrie where the band recorded its first, and breakout album, Shillong. The previous evening’s practice had Soulmate synching in a new sessions drummer  – a rock drummer – to their blues: part soul, allpunch. The name of their home city surrounded by impossibly green hills and cloaked in mist and ferocious traffic; and also of the album, smooth like the sekmai, rice-brewed firewater from neighbouring Manipur that Wallang’s brother Keith offers me – sekmai alternately preaches Zen calm and ninja attack. The studio still brings in the money, but Soulmate, India’s first blues band to write its own music, is out bungee-jumping from a newly chargedcareer platform, looking to write its own ticket.

Soulmate is just back from Kolkata and Hyderabad. The following day, the band leaves for anine-day set of club gigs in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune. Wallang needs to stock up on groceries, make sure his four teenage children have their clothes ready for a big wedding the next day – the children no longer have a mother – and enough rice, cooking oil, spices, and pork and mustard leaf for stew. He’ll miss the wedding on account of gig dates in Delhi. He’s concerned his eldest daughter Elaine – a 17-year-old rebel who belts out Joss Stone with as much fire as smoke – will be too much for Leon – his guitarist son and elder by a year – to chaperone while Wallang’s on the road. He’s also concerned that, in the hurricane chaos of his teen-nuked apartment and life, he’ll leave behind guitar picks, his faithful enamel-green Fender Stratocaster and the new Greg Bennett design that Samick have sent him to endorse. “No time to breathe, man,” says Wallang with a sigh. Then, he smiles. Then, the greying, soft-spoken man grins like a child. 

He has reason to, even in the rain sopersistent in this state that goes by the name ‘Abode of the Clouds’, that locals have grumbled ever since I got in, after a bone-jarring four-hour ride over roads torn by water, and an unending procession of trucks that desecrate the pine-fringed slopes of Shillong. Now Wallang and his Soulmate crew – he’s on lead guitar and vocals;blood-and-guts vocalist Tipriti ‘Tips’ Kharbangar also plays rhythm guitar; bassist Ferdy Dkhar and drummer Sam Shullai – take that same road down in this far edge of India, home to the gospel and guns,to the plains in to regularly hop flights to Delhi,Bangalore, Kolkata, Mumbai, Goa and, more recently, Pune and Hyderabad to play the blues. 

Three years ago, the world saw Soulmate more as a blues breakaway with a good pedigree than a serious effort with staying power. Wallang, Ferdyand Sam were together with Amit Barooah, Bob Lyngdoh and Keith in Mojo, a Shillong reggae-blues act that lived for close to nine years. (They call it blues but it had the ghost of Bob Marley in every sinew. Keith, now an emerging music-industry lynchpin in the Northeast, still wears dread-locks. The steps to his orderly apartment, above Wallang’s storm trough, are painted yellow; the walls yellow-red-green; his drum kit is covered with a Marley-face cloth). Before that, there was Great Society, another iconic local band in which all but Amit and Bob had played. 

But Shillong (2004) changed that. It came about after a few years of working with Tips, whom Wallang met when she walked in one day as backup vocalist for Mojo, and who stayed on after the band split. They are today a couple – Tips’ fire to Wallang’s cool–and the core of Soulmate. Former rocker-mates Sam and Ferdy – who smoothly works some Shillong tracks done by bassist Manas Chowdhary – play sessions. The signature tracks from that 10-song album, the up-tempo, “Blues is my soulmate” “The blues is my shelter/When the storm gets rough/The blues calms me down/When the going gets tough…Blues is my Soulmate” with Wallang’s blazing lead; “I Am”, in which Tips howls attitude “If I had to listen to everyone/I’d sure be doing something wrong/And so I listen to myself/ Yeah! And I feel fine/ I said I sure feel good about myself, honey, ’most all the time”;and the anthemic blues-ballad “Shillong” have defined the band’s voice and talent. In 2004 and 2005, the band travelled to Kathmandu to play at ‘Jazzmandu’, a modest but well-received international blues and jazz festival. In February 2007, Soulmate was at the International Blues Challengein Memphis, Tennessee, the first band from India to make the journey. Wallang talks of hitting the trail in Indonesia, where he’s heard the blues scene is “happening”. 

Kiran Sant, who regularly hosts Soulmate at his New Delhi blues bar Haze, is frankly admiring that Soulmate have held out this long, from formation to first album to now, with the as-yet-unnamed second album being laid down at Springboard Studios. “I don’t know of many bands that have shown the dedication Soulmate has, come what may, to stick with their genre and do original work.” Two years back, the band’s former manager sent Sant a demo and he was “blown away”. Gigs and word-of-mouth followed, and Soulmate is today a fixture. 

Wallang says he’s laid down nine tracks for the second album, with maybe eight to go and then he’ll check for mood and fit. “I’m taking a little time over it, because I want it to be much better than Shillong,” Wallang says as we shovel pork stew and rice with our fingers and slam our insides with blinding-hot fish pickle at his stripped-down apartment, light-years away in décor from baby-brother Keith’s Rasta-cool a floor up. His children aren’t yet back from school. “We’re also going about things more professionally.” Only Much Louder (OML), the label that produced Shillong is out, as is their former manager. They have a new manager who is working to get them in with a new niche label out of Delhi, Silk Road Records, owned by expat Frenchman and Soulmate fan Achille Forler, who also owns the rights to one of the largest collections of songs from Indian movies. 

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