The Shillong Chamber Choir is known for its melodious songs with, as founder Neil Nongkynrih puts it, “twists that the listener didn’t expect”. After the roaring success of their medley released on May 3 to raise funds for coronavirus, the choir is all set to host an online concert ‘Come Home Christmas’ — also the name of their latest album — on December 22.
Ahead of the virtual concert, Neil Nongkynrih, founder and director, Shillong Chamber Choir talks about their songs, their lockdown home delivery service, lessons learnt during the pandemic, and what to expect of them in the coming year.
You won hearts with your latest medley of Sar Jo Tera Chakraye and The Lonely Goatherd. What can one expect from the online concert ‘Come Home Christmas’?
We won hearts with Sar Jo Tera Chakraye, this time we pray that we’ll ‘touch hearts’ of precious little beings. In the words of Christ, ’Whoever receives one of these little children in my name receives me…’ (Mark 9:37). This is the spirit of Christmas. The spirit of goodwill and giving. I get fed up with people who wish you a Merry Christmas but ‘don’t give you anything’. They don’t have to give it to me but to those who need it, in whatever form. It might not be material, but in fact, the things money can’t buy, like love. The concert will be a combination of our Christmas Album songs with three more serene numbers like O Holy Night being accompanied by a harpist (I don’t think you can get more heavenly than that).
This year has been like never before. Will the concert also offer something different?
We will be singing songs primarily from the album, but of course, you’ll be seeing our faces which is unlike on the digital streaming platforms. Of course, I’ll be there, too, playing the piano. And there will be footage of the orchestra playing, as well as our band. Further, there will be this wonderful montage of the little children from underprivileged backgrounds who have received treatment with the help of the Genesis Foundation with the choir singing Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace.
How challenging has the lockdown been for you when it came to rehearsing, song selection, etc.?
Not as challenging as people might think if you learn to think outside the box. Of course, it was more tedious to get two singers at a time in a safe environment to sing rather than have a huge group singing at the same time, but hurdles just strengthen your muscles and make you more flexible. Ironically, not travelling was a luxurious prison where we were guilt-free to say ‘no’ to many live shows, and for the first time in 10 years, got time to sit and write stuff which will emerge in 2021.
How do you select the songs for your performances? What is the thought process?
We choose the songs we like. And it’s important we do not send toxic messages of any kind. The idea is to always find what we’re doing interesting, thereby the twists, that the listener didn’t expect usually come as a pleasant surprise. Sometimes it hasn’t been so, but those are the rarer occasions. I compare my songs to reading an interesting short story. I’m a fan of Roald Dahl.
What has been the biggest challenge for you during the lockdown?
There hasn’t been any, except it took time to get used to continuous washing of hands. Not being able to shake hands is now a luxury we can’t afford. And to keep renewing one’s strength like an eagle from the common COVID-19 fatigue. These are our only tools, though basic, to keep us safe, otherwise, if we are not in good health then creativity will come to a hopeless standstill.
You also started Uncle’s Home Delivery service during the lockdown; how was the experience and process?
It’s now called unclesark.com and it is going well. We will give it more attention after this holiday season. We cater to a very select clientele because we, like our music, have more of a cult following. For the North East, we are the only ones who would take the trouble to provide Bob’s Red Mill products, seafood from Scandinavia, exotic fruits, Blue Elephant products, and the list goes on. Although we do offer more daily necessities, we are aware we don’t interfere with the food vendor who has for years been living off selling rice, vegetables, fruits, etc.
What has been the choir’s biggest lockdown learning?
We are thankful that as a group, having travelled to so many countries in different terrains and different time zones, singing when you feel you’re on top of the world or when you feel dead tired, has toughened us. There is no biggest lesson really; life itself is a big lesson. Each day in itself has its own troubles, with or without the pandemic.
What can we expect from the choir in the coming year?
The unveiling of my opera Sohlyngem written in Khasi. Although written for a Western Orchestra, yet again, my very core doesn’t allow me to stick to a particular genre. There’s a lot of flirting with folk elements, Hindustani Classical and Wagnerian type arias.
The opera is a three-hour-long musical saga and it was supposed to be unveiled pre-pandemic with a 70-piece orchestra and six main soloists, plus a chorus of 50 to 100 singers. It was kind of ‘anti-social distancing’. So if this doesn’t take place with a live audience, we might find ways to film it safely.
We also have two albums in the making with two major record labels.
How would you compare virtual performances and physical shows? Which do you prefer?
Physical shows, of course. Any genuine artist will say the same unless he/she can’t sing or play. There are lots of those around and they are famous for being famous. I would hate that my art is so weak or non-existent that I would need to create hype and attention through ugly means. Just to get the attention of a huge gullible audience similar to the rats who followed the Pied Piper.
The concert will be hosted between 7-8:30 pm and the proceeds will go to Genesis Foundation, an NGO supporting the treatment of children with congenital heart defects in India. For more information, visit: https://www.feelitlive.co.in/experience/music/come-home-christmas-by-shillong-chamber-choir/concerts