From North East, the gift of music


NEW DELHI, May 26 : The city’s music teaching scene is full of talented musicians from the North East, in whom kids find some of the most gifted and enthusiastic mentors. Several of them have even started their own schools as interest among youngsters in learning western music keeps demand high. And their mastery over the western style makes them a natural fit, Joeanna Rebello Fernandes finds, as she walks down melody lane.
The year was 2010 and Joseph Phaomei was 20 when he left Manipur for Delhi to complete his BA. He was expected to sit for competitive exams after his graduation to secure a steady job in a bank or hopefully, the civil services. In case neither worked out, Joseph would roll out Plan B. He would teach music.
Growing up in the district of Tamenglong, Joseph learnt to play every musical instrument the choir at the Emmanuel Baptist Church owned. “Our foundations in music were laid by the Church. We had choirs for different age-groups; Sunday school workshops that taught us staff notation; choral competitions; concerts…” he itemises. “It was both a formal and an informal education.”
Just like the migrant musicians of Goa, who inflected the films of pre-Bollywood Bombay with a patently ‘western’ musical idiom, so too are these instructors playing a similarly proselytizing part.
Joseph today teaches drums at Yahama Music Square in South Point Mall and at Parikrama School of Music in Hauz Khas. “I also give private tuitions,” he says, “It’s not great money, but it’s not bad either. I can even occasionally help my family out.”
Kawidinbou Abonmai, a history graduate, teaches classical guitar at Lorraine Music Academy. He too comes from Manipur, and like Joseph, is pursuing his ATCL (Associate of Trinity College, London) – Level 1 of the institution’s diploma programme.
“I am self-taught,” says Adin, as his friends call him. “Back home, I’d play the chords and sing. Back home, everyone can sing when someone gives them the key.”
But back home, few choose music as a career, because it doesn’t bring home the cheque. While he has always dreamed of becoming a musician, Adin never saw teaching on the horizon. He admits it can be challenging. “It tests your patience. It requires you to build a relationship with the student,” he says.
His colleague Lungbanei Newmai, or Abha, as she is known, had also never taught music before, and when the 21-year-old made it to Gurugram from Manipur three years ago, she had to learn to teach, and how to handle several students at once.
While most of them work with a music school, some, like K Sharma, have gone on to start a school of their own. A year and half ago, the 43-year-old from Darjeeling opened a music school near Sohna Road called Cyan Melon. With a master’s in finance and a successful corporate career, Sharma decided to switch over to business and tap what he saw was a lucrative market in Gurgaon.
“Initially, I was the sole teacher, and we had only evening and weekend classes,” he says, “Today we have nine teachers and 260 students (the youngest is just five years old and the oldest 70), and we teach guitar, ukulele, violin, piano, keyboard, drums and western vocals.”
Family bhajans, community kirtans and the performance culture around Durga Puja in Darjeeling built his musical body. “Our school initially offered Indian classical music as well, but there were few takers for it,” says Sharma, who went on to learn the drums, guitar and ukulele.
Having lived in Gurugram since the 90s, he feels it was only in the last decade that the market for western music education picked up here, which is why the talent has homed in on this city. “When I place ads on Facebook seeking tutors, 70% of the applicants are from the North East. They not only have an all-round foundation in music, but are driven to improve and learn from one another,” he says. “Music is the core of our social life. On Fridays, for example, a large number of our musicians gather for a full-day jam session in Safdarjung Enclave. They even have a pre-decided set-list.”
Teachers by day, some musicians like 28-year-old vocalist Priyanka Nongkhlaw from Shillong are performers by night, singing or playing in a band. A musician can today make over Rs 1 lakh a month, with all revenues combined, says Priyanka, who teaches vocals at Lotus Valley International School and at Cyan Melon, and performs with her band Squares Attached. With a master’s in geography from Delhi School of Economics, she initially rocked the houseboat when she chose music over an academic career. “That’s because my parents were unaware of the career options in music today,” she says.
Priyanka believes the market for western music education is growing in Gurgaon, partly because parents are keen to pad up their children’s foreign college applications with a music degree from Trinity College and the like.
Some musicians, however, having sampled the teaching life, are turning their back on it. Next month, Siddhant Rai (25) will return home to Gangtok after having given Gurugrama year of his time. “I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in music from Sikkim University, and I want to return to pursue my doctorate, researching on the indigenous music traditions of my community, the Rais,” he says.
He also intends to regroup with his old band, Lazy Fingers. A guitarist and vocalist, Siddhant says playing the guitar is second nature to most people in Darjeeling and Sikkim.
“The Beatles, The Eagles, Eric Clapton were all prevalent in the hills. We grew up not only listening to western music, but learnt to play it at the many music schools there.” Incidentally, Siddhant’s brother established a music school in Noida a decade ago, called Noida School of Rock.
At Nirvana Country, Lorraine Aloysius’s eponymous academy is staffed almost entirely by musicians from different parts of the North East. She says in addition to possessing an innate “understanding of music not by the book but by the heart”, her tutors are gentle and patient — the prerequisites of a good teacher. “I look for people who have a good attitude and who want to learn, and they fit the bill,” she says. “Even untrained, they sing beautifully in harmonies, and have a great ear for music.” And one wouldn’t strike a false note in claiming they are in fact changing the very acoustics of this city.