By Arjun Bhatia, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
The Shillong Chamber Choir shot to fame after winning India’s Got Talent in 2010. The group has performed for political leaders such as former Indian President Pratibha Patil and outgoing US President Barack Obama. It has also won awards for its spellbinding performances in a wide range of genres. Following Shillong Chamber Choir’s stellar performance at the opening of the tenth edition of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, Official JLF Blogger Arjun Bhatia caught up with the choir’s lead singer William Richmond Basaiawmoit for a conversation about the choir’s origins, experience and thoughts about the future.
Could you begin by telling us something about the choir?
The choir was formed in 2001, but the group you see here more or less came together in 2006. So along with JLF, this is also our tenth year. Of course music is what brought us together. But for whoever you see on stage, the motive was not music; it was more about togetherness, helping out one another, rejoicing and mourning together. And from there spawned the music. The harmony you see in the singing comes from the harmony amongst us.
Wonderful. Kynsaibor (the choir’s manager) told me that you may be the only professional chamber choir in India. So how did it come together?
Well, there are lots of choirs in India but yes, we might perhaps be the only professional one, if what you mean is that we do this full-time and earn our living from it. It was Uncle Neil’s (Neil Nongkynrih – the choir’s founding director and chief conductor) idea. There are so many beautiful voices in Shillong. Instead of doing the typical traditional choral stuff, he decided to go out of the box and use the awe of rich vocal harmony and take it all genres from Indian cinema music to Rock, Opera, Jazz… everything.
What’s your proudest moment as a group?
Gosh. (laughs) Let me think. For the choir it would be winning India’s Got Talent. Performing for President Obama. There was the Jodhpur One World Retreat – that was a fantastic event. And of course, here at the Jaipur Literature Festival. We have heard about it so much. Actually, we are supposed to come here several times in the past but it somehow didn’t materialize. It just so happens that we are here now, sharing our tenth anniversary… There are just so many moments. You just can’t put a finger on it. The whole experience has been great.
What do you think is the future of such music as yours in India?
It is picking up a lot. The way the Jaipur Literature Festival has spawned other literature festivals around India, I think the Shillong Chamber Choir, by showing that this kind of music has a future, has spawned other choirs pursuing the same with intensity and hard work. But it’s not music that is the difficult part. It is sticking together that takes effort. So, if there are any choirs out there, I would say, think for the team and not for yourself as an individual. The music will fall into place.
So what kind of daily rigour goes into making it work?
Like Uncle Neil would say, it’s one hour of teaching music and eight hours of teaching one to be humble. (laughs) I am just giving you a clue. Most days are unpredictable, there is no routine. There are days when we train hard. It takes discipline. You need to know what to eat, what to do, things like that. You have to wake up at least two hours before a performance and do your voice warm-ups and ensure that everything is well-oiled. And keep learning, especially through bad experiences. But right now it’s just a lot of travelling, going from one city to another. Tomorrow we are off to Nepal.
Which musicians and bands have been your biggest influences?
As a band: Queen. And lots of classical composers like Mozart.
Great. Do you have any message for our readers?
It’s such a privilege and joy to be here at JLF, especially because we are all avid readers in the choir. Since we travel so much, there is always some book or the other. Also, it was great to be amongst this audience. They understood everything we were performing. They were brilliant!