The click of a lighter, the clinking of beer mugs, hushed conversations, sudden bursts of laughter, the hum of the central air-conditioner, and light music playing in the background is what you get to hear on a regular weekend at Urban Mantra, a restro lounge located at Khanapara, Guwahati. But once the clock strikes 8 at night, the guest band takes to the stage and the tempo completely changes. People are up on their feet, some start grooving to the beat, others try to sing (scream) along, a few find a cosy corner with a good view of the band and order a chilled drink to start the weekend on a high. Even though the place was packed, there was a long queue at the bar and you literally had to scream to be heard, everyone seemed to be having a great time and something told me that they would be back again next weekend, truth be told, so would we.
Fortunately for music lovers in the region, this is not an isolated occurrence. Most of the capital cities in the region have pubs, clubs and lounges where live gigs on the weekends are becoming a regular fixture. It works because the Northeast has no dearth of talented musicians, and it also has a huge percentage of music lovers who are in dire need of something fun to do on the weekends. However, the live music scene wasn’t always booming, it is only recently that the trend seems to be catching up.
That doesn’t mean that there was no scene at all. Piano Bar at Landmark Hotel, Guwahati is one place that has always had live gigs on the weekends. They have a resident musician who plays piano renditions of old classics. There were other acoustic sessions happening across the region but nothing regular was taking place. This was mostly because restaurant owners were unsure whether it can truly increase footfall. The true potential of live music was discovered when music festivals like the Ziro Festival of Music and Hornbill Rock Contest started getting popular and attracted music lovers from across the region. Pub and restaurant owners started to realize that there was an audience for live music and when done well, it could be profitable for their business.
Currently, many pubs, cafes and lounges across the region have live music gigs on the weekends. Some places in Guwahati like Terra Mayaa in GS Road and Café Hendrix in Six Mile have become known for their interesting weekend line-ups, it is very difficult to get a table if you arrive late on a weekend. A packed house equals a happy owner but it’s not always about the money. Cafe Hendrix co-owner Arzoo shares, ‘Our motive is to bring legendary artistes like BB King and Jimmy Hendrix etc closer to listeners in Assam as they can be best understood and enjoyed through live music’. He goes on to say how it is also a great opportunity for local artists. ‘These gigs give a platform for local bands to perform and increase their own fan base. And, moreover, they get to meet influential people who can help them get more shows in the future’.
In Dimapur, Upstairs hosts gigs and live shows quite regularly where some of the best bands/musicians from across the Northeast and India perform. Shillong’s Cloud 9 in the heart of the city is also a place where music lovers throng to have quality food and listen to some good music. In Sikkim, Lounge 31A and Café Live and Loud are popular hangouts among the youngsters because they often have live gigs and events. Arunachal Pradesh does not have a live music scene so to speak but ‘The Green Street Bar’ is working towards changing that. Bengia Nachung, owner of the bar, shares that the journey hasn’t been easy but they are making steady progress. ‘We started organizing live gigs from August 2014 onwards. In the beginning, it was not working out as people seemed disinterested. But, slowly, with bands and DJs coming and performing from all over the Northeast, people started to take notice and footfall increased. Now, we have tied up with a DJ Academy and we are planning to give talented students a space to showcase their talent’.
Local artists are optimistic about the change. Daniel Langthasa of the band Digital Suicide says ‘There are many venues now which are hosting and inviting independent musicians to play which is quite encouraging. We have more musicians creating and performing original content than ever before. We are witnessing musicians embracing their roots and culture which is the only way to do honest art and to move forward.’ Alobo Naga, one of the most well-known artists from Nagaland shares that although things are looking up but there is still a long way to go. ‘Since I started playing 10-15 years back, things have changed quite a lot but the growth is still not satisfactory. During that time, the only scope of playing live music was at schools and churches, and now we have two to three places in every city to play music. Guwahati has improved a lot, Arunachal is picking up, Manipur and Meghalaya is slowly dying. Nagaland is one place where music still lives and credit should be given to the government for their initiatives like organizing festivals and shows where they invite musicians and bands to perform’.
Music lovers in the region are looking forward to the future with hope. ‘Northeastern India has always had a good ear for music. Be it the folk music genre, the classics or contemporary forms, I think the live music scene in Guwahati has really grown to be popular. I hope in the future we see more of outdoor live music festivals and gigs, open mics and platforms where artists from different genres can perform, collaborate and explore. Then we would really be living up to our reputation of having music in our blood,’ remarks Ruella Rehman Khound, filmmaker and avid listener based in Guwahati.
Like ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, it looks like it will take some time for the live music scene in the region to get to where it should be and music lovers are more than willing to wait patiently till that happens.