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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 June 2006, 00:33 GMT 01:33 UK
India's little rock and roll town

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Shillong

Soulmate's Tipriti
Tipriti says she is inspired by Mississippi blues
It is Friday night in the north-eastern Indian hill town of Shillong, and Tipriti and her band Soulmate are belting out gut-wrenching blues in a cavernous pub called Cloud Nine.

"The blues is my teacher
The blues is my friend
The blues never hurts me
It just heals me in the end," sings Tipriti, as her mates plunge into a gritty sound.

The audience is a mix of the young and old who have paid 200 rupees ($4.40) each to go in and listen to blues and fusion acts like Soulmate and Mermaid, a grungy girl band playing out lead singer's Gweneth Mawlong's angst-ridden takes on life and times, alternated with her mate's Lolly's sedate guitar licks.

Shillong is a place where the music stopped - in no other city in India does rock and roll, blues and country music rule so strongly. Even hard metal. There are almost no DJs scratching records and playing hip hop, and there are no 50 Cent and Snoop Dog clones.

It's also a place where people take to the floor listening to peppier 12-bar blues. Where a politician and ex-minister is an ace blues harp player. Shillong is also home to ageing Elvis Presley imitators, and two music festivals to celebrate the music of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley.

Cabbies play Deep Purple and Jethro Tull on stereo as they weave in and out of diesel fume-spewing traffic, muscled bikers roam around town in AC/DC tee shirts. The place teems with bands with names like Mojo, Meghalaya Love Project, Ace of Spades, The Honey Drippers, Euphonic Trance.

Elvis clones

And they all take their music seriously.

I liked Elvis because Elvis loved his mother
Shandaland Talang
Elvis clone

The Mermaids's Gwenerg Mawlong, locally called the 'poetess singer' writes angst-soaked lyrics. Soulmate's sassy singer Tipriti, says they mostly write their own songs because covers can be a "bore". She says their music is sometimes even influenced by local Khasi tribal folk, but in the end all musical roads lead to the blues.

"When I listen to my local Khasi folk, it reminds me of the Mississippi delta blues," says Tripriti.

When people are not singing the blues, they are trying to imitate Elvis Presley.

On a slate-grey afternoon recently, Felix Ranee, is in mourning after losing his wife and nephew, but mention Elvis and his face brightens up and he breaks into an impromptu Elvis act, belting out Blue Suede Shoes with frenetic air guitaring and nifty pelvic thrusts and footwork.

'Marley speaks the truth'

At 47, Felix is an unusual Elvis clone - he is short, squat and balding. He says his life changed after watching the singer's movie That's The Way It Is. He got himself Elvis suits, glasses and silver belts, and began singing his songs.

"Nothing else mattered to me after hearing Elvis, nothing," he says.

Then there's 61-year-old Shandaland Talang, who began worshipping Elvis ever since he read somewhere that the star "loved his mother, only later fell in love with his wife, and gave away charity to friends".

Keith Wallang
Keith Wallang hosts a Bob Marley festival
"I also liked his face and how he dressed. So I bought Elvis clothes, sang his songs, and joined Elvis competitions," he says.

The music of Bob Marley also hangs heavy over the cloudy town.

So much so that a local fan Keith Wallang grew dreadlocks, read up Rastafarian texts, and decided that the reggae legend's music was better than his Rasta and reed.

A decade back Wallang launched a music festival on the reggae star's birthday on 6th February where three local bands participate regularly and a few thousand fans turn up.

"Marley speaks the truth. There's nobody like him," says Wallang, 29, who runs a recording studio.

But for all their musical virtuosity, Shillong's rockers simply cannot think of making a living off music. Though there is a thriving rock music scene in India's main cities, record companies believe the music doesn't sell.

Ferdy Dkhar
Ferdy Dkhar says he cannot earn a living from music
So most musicians do day jobs for a living - Ferdy Dkhar, for example, works at the dowdy state-run All India Radio by day as a programme executive and plays a mean bass guitar with Soulmate at night.

"Everybody would like to take up music full time, but where's the money?" he says.

But things are getting better and the world is beginning to take note of Shillong's love for music - international acts like Petra, Michael Learns to Rock, Firehouse and Air Supply have played in the town.

Observers reckon Shillong got its musical groove thanks to a strong Christian missionary movement, and a consequent natural affinity to western cultural mores.

But the musical time in Shillong may be beginning to crawl forward.

Felix Ranee' says his children don't like their father doing the Elvis routine anymore.

"They listen to hip-hop and rap," he says.

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