In their early days, there would occasionally be members of the audience in metropolitan India who would mistake the Shillong-based band as coming from Ceylon. Oh, Ceylon, they would say, Sri Lanka, accha, accha.
Rudy Wallang, guitarist-composer of the blues band Soulmate, cracks up when remembering such interactions.
Such howlers from audience members, says Rudy, are rare these days. “Sometimes, our fans even wish to visit Shillong after hearing Soulmate,” says Tipriti Kharbangar, vocalist and Rudy’s girlfriend of 12 years.
As a travelling blues band from the North-Eastern state of Meghalaya, Soulmate have been around for exactly a decade. Over the years, the band has released two albums and performed at high-profile venues across urban India. They have also been on stage with guitar legend Carlos Santana and on co-billed concerts with Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker Jr and Taj Mahal.
These gaffes, though, are representative of the gap in understanding—of the North-East by the rest of India and of India by the North-East; each side considering the other guardedly as a homogeneous cultural entity different from its own.
The Shillong Chamber Choir, winner of a well-publicized talent hunt on national television in 2010, put the region in prime time focus, admits Rudy, but Soulmate too have been doing their bit through hundreds of live concerts across the nation. “Shillong gets introduced through our music,” he says. The band’s debut album, released in 2004 on the music label of the entertainment and artist management company Only Much Louder, was incidentally called Shillong.
The situation now is at a significant remove from 51-year-old Rudy’s youth, when Meghalaya too, much like some other states of the North-East, witnessed armed insurgency and violence against the presence of outsiders. When the local Meghalaya-based singers of the Shillong Chamber Choir did choral interpretations of Hindi film songs on national television, greater cultural linkages were forged. This was a far cry from 31-year-old Tipriti’s own experience in school as someone who “didn’t care for Hindi films, their heroes or the music” but was hooked to American serials like The Wonder Years, beaming home via satellite signals. “All I wanted was to go to the (United) States,” Tipriti owns up. “I thought it’ll be cool.”
Today, Tipriti values the exposure she has got through the band’s relentless gigs across India and the adoring vibes of fandom, opening her up to the thought that “she is a spark that can touch people’s hearts everywhere”.
"A DEMOCRACY OF TWO: Rudy often takes the important decisions, but not without Tipriti’s consent. For the first two albums, Rudy did all of the songwriting. For their next album, to be recorded in Mumbai’s Yash Raj Film Studios this month, Tipriti has shared songwriting responsibilities."
“Sadly, many people in my hometown remain unexposed to greater India. Some might even get lost in Guwahati. My own mother, for instance, does not know what I do and how we touch the lives of people with music. I get pissed off sometimes, but such attitudes keep me grounded,” says Tipriti.
Soulmate view themselves as performing a double role: as cultural ambassadors of Shillong and the North-East to the plains, and as cultural ambassadors of India to the rest of the world. In the recent past, the band has performed twice in the heart of bluesland at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis (US), had two sold-out dates at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center, the Ivy League Brown University in Rhode Island, and shared billing with legendary blues guitarman John Mayall in Jakarta, Indonesia. They’ve also performed in France, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Nepal and Bhutan.
Since they are from India, international audiences have often expected something novel from them, says Tipriti. What they got was straight-ahead blues, adds Rudy. The approach is always the same: the vocals’ fiery flash to the guitar’s breezy comfort, the wail of the strings to the coo of the singer, her guttural cry to his compassion, Tipriti’s fire to Rudy’s ice, and vice versa.
"WIDE ANGLE, SHARP FOCUS: Tipriti is often found taking care of the nitty-gritty of the band, working out details like the set list of songs, etc. Rudy works on logistics and is the brains behind the musical approach of Soulmate."
“We knew we had the blues when an elderly blues aficionado in Memphis came up to us post-concert and said we have the soul of the Mississippi in our music,” says Tipriti, chuckling. Last year, while they were performing as the opening act at the Delhi concert, Rudy saw Carlos Santana gesturing to him from the wings, wanting to join Soulmate on stage. Santana went on to play the guitar on the slow tempo composition Lie. He later invited Tipriti to sing two songs from his own set and went on record describing Soulmate as the future.
Soulmate will be the opening act for the 28 March concert in Dubai of B.B. King, the iconic American bluesman.
"CROSS-CURRENTS: Tipriti is opinionated, while Rudy has his own ideas based on his long experience as a musician. When things get ugly, they leave the room to cool off."
It is a dreamscape falling into place for Rudy, who was first introduced to King’s music when his friend, the musician Arjun “AJ” Sen, gave him the album There Must Be A Better World Somewhere. That was nearly three decades back.
Since then, Rudy has been with Shillong-based bands Great Society and Mojo, introduced the blues to the gospel-singing backing vocalist in Mojo, Tipriti, and in between, they fell in love.
They first met at a recording studio in Shillong when Tipriti, a class X student, came to sing for an album of the Gospel Society of India. Impressed by her singing, Rudy made her sing one of his own compositions, a blues-tinged gospel song, which Tipriti says happened to be the first blues song she ever sang. Since then the lady found “comfort in the Rudy and the blues”.
"DO NOT OPEN: Tipriti is unbridled, ready to open all the drawers and closets of their relationship. Rudy doesn’t know of any."
The duo was united by grief—Rudy was coming off a “bad marriage” and Tipriti a “traumatic teenage past”—and separated in age by 20 years. It was the right pitch for the blues, says Rudy.
It’s finally about love. “I was so young and some people told me that I was being his mistress,” recalls Tipriti. “But we’ve proved them wrong with music and love.”