Go Tell It On The Mountain as a disco song, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen performed with a nod to Queen, and several kings instead of just three visiting Jesus Christ after his birth. Those are just few of the several surprises in Come Home Christmas, the new album by Shillong Chamber Choir.
Conceptualised by the choir’s founder Neil Nongkynrih, the December 18 release offers Christmas carols and gospel songs featuring instruments and languages from West Asia.
The tracks include sections in ancient Aramaic, Hebrew, Farsi, Urdu, and Khasi, the first language for Nongkynrih and most of his group. The instruments used include darbuka, ney, oud, duduk, and saz. Additionally, the carols are blended with passages from George Fredric Handel’s mid-18th century oratorio Messiah.
For Nongkynrih, the album is the continuation of the choir’s engagement with popular tunes from films and beyond. Formed in 2001, The Shillong Chamber Choir has performed across the globe. Its repertoire includes popular songs in several languages.
“I have found it very strange that certain sections from my Christian community think we are hell-bound because we are singing popular tunes and I find all the narrow mindedness extremely suffocating, and I don’t often pay much attention to it,” Nongkynrih said. “So now we are not reimagining Christmas, but we are actually telling the true story of Christmas.”
Explained the choir’s lead singer William Richmond Basaiawmoit, “What we immediately associate with Christmas are Santa Claus, snow, reindeer, a happy and cheerful feeling, but we must remember that Jesus had a very humble, not glamorous birth. He was born in the desert among shepherds and camels. That’s why the album takes Christmas back to its origin. The title being Come Home Christmas, we return home with parts of the Silent Night carol sung in Khasi.”
The theme is best explored in We The Kings/He Shall Feed His Flock, the first single, released on December 13. Unlike in the 19th-century carol, now there are more than three kings. The opening verse is in Farsi. In place of pipe organ and bells, there are guitars and West Asian percussion.
Midway, the song segues into the aria He Shall Feed His Flock from Handel’s Messiah. The entire affair is bookended by Shatadru Kabir’s vocal inflections which underline the song’s West Asian touch. The video by Israeli sand artist Ilana Yahav depicts a sunny desert.
“The Bible mentions three gifts brought to Jesus, but not three men,” Basaiawmoit explained. “It is unlikely that a caravan would carry just three men from Persia to Jerusalem, which is a long distance. They were also Zoroastrians and thus were likely to speak Farsi, which is why we open their section in that language.”
Nongkynrih was also inspired to respond to the Anglo-Saxon depiction of Jesus Christ, which he found “racist, since Christ most probably was a much darker skinned figure, being born in a Middle Eastern country, which is a hot place. So if you work outside as a carpenter, you’re definitely not working a white-collar job.”
The idea of the album came to him “early in the morning as a gift”, Nongkynrih said. “As a choir, we spend so much time in prayer. But I think that pays off a lot when you have a certain sort of serenity and calmness in a very busy and insecure world. In such an environment, one doesn’t get these revelations which have a zing in them.”
Nongkynrih had originally finished the album with the songs rendered in English, but the new idea required him to redo them in several languages.
This posed obstacles. Ancient Aramaic, widely believed to be the language Jesus Christ spoke, is “dead, which means it’s no longer spoken, only studied”, Basaiawmoit explained. He eventually found a translator, Melke Tekin, in Switzerland.
Tekin’s contribution can be heard in the album’s second single, Go Tell It On The Mountain/Glory to God.
“Every album needs that one song which is extremely catchy, and Go Tell It On The Mountain had to be it,” Basaiawmoit explained. “Besides the disco elements, we also ensured the singing is a bit gospel-inflected keeping in mind the lost tribes of African descent in Israel.”
Observed Nongkynrih, “Middle-Eastern languages sound beautiful. Although written in English, the Hallelujah chorus sounds more beautiful in Hebrew”.
Other experiments in the album include Basaiawmoit trying to channel “my all-time favourite Freddie Mercury” in God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/Surely, and performing Silent Night on a minor key to “add more angst to the tune”, he added.
The album ends with a mash-up of Auld Lang Syne, We Wish You A Merry Christmas, and the Amen chorus section from Handel’s Messiah. “The idea was to end the album on a dancey note, while wishing everyone a merry Christmas,” Basaiwmoit said. “We picked Auld Lang Syne to tell everyone to leave the past behind and look forward to a better 2021.”
The 50-year-old Nongkynrih trained as a pianist at the Trinity College and the Guildhall School of Music in London. He returned to his hometown of Shillong in 2001 and formed the Shillong Chamber Choir. Basaiawmoit, 32, joined the choir in 2008. Their pop medleys won them the 2010 season of India’s Got Talent, a competitive reality show that used to be telecast on Colors channel.
Later that year, the choir performed at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, with Barack and Michelle Obama in attendance. The Shillong Chamber Choir has since performed alongside Zakir Hussain, Amitabh Bachchan, and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. They composed music for the 2013 Malayalam film Goodbye December.
They are also involved in social work. During the pandemic, the choir launched Uncle’s Home Delivery, through which they supplied groceries to homes in Shillong.
The choir will perform the album live at a digital charity concert on December 22, which can be streamed on feelitlive.co.in from 7 pm. The proceeds will be used to treat children with congenital heart defects.
“Despite seeing success early, the choir has seen steady organic growth,” Basaiawmoit observed. “We are an old-fashioned group in the sense, your mother hears us, likes us, tells her friends, and that’s how we get famous. Performing for the choir not only gives a safety net but it makes me think that life is bigger than myself and I am responsible for others.”
Although the choir had to cancel up to 17 planned live shows during the pandemic, work on the album kept him charged: “As a Christian, getting to sing in Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ sent shivers down my spine.”