When Anand Mahindra, the architect of the Mahindra Blues Festival, introduced Rudy Wallang and Tipriti Kharbangar to his wife, he told her, “Without them, there would’ve been no Mahindra Blues Festival.”
The Mahindra Blues Festival is India’s leading blues fest, and Rudy and Tips are from Soulmate – a band that arguably has done more for the advocacy of the blues in India than anyone else. At the very least, Soulmate was the focal point of the blues in the early noughties when live music in India (with roots in Western popular music) came out of the margins in a big way and began to be followed and promoted earnestly. In the sea of metal and classic rock that was the live music scene at the time, Soulmate played the blues fearlessly; earning the respect of some and the bewilderment of others.
Soulmate was formed in Shillong, in October 2003, when Rudy Wallang and Tipriti Kharbangar decided to start a band dedicated to playing the blues and committed to spread awareness about the music to the rest of India, whether the country was ready or not. Rudy was already a legend in North East India, making his name with the region’s most respected and seminal bands like Great Society and Mojo, while Tipriti was the little girl with the big pipes who everyone knew was going places. It was not only an opportune meeting of kindred spirits but also of minds, talents, passions and souls that would charm the country and inspire countless bands, guitar players and artists. The stamp of their sound would be unique in India.
Those around the world who heard it, immediately identified with and embraced the call of this “back to roots” music – a sonic canvas rooted in Rudy’s elegant blues guitar that channelled Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters and the Three Kings but also embracing every sound that Tipriti’s extensive vocal range could accommodate, from Koko Taylor, Etta James and Nina Simone to the recent addition of the earthy sounds of Khasi folk music. Perhaps being based in Shillong made it easier for them to ignore the country’s dominant soundscapes and for them to hold on steadfastly to the triumphant sounds and grooves of the blues and blues derived rock, funk, soul and R&B. In any case, don’t bother asking Soulmate why they chose the blues because you ought to know better – “the blues chose them”.
In a country still dominated by Bollywood music, Soulmate have become unlikely heroes for those on India’s artistic and cultural peripheries with Tipriti’s fiery stage presence and wide vocal range making her an easy fit as a feminist icon. As Aditi Ramesh, one of India’s most highly rated young singers says, “Her strong presence for years has brought about an increase in the number of strong female performers in the music scene.”
True as this is, gender and identity, though, has never been clear cut for Tipriti.
Growing up in Malki, in what was then a tough, working class neighbourhood, she recalls being “confused whether to behave like a boy or a girl” right up till her teens. Tipriti was a sensitive yet tough girl who would cry over a sad Cinderella song but wasn’t afraid to stare down her “badass” brother’s gang rivals when they sought him out from her beloved but ageing ancestral home. Girlfriends were rare for her in Malki as she grew up playing with her brothers and male cousins, wanting to drive their wooden toy trucks but relegated instead to play the booze seller, in a child’s game of moonshine smuggling. Also, Tiptriti’s family is of English/Scottish extraction and she and her siblings were frequently called Tommy Sahkhyrdong (leftover Tommy) by her Malki playmates. Her bloodline may invoke both envy and ridicule in Shillong but her Nongkrem-Khasi accent, proudly spoken by most in Malki, left no room for such ambiguity. Some of her schoolmates at St Mary’s School were openly contemptuous of its rustic provenance, while others just simply failed to understand it. Tipriti, in those early school days, says that she was equally baffled by the refined Khasi that most people in Shillong used.
“Anything you want, darling” was what Carlos Santana would tell her, years later, when she refused his request to sing a Michelle Branch song with him and insisted instead that they jammed on Smooth. But such acquiescence, as displayed by the great man, was not something that her singing voice evoked when she was growing up. The Khasi shapaid, or loud, was an adjective that she was more used to – always sent to the back of the choir, not allowed to take part in her gospel-singing cousins’ rehearsals and frequently asked to stop torturing her mother’s ear drums as she sang while doing her chores. All in all, Mem (her term of endearment before she acquired Tips) had a lot of gender, musical, linguistic and genealogical issues to wrestle with as a young girl.
Rudy, on the other hand, comes from an illustrious musical family. His grandfather, father, aunts and uncles have contributed immensely to the musical and cultural heritage of 20th century Shillong in both Khasi and English. Grandpa Hedronelle Nonglait was an accomplished Khasi singer-songwriter; Rudy’s aunt Kong Ermina E Wahlang, besides creating a rich body of work, is also the first Khasi female singer to be recorded in All India Radio, Shillong; and Rudy’s father is the legendary Bah Toto Wahlang. Bah Toto was a star in the glory days of Calcutta’s Park Street and people there called him “The Golden Voice”. Rudy himself has contributed immeasurably to Shillong’s Western music even beyond Soulmate, and, in the best possible way, his career may indeed stand in as a metaphor for the growth and evolution of western popular music here.
It’s impossible to recount all of Rudy’s contributions in this single article and I must, therefore, weigh in with only the Soulmate side of his story.
In the mid-1990s, Rudy Wallang found himself judging a community singing competition in Malki, where a young girl accompanied herself on guitar and sang Alanis Morissette’s Hand in My Pocket. Rudy was struck not just by her talent but in his words “…how free she was”. At the time, Rudy had left the seminal band Great Society and was leading Mojo, another hugely influential blues-based band but not quite the full-on blues outfit that he was itching to start. A couple of years later, at the end of his Mojo days, Rudy struck out as a music producer and arranger with his own home-based studio and it was here that he was asked to compose for a multi-artist gospel album where that Malki girl who sang Hand In My Pocket would also feature. He grabbed the chance to arrange blues-based tunes and convinced her that she was well-suited to sing these (including a much jazzed-up version of Amazing Grace). The pieces were coming together for Soulmate but it would be a while before they all fitted in.
By this time, Tipriti was a confident Dr. Graham’s Homes, a girl who had returned from Kalimpong and blown away her competition in that school by singing Don’t Cry for me Argentina. In Shillong, she had fronted Conbrio, backed by another influential guitar player (the late Manfulson Lyngdoh) and played in demanding community fetes, sometimes as the only female artist around (though her brother or dad always accompanied her on gigs). A few years earlier, she had stormed into Shillong’s consciousness at a Millennium concert and the song and video for her collaborative effort called I’m Free This Christmas was much talked about.
She was keeping herself on a steady diet of Alanis Morisette, Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos and The Cranberries when Rudy asked her to back Mojo in a Marley tribute gig that featured one of India’s leading guitar players at the time, Roy Venkataraman. Following the gospel collaboration, this gig cemented Rudy’s belief that with his blues guitar and Tipriti’s voice, he finally had the all-out blues combination he had been looking for all these years. Tipriti, in turn, decided to fully put her trust in Rudy’s vision and thus began her journey into the blues. She would recall, “I’d heard of Aretha Franklin but I didn’t know that she came from the blues. It wasn’t until Rudy started giving me recordings of Koko Taylor, Etta James, Janis Joplin and the blues guitar players – BB and Freddie King, Albert Collins – that I became conscious of the blues.”
Rudy says that she took to it “like a duck to water”. They started playing together soon after, backed by bass and drums that Rudy had programmed in his Roland Workstation. The gigs were few and far between, with some prominent ones being concerts themed around women – protests on Violence against Women and Women’s Day. A lot of people around them were saying that this concept of a blues band is outdated and in a country like India, they’d never make it work. Rudy was too devoted to the blues to stop now and Tipriti remembers being “too young to care”.
But things were changing in India. Popular culture, beyond Bollywood, was starting to thrive in the country’s cultural borders – the Rock Street Journal had taken off a few years earlier and now music channels like MTV and Channel V were putting their weight behind this brave (but ultimately tractable) new world. Rudy and Tipriti smile, remembering that it was at this formative period that “we decided to dump the blues on them”.
Soulmate was formed in 2003 and their initial shows rode the wave of this new interest in India’s “alternative popular culture”. Rudy’s brother Keith managed them and pretty soon they were hooked up to this moment in popular culture, where Indian bands were getting a chance to perform regularly. Rudy though was “irritated at the same time with this scene of college fests and MTV, where no one wanted to hear original music played by Indian bands. I come from a long tradition of original songwriting with Great Society and Mojo, and I wasn’t impressed with these new bands blindly aping the West. You’re Indian, be proud of your own accents.”
Despite Rudy’s irritation though, the shows were starting to come in and Soulmate gained fans and famous friends by sticking to the blues. The late Amit Saigal, founder of the Rock Street Journal, made them an integral part of the Pub Rock Fest and Nondon Bagchi, a veteran of the Indian rock scene, gave them rave reviews, saying that when he heard Soulmate, “he couldn’t tell whether he was listening to an original or a cover”. Vijay Nair had just started Only Much Louder and he got them gigs in Mumbai and Goa. Soulmate had abandoned the Roland Workstation by then and Rudy turned to his old friends from Mojo and Great Society to support them on tour. There was no money to speak of and both Rudy and Tipriti would forego their share in order to pay their supporting musicians.
This was also a particularly tough time for Tipriti and Rudy on a personal level. The Shillong grapevine was rife with stories of the personal dynamics between them. She was in her 20s and Rudy was a single father. It was no one’s business so it became everyone’s business. It caused unbearable tension within Tipriti’s family and made it very difficult for her to return home after a gig or a rehearsal. She felt for her mother and the gossip she had to face but she says, “Music is my calling. If people tied me up, I’d free myself for rehearsals and come back to my family in the end. Where else would I go?”
Rudy doesn’t let on much about this phase in their lives save for how people got the name Soulmate wrong. It wasn’t about them but named after their song The Blues is my Soulmate.
It was at this time of intense personal turmoil for both Rudy and Tipriti that the turning point came. Soulmate’s road manager at the time, who also worked for Rock Street Journal, thought it would be a good idea for them to meet the blues enthusiast Kiran Sant. He owned a live music joint in New Delhi called Haze but was on the verge of closing it down. The road manager was right – Rudy, Tipriti and Kiran hit it off spectacularly and soon all plans to close down Haze were abandoned. Instead, Kiran Sant offered Soulmate a residency of two gigs a month and Rudy fondly recalls “‘playing there for 6-7 years. That’s 24 gigs a year for 6-7 years. We lit the spark for the New Delhi live music scene”.
Soon, employees of foreign embassies, overseas travellers in India and college students were thronging Haze. Tipriti recalls that her earliest fans “were students from JNU”. Soulmate was talked about, written about and even Kiran Sant found his name in the papers often (which Rudy says Kiran loved). So, twice a month for 6-7 years, they’d fly into New Delhi on a Friday morning, play on Friday and Saturday evenings and take the 5 am flight back to Shillong on a Sunday – an aerial round trip of 2988 kilometres. Tipriti remembers Bruce Ashby at this point, the CEO of Indigo, India’s first low-cost airline which had just recently launched. Bruce loved Soulmate, so much that he gave Kiran Sant a deal on his airline just so he could come and watch Soulmate play during the weekends. The passenger fare on their ticket was waived and Kiran Sant had to pay only the dues on fuel, tax and maintenance, which amounted to less than Rs 5,000 per ticket.
Soon they were dubbed “the Darlings of NDTV” on account of being featured so often on India’s premier English news channel. It was this network of India’s working professionals, students and foreigners that sustained Soulmate and both of them are cool enough to admit it. Tipriti smiles playfully when she says, “A lot of them might not know the blues but they knew Soulmate alright.”
By this time, she was being written about and championed as a female icon, a blues trailblazer and one of the foremost female artists in the country. Rolling Stone India featured her as one of the prominent “Women of Indian Rock” in their 7th anniversary special issue, and back home in Shillong, she was becoming increasingly influential.
Young singers like Adoryllene Sawian cherish their first memories of seeing Tipriti perform. “My parents took me to the Autumn Festival show and seeing Kong Tipriti perform was phenomenal. The way she leaves a part of herself in her work, the soul, creativity was really special for me.” Amabel Susngi of 4th Element recalls her music teacher at the Department of Music, Martin Luther Christian University, showing videos of Tipriti performing. “The moment I saw her on stage, I fell in love with her music and vocals,” says Amabel.
But again, Tipriti doesn’t read much into this. She admits that “if I’ve touched the lives of young girls in a positive way and given them hope, then I feel blessed but beyond that I don’t think about it too much.”
She adds, “Beyond the music, I don’t take the industry too seriously. I’ve seen women being asked to spread their legs in photo shoots, no one will ever do that to me.”
It could be that Tipriti herself cares more than she admits, but others who’ve followed her career are in no doubt about how emancipating it is to see her perform. Nandini Ramachandran, a writer and anthropologist from Bangalore, remembers “When I walked into Haze that night I had a very heavy heart. When I heard her sing, it was like someone opened a window into the possibility of an entirely different life, in which melancholy could be borne with both grace and endurance and constraint could be transfigured into creativity.” She adds, “I decided that if she had the courage to live her life on her own terms, so could I. I went home a few weeks later and told my parents I might want to be a writer instead of a lawyer.... More than a decade later, I still remember every song they played that night.”
Soulmate has hit highs that few other Indian bands have and that too by unapologetically playing the blues. In their journey, they’ve played to audiences and fans all over the world and they’ve been on the same bill as Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Keb Mo, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Jimmie Vaughn and other blues greats. They savour all these moments but their favourite remains when Carlos Santana signalled Rudy if he could join them in the middle of their set. “We were opening for him, so for Carlos Santana to signal from backstage, if he could join us was just my biggest fan moment,” says Rudy, while Tipriti adds, “And that too for Lie, a song that I wrote.”
Soulmate still get booked for an average of 35-40 gigs a year and they are now backed by Rudy’s sons, Leon and Vincent. They also tour as Soulmate and the Clansmen, in which both Tipriti’s and Rudy’s increasing interest in Khasi folk music gets an outlet. They’ll be around for a while, but they’ve also played long enough to leave a legacy – the robust health that the blues finds itself in India at this point of time. Shillong itself has a number of serious blues and blues derived artists like Blue Temptation, LB King and 4th Element, all of whom openly own up to the debt they owe Soulmate.
Soulmate has three albums to their name – Shillong, Moving On and Ten Stories Up – all of them uncompromising discourses on the blues, both as homage and re-imagination. These recordings, coupled with their live prowess, have spurred interest and fascination for them well beyond India’s borders. They’ve toured Europe, played in Memphis (the home of the blues), regaled audiences in Bangladesh, Dubai, Indonesia, Singapore and Nepal. Their work can be found across multiple platforms like documentary films and web series, just as their music now seeks to expand the vocabulary of roots music by exploring the common origin and yet differing histories of the blues and folk music.
Rudy has over 38 years of musical experience, while Tipriti is probably entering her most creative phase and has taken on more responsibilities as a songwriter. With Leon and Vincent around, they are also set up by way of age, experience, prowess and potential for their best work to lie ahead of them and not behind.
This article first appeared on Raiot.