Santa arrives on a camel this year

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Neil Nongkynrih needs no introduction. After a successful run as a musician in the UK — where he was first a student, and subsequently a mentor to artistes like Radiohead’s Philip Selway — the pianist returned to India and created the Shillong Chamber Choir. Padma Shri-awardee Nongkynrih is set to mark a decade since the choir won India’s Got Talent with the release of an upcoming Christmas album. “This one is special,” he promises of the project that shatters myths associated with the festival. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Why did you choose to use so many languages in this album?
This is among the most special albums for me, because I know a lot about [this subject]. The choir has a knack for learning different languages. Weaving English and Hindi in their music is now the choir’s signature. I have also used these languages because this story belongs to the Middle East. This could be a rude awakening for people across the globe, because the things that we have come to associate Christmas with, including snow, Santa, sledges, and Christmas trees [may not be linked with it at all]. We have a tsunami of Americanism in our culture. A lot of Christmas songs are about [catching] mommy kissing Santa. They are love songs, and do not actually celebrate the birth of Christ, which [happened] in the Middle East. Each song is in English, and another language. One is in ancient Aramaic, which is the language that Jesus spoke. A [popular] English Christmas song has been sung in Hebrew. We’ve also used Urdu, because, 2,000 years ago, it is unlikely that Urdu wouldn’t have been part of their system and culture. Alaaps have also been rendered in Farsi.

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Can you trace the amount of research that went into its making?
Fifteen years. I know this subject more than I know music itself. If anyone challenges me, I have enough knowledge [to back my claims]. Pop artistes sing [Christmas] songs for commercial reasons. One of the songs that we revisited was We three kings, and people will understand [how matters have been misrepresented] after listening to our album. The Britishers and Americans have turned Christmas into another celebration. I am not against celebrating it. But people must admit that they have got it wrong. This is a middle-eastern [story]. Christmas has suddenly gone to New York, and has been dominated by western culture. We can’t relate to snow and sledges. I’ve replaced the reindeer with the camel. I’m going to [call] this, Come Home Christmas. You need to realise that the rate of suicides among New Zealand’s teenagers, especially women, is higher during Christmas. This is because these [less-privileged] girls compare themselves to others who receive better presents. Christmas is not about committing suicide, and shouldn’t revolve around presents alone. I am trying to promote an [inclusive culture]. I love the fact that the same album will have Farsi and Hebrew together.

The choir always celebrates music pertaining to Christmas.
And yet, this is the first time that we are creating such an album in 10 years. There are several reasons behind doing this, one of them being that there is a gap that needs to be filled. Also, this year marks a decade since we won India’s Got Talent. At the time too, we shattered the notion that a choir [can’t sing] in Hindi. It changed people’s perception [in Shillong] too. Those who never listened to Hindi music began to do so. It brought about healing. I am against snobbery. I ask people in Meghalaya why we are against learning our own language. We are proud when our kids go to international schools and learn German. Why don’t we celebrate our national language?

How has this album been tweaked to suit listeners who may not understand the languages, especially if you are trying to educate people about the culture?
We have used English to create a recall value. A lot of the songs are in Aramaic, but their [English versions] are popular, and people will recognise those tunes. People will not have any problem in understanding the songs because of the interplay of English with other languages. We have rendered popular English songs in languages that are only more beautiful. English is a terrible language for any kind of music, other than pop. Also, most of the numbers are dancy. I am concerned about people’s mental health amid the pandemic, and want them to feel like dancing when they hear this album. Of course, there are [slower] pieces as well.

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