Those speaking refined Khasi in school were baffled by Tipriti “Tips” Kharbangar’s Nongkrem Khasi dialect. Little did they know that avoiding their former classmate’s full-throated crooning would not be possible once they grew up.
“It seems I start a band everywhere I go,” says Tipriti with a joyful holler when I meet her at her bandmate’s home in Shillong.
Soulmate, the band that the 30-something has stuck to longest and the one which has made her India’s foremost blues singer, launched about 15 years ago with mentor and guitarist Rudy Wallang, one of the central figures of the blues in India. Tipriti and Wallang emerged from the country’s northeastern edges to define India’s blues sound.
When Wallang first heard Tipriti in the mid-1990s, she was singing Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” while playing the guitar at a community singing event in the Malki neighborhood of Shillong, after having returned from the Dr. Graham’s Homes boarding school in Darjeeling. Wallang was struck, not just with her talent, but “how free she was.” In 2002, they launched the all-out blues combination Wallang had long sought.
Soulmate has shared the bill with such luminaries as Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo’ and John Lee Hooker Jr., and opened for Carlos Santana when he played in India. In addition to performing in the home of the blues — Memphis — they have taken their fierce love for the music across Europe and to audiences in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh and every major city in India, including the country’s Hindi-speaking heartland.
In a country dominated by Bollywood music, the members of Soulmate have become unlikely icons for those on India’s artistic and cultural peripheries, with Tipriti’s fiery stage presence and wide vocal range representing the insurgence of the new Indian woman and inspiring a slew of female performers to follow in her footsteps. Yet Tipriti still grapples with female archetypes, as she’s done ever since she can remember.
“Anything you want, darling,” Santana told her when she refused his request to sing a Michelle Branch song with him in 2012, insisting instead that they jam on his hit song “Smooth.” Her voice was not given so much deference when Tipriti was growing up — she was always sent to the back of the choir, banned from her gospel-singing cousins’ rehearsals and asked to stop torturing her mother’s eardrums while doing chores. Tipriti’s family was musical (her dad earned some renown as a musician and her mother could ably handle a guitar), but no one noticed anything special about her voice.
Before Soulmate, Tipriti — a Christian of Scottish extraction born in India — cut her teeth singing in gospel and secular bands. She played at demanding and often violent community fetes, sometimes as the only woman (her brother or dad always accompanied her on gigs). Female mentors were scant — not much beyond Natalie Syiem and her Whitney Houston–esque pipes — so Tipriti fed herself on a diet of Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos and the Cranberries. Wallang turned her onto the blues when he asked her to back his band Mojo one night. He then rounded out her musical diet with Etta James, Janis Joplin, B.B. King and more.
They started playing together, backed by bass and drums that Wallang had programmed on his Roland Workstation. Their few gigs often were at female-themed festivals like the one held on Women’s Day. Despite rampant skepticism, Wallang was too devoted to the blues to stop, while Tipriti was “too young to care,” she says. But things were changing in India. Popular culture beyond Bollywood was starting to thrive in the country’s margins. Music channels like MTV and Channel V and publications like the Rock Street Journal were taking off.
I’ve seen women being asked to spread their legs in photo shoots. No one will ever do that to me.
While Soulmate found early success with the wave of India’s alternative popular culture, Wallang “wasn’t impressed with these new bands blindly aping the West,” he says. Their originality won critical praise, and they started to get gigs in Mumbai and Goa. There was no money to speak of, and both Wallang and Tipriti would forgo their share to pay the supporting musicians.
Meanwhile, rumors spread about their relationship offstage. Tipriti was in her 20s and Wallang was a single father; it was no one’s business, so it became everyone’s business. Her mother would come home from work lamenting the stories she’d heard about her daughter taking up with an older man. Tipriti was determined not to play the ingénue and remembers telling her mother: “Don’t I return home every night? You’re my mother. If you don’t defend me, who will?”
It was difficult, though, to return home. “Music is my calling,” she says. “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?” Wallang doesn’t let on much about this phase in their lives save for how people got the name Soulmate wrong. It wasn’t about the two of them, he says, but rather the title of one of their songs, “Blues Is My Soulmate.”
The turning point came around this time via blues enthusiast Kiran Sant, owner of Haze, a live music joint in New Delhi. Sant offered Soulmate a residency of two gigs a month, which lasted several years. “We lit the spark for the New Delhi live scene,” says Wallang. The band would fly into New Delhi on a Friday morning, play on Friday and Saturday evenings and take the 5 am flight back to Shillong on Sunday. (Bruce Ashby, the first CEO of low-cost airline IndiGo, loved the band so much that he agreed to waive most of the cost of their tickets.)
Soon the band started to get a lot of airtime, including on NDTV, India’s premier English news channel, and Tipriti was championed as a female icon, a blues trailblazer and one of the foremost female artists in the country. She inspired younger artists like Amabel Susngi of 4th Element, who recalls: “The moment I saw her onstage, I fell in love with her music and vocals.” Tipriti is not entirely comfortable with her icon status and has resisted some of the trappings of stardom. “I’ve seen women being asked to spread their legs in photo shoots. No one will ever do that to me,” she states.
With its relentless devotion to the blues, Soulmate’s very existence helped launch the Mahindra Blues Festival, the leading blues festival in India, where the band has rubbed shoulders with international greats. Soulmate plays 35 to 40 gigs a year, now backed by Wallang’s sons, Leon and Vincent.
Soulmate will be around for a while yet, but Tipriti and Wallang have also played long enough to leave a legacy of Indian blues-inspired bands. Rising female artists like Susngi, Pynsuklin Syiemiong, Debra Martina Rynjah and Adoryllene Sawian will be different from Tipriti in one fundamental way — unlike her, they have a formidable female icon to look up to.
As Aditi Ramesh, one of India’s promising indie music talents, puts it: Tipriti, “along with her contemporaries, have paved the way for female musicians to boldly put themselves out there without fear of judgment.”
K Mark Swer is a freelance writer and a member of 101reporters.com.
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