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Promises of the Kwai: Discovering voices that sing

By Sebanti Chatterjee


“God who was just and kind and who saw everything, created, from the four bodies lying in the hut, a beetel nut tree, a beetel nut leaf, lime and tobacco, so that the rich and the poor might commune and extend hospitality to each other without the necessity of making rice or tea. It was from then that the custom of exchanging Kwai, or beetel nut, taken together with beetel leaf, lime and sometimes tobacco, started among the Khasis.”[1]

The above excerpt from the book Around the Hearth: Khasi Legends brings to the fore the importance of ‘khana pateng’ (legends) among the Khasis which, even today, is closely linked to their belief systems. As per the story, a husband and a wife took their lives as they were unable to serve food to their guest (a friend), the friend takes his own life on discovering that he was the reason for their death and finally a thief who breaks into the house late at night panics at the sight of three dead people and eventually ends up taking his own life too. Exchange of Kwai has become a cultural symbol for respect, admiration and hospitality. A 2014 cultural festival in Shillong appropriately named ‘18 degrees’ points to the average temperature of the landscape quite naturally posits the climatic forces triggering the daily consumption of Kwai among the Khasis.

I first travelled to Shillong during April 2014 for my fieldwork for Doctoral research. I reached Guwahati airport and inquired about the shared cab that goes to Meghalaya. Guwahati climate indicative of a sticky summer heat and blazing tropical sun seemed familiar owing to my Calcutta connection. The three and a half hour ride that slowly transitioned from the plains to a hilly region initiated me to the moody landscape of sunshine, breeze and damp rain. The little shops at the road side always have Kwai well stocked up. It serves as an instant relief from the biting cold. My co-passengers for my first ride from Guwahati to Shillong explained about Kwai and its importance in Khasi customs as well as the everyday life. Later, my flatmate taught me how to get used to the bitterness of the taste and gave me the tip to leave out the lime so as to avoid getting headaches. On several occasions, after my scheduled interviews with musicians, researchers and heads of various organizations, I recall how I was served Kwai alongside tea and sometimes after food. Kwai has been my medium of engaging with my field; it has served as an entry point for me to be aware of the people, landscape and, of course, the choral practices. This article discusses my field experiences with two choral groups, one strictly religious, the Standing Choir of the Presbyterian Church and another one that calls themselves a ‘Masala choir’ as they are an entertainment choir with a motley of songs to offer, the Aroha Choir. It tries to look at how different participants from the choir approach the art of singing and have their own personal associations that bind them to their respective choirs. Kwai, just like choral singing can be an everyday ritual and at other times, it becomes a cultural idiom of hospitality and admiration. Thus the two Khasi choirs bring out its different features. Choral singing have been a part of the fabric of the Khasi and Lushai Hills since 1841 as introduced by the Welsh Calvinist Missionaries and prior to them, the Serampore Baptist mission. 

Singing as a ritualistic expression

During the month of October and November 2014, I attended a few rehearsals of the Standing Choir of the Presbyterian Church, Mawkhar. I had thrown open a couple of questions to the members on one of the days. A choir member explained to me how this choir is different from other church choirs. The members are always called for the Sunday service at 1 o’clock. For this reason, they have an arrangement to practice every Friday. One of the church elders as well as a choir member said, ‘It is a privilege to come here every Friday because it is part of the dedication and devotion to the service of Christ. It is through the talent that we have been given…each one of us… That’s why with that love in our hearts, we would like to serve God by coming to practice every Friday and going for church service every Sunday. We enjoy it.’ Weekly immersion into music is an indication of heightened devotion.

It is also a privilege to be part of this choir as one of the singers told me, ‘I was selected to join this choir after winning the singing competition organized by the KGP[2] synod youth.’ This decision was taken by the choir committee of the church. I was inquisitive about the proportion of members in the choir. I was told that proportion is essential for a common pitch.’

The choir conductor said to me, ‘Soprano is the melody line/part therefore we need more singers. Whereas Alto is the back-up of the choir body, it provides the support. We reduce it a little bit but in case of the Tenor because it is very high pitch, therefore we don’t need much, but Bass because of low frequency, that’s why we need more singers, somehow or the other. This is the standard balance internationally.’ They had about 50 members. The precision attached to balancing of sound makes the art of singing an integral part of ritualistic expression.

One of the oldest members told me, ‘I have been with the choir for over 49 years now. It is the greatest privilege to serve God through the choir of the Church and I am what I am today, because of being in the choir, training me to become more specialized in singing choir music. And I would encourage all the junior members to carry on all the good work that they have been doing and to not be afraid.’

Singing in a choir also encourages one to undertake other forms of singing. One of the members shared his experience about singing pop music, teaching music in a school and also engaging into folk music in choral arrangements.

I remember one Sunday church service of the Mawkhar Presbyterian Church. They were reminiscing one of the church elders who had passed away on that particular day. The service was in Khasi where the Pastor chose a passage about how to enjoy little events of life. Songs were sung from the Presbyterian hymn book where many of the texts had been set to some popular western tunes by a few missionaries. This was followed by special numbers which were indigenous folk songs. The instruments used were keyboard, guitar and duitara[3] for the special numbers. Therefore, vernacularized or localized sounds and texts are also located in the folds of the church choirs.

Singing as a mode of entertainment

My frequent visits to the Aroha Music School from the months of September to November 2014 allowed me to look at their practice methods closely, helped me get to know the members personally and understand what captures the choir’s aspirations.

Pauline Warjri, the choir conductor, follows an orderly routine of activities, effectively dividing time between the Senior Choir, the Junior Choir and the piano lessons at the school. I recall the first day I visited the school; she was having her rehearsals with three members of the Junior Choir. Seeing them sing I was overenthusiastic and due to my prior singing experience with the Goa University Choir at my other field site, I requested her to allow me to join in the vocal exercises. She gladly entertained the idea.

The members of the Junior Choir were practicing the song, “Sweet Little Jesus Boy”. What made the practice stand out was that she was making them learn the parts and lyrics of the song right then. It was more of an aural learning experience. She was confident of their sight reading abilities and thus approached a different method to introduce the song. She insisted them to support their voices with their diaphragm, especially when reaching towards higher notes. Towards the end, she playfully remarked, ‘I didn’t even have to tell you what notes to sing.’

Upon my repeated visits, I picked up their regular vocal exercises which involved lip twirling ‘do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti’ from lower to higher octaves and vice-versa. The other exercise involved singing all the seven notes using the support of the diaphragm, again from lower to higher octave (and vice-versa). Sometimes the octave progressions were made further interesting by using different vowel sounds, each time a-e-i-o-u. The most complicated exercise I found was the one that required the singer to hold in his/her breath, after singing each note for a fixed number of seconds and then releasing it after sometime. The latter helped in sustaining ‘hums’ which the choir director on many accounts, regards to be best way to attack a note.

All this ultimately enabled the voice to lapse into using the throat voice, the abdomen voice, the head voice and even falsetto, as per the requirement of the song in question.

Taking out an instance from the rehearsals, I recall one of the days when the choir was practicing “For unto us a child is born” from Handel’s Messiah, the choir director emphasized how each part and each voice acquired importance. This, she pointed out, to be a significant feature of polyphony whereby, each singer acquires the role of a soloist. Also, imitation becomes prominent here, allowing the Tenors to follow the sopranos and basses to follow the altos. While talking of Handel’s work, she referred to Bach’s symbolism of cross due to the similarity of ideas. She insisted on vowel stressed singing to help with the precision of notes and their sound. She advised the singers to use their tongues instead of jaws to handle the sustained long notes. In other cases as well as this one, diction is central to the Choir’s performativity. The stress on the use of measured British accents in this case, and working on each part separately ensured a more holistic sound.

On another day while rehearsing the song “Hope is born” by Mark Hayes and John Parker, the choir director called attention to the possibility of playing with one’s palette while singing. Again, each part was being addressed separately. One problem that the choir faces is not having enough people to cover each part. In such cases, the choir director uses the protocol of shuffling of voices, especially the ones who are comfortable moving along different ranges.

Each member of the choir maintains their individual tonal qualities which makes certain voices favorable towards portraying the rock resonance, while others have the tendency to bring out the pop, jazz, operatic and ballad impressions. Few others belt out a deep well-rounded sound or a controlled high pitched timbre. These variations colour each song with multiple shades yet reflecting one common hue in the form of a universal sound quite isolated from the congregational sound, which the choir director steers clear from. The time I visited, the concerts lined up for the choir were themed around Christmas which is why experimentation in terms of genres weren’t too noticeable yet the repertoire was replete with jazz, calypso, pop, country, gospel and opera idioms.

‘Stylistic mediations’[4] comes across through intonations expressed by the soloists in different songs. For example, in the song, “It is well with my soul”, the two soloists portray two different tonal qualities, the tenor brings out the operatic trills whereas the soprano adds to it a country tinge without altering the basic tenets of the feel of soul, which is the genre to which the song belongs to. Whatever be the final representation, the sound that is emitted depends on the control of breath and the correct use of diction. The choir uses only digital piano as an accompaniment and sometimes the choir director uses the harmonica to lay out the melody lines and its supporting parts distinctly. She takes into consideration the opinions of all the members about their attitude towards the song they are performing and pushes them to do better by providing them encouraging feedback whenever possible. Before the songs are taken up, she records each of the parts separately for them alongside providing them handwritten score sheets for each section. Even though the Christmas repertoire did not comprise original compositions, except one Bengali song “Bhuvan Bhawra” (anonymous composer), which she likes to call the Bengali carol. The latter was arranged for the Delhi concert at the president’s house. Some of the songs in the repertoire were also arranged by her. One of the popularly known hymns amongst the arranged ones was “Silent Night”.


The aforementioned ethnographic moments bring out the feel of the everyday in addition to the local inscriptions amidst a lived experience of Western tradition. Here, Mark Slobin’s[5] argument about how dominant western popular music instigates musical subcultures to thrive becomes relevant. With an incessant feeling of loss of one’s cultural identity, there is a reaction that promotes the creation of another identity stemming from one’s own roots. The church choirs reinstate the value of faith, dedication and creativity. Their lives, compositions, communal singing and rituals are all ordered around an identitarian as well as a religious premise. When it comes to entertainment, choices depend upon the skill set of the musicians as well as the intended audience alongside the curated themes. Shillong shows how local melodies and rhythms can be well integrated within the western arrangement. Needless to say, Kwai alongside their music have been my respondents’ constant companion.

Picture Credit:

[1] Nongkynrih Kynpham Sing, 2007. Death in a hut: The story of the Beetel Nut, the Beetel Leaf, the Lime and Tobacco’; Around the Hearth: Khasi Legends. Penguin Books India. Pp.34-40

[2] Khasi Garo Presbyterian Synod which is the highest body of Presbyterian Church in Meghalaya

[3] Duitara has been accepted as a folk musical instrument where the first strings stands for the youngsters, or Ki Khynnah, the second and the third stand for strings represent the mother and the father, I Mei I Pa and the fourth string takes into account the maternal uncle or U kni and the elders or Ki Tymmen Ki San. Duitara is known as the home instrument (ka duitara ka dei ka jingtem iing). It is also a symbol of Khasi clan. See Syiem Lapynshai. 2005. The Evolution of Khasi Music: A study of the Classical Content. New Delhi.  RegencyPublications.

[4] Beaster-Jones, J. (n.d.).2014. Stylistic mediation in Indian film songs. In G. D. Booth & B. Shope (Eds). Film Song and Its Other: Tracing the Boundaries of Indian Music Genres (p. 384). Oxford University Press.

[5] Slobin,Mark. 1993. Subcultural Sounds: Micromusics of the West. Hanover, NH:Wesleyan University Press. Pp.9


Beaster-Jones, Jayson. 2014. ‘Film Song and its Other: Stylistic Mediation and the Hindi Film Song Genre.’ In More than Bollywood: Studies in Indian Popular Music, edited by Gregory D. Booth and Bradley Shope, 97-113. USA: Oxford University Press.

Jyrwa, J. F. 2011. Christianity in Khasi Culture. Shillong: Mrs. M. B. Jyrwa.

Nongkynrih, Kynpham Sing. 2007. Death in a hut: The story of the Beetel Nut, the Beetel Leaf, the Lime and Tobacco’ In Around the Hearth: Khasi Legends, 34-40, India: Penguin Books

Slobin, Mark.1993. Suncultural Sounds: Micromusics of the West. Hanover. Wesleyan University Press.

Syiem, Lapynshai. 2005. The Evolution of Khasi Music: A Study of the Classical Content. New Delhi: Regency Publications

Sebanti Chatterjee worked on the choral traditions in Goa and Shillong as her central theme for her doctoral thesis, titled “Western Classical Music in Goa and Shillong: Exploring the Indigenous” at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics. She has forthcoming publications (2020) based on her empirical research. Her specialization is Anthropology of Sound. She is also a storyteller. She has recently been awarded a joint IFA research grant with film maker, Soumik Mukherjee for working on a project related to her thesis topic. She is currently Assistant Professor of Sociology at Sharda University.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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