‘Uncle Neil brought North East closer to India’

‘There was a certain difference that separated him from the rest. That’s why his life is so celebrated, his loss is felt globally.’

Shillong Chamber Choir founder and composer Neil Nongkynrih passed away in Mumbai after a brief illness on January 5.

The choir came under the spotlight after winning India’s Got Talent in 2010, after which they were chosen to perform at Rashtrapati Bhavan during then American president Barack Obama’s visit.

The choir’s lead singer William Richmond Basaiawmoit discusses his mentor Neil Nongkynrih’s rich legacy, with Rediff.com Senior Contributor Rajul Hegde.

“Everybody wants to sing solo, shine and be a star. But he taught us it is never about us; it is always about the group. It’s always about the bigger picture.”

I met him in 2008.

Uncle Neil (as he was fondly called by the choir members) was a part of the audience of a concert I did, as a choir singer.

After everybody left, he came up to me and asked me to sing a couple of songs.

The Shillong Chamber Choir already had a reputation and so it was a big thing for me.

That’s how I became a part of the Shillong Choir.

One thing led to another. I didn’t know that these years would be life-changing for me.

I am what I am because of the love he showed me and the choir.

When he took us on, we were just young men and women.

It’s been a journey where he single-handedly brought us up, not just musically, but with a strong moral foundation. Those principles are something we will carry on for the rest of our lives.

His intention was always to make others grow with a solid foundation, based on the right principles and morals. He valued that more than anything else.

He was not there just during the sunshine but also to take us through the different storms of life.

What made the bond unbreakable was the fact that he was there for all of us during our difficult times.

Uncle Neil created memories.

He was a man who had a tremendous heart for people, and those people were from different walks of life.

Those were people who had a particular kind of hunger, no matter what background they come from. He would give his life for those people.

He loved people.

He loved to be with people and loved creating memories.

He would come up with something new everyday, whether it was drama, making music, writing stories and scripts together, conceptualising concerts or just sitting down by the fireside and reading the Bible together.

His sense of humour was amazing!

He left us at a time… (pauses and gets emotional).

Uncle Neil’s contribution to the development of music in the North East is huge.

He brought the North East closer to the rest of India.

Even to have the name Shillong in the choir’s name itself spoke volumes about him.

The North East is full of talented people.

He got all the talent together in Shillong. He showed what could be possible with dedication and hard work.

He helped us reinvent ourselves and find our niche in the music industry, which you can then exploit in the rest of the country and the world.

One important thing that he taught people was that if you stick to what you are best at and not get discouraged by failures or obstacles in life, if you continue to pursue your strength, that is the secret of success.

We are in an industry which is egoistic, especially when it comes to a group of singers.

Everybody wants to sing solo, shine and be a star. But he taught us it is never about us; it is always about the group.

It’s always about the bigger picture.

The moment it becomes personal or about an individual, it will die.

That is something so important to learn. That isn’t inspiration to only musicians, but to business and corporate houses too.

We did not have a written contract or agreement; it was sheer trust that bound us.

In terms of music, he promoted the music of the North East and performed songs in several different dialects like Naga, Manipuri and Khasi.

His dream was to write an opera.

For the first time in the history of the world, he started writing opera in Khasi titled Sohlyngngem. He had finished a great amount of it and was about to start circulating and performing it when the pandemic hit.

He was a humanitarian at heart.

He gave and gave.

Believe it or not, he didn’t hold money from anywhere and he didn’t know how much he had in his bank account.

He didn’t even know how to use an ATM card.

We had to take care of everything for him, but those things never bothered him.

There was a certain difference that separated him from the rest. That’s why his life is so celebrated, his loss is felt globally.

When people talk about inheritance, it is mostly about money and property.

But he left us with a treasure trove of unfinished music, which we intend to get together and start putting out for the rest of the world to see.

He had quite a few movie scripts and stories.

We have to take it forward, and get it to the right people.

He was a genius. There are paintings of his lying around, sculptures that he made with plaster of Paris.

He was a fantastic cook. He had the best recipes and was always interested in inventing something new.

Apart from the Shillong Chamber Choir, he started a school called Shillong Chamber School. Our first batch is giving exams.

We have also started a home delivery service called Uncle’s Ark during the pandemic.

We were in Mumbai for the last three months working on three spiritual albums. It was his gift to the world.

We more or less finished it on the day of his operation.

This album was Uncle Neil’s dream.

We are also working on a song called the Great Indian Train Journey.

I had gone to visit him when he was hospitalised and told him the recording was in progress for a gospel piece he had written.

Uncle Neil had a smile on his face because he knew that it had been completed.

We released the song on January 11.

Uncle Neil was talking about his desire to go to another world, which is so apt.

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