Music from the indigenous Khasi community of North East India features on an album by former USW PhD student Gareth Bonello, and has been selected as June’s Guardian folk album of the month.
‘Sai-thaiñ ki Sur, which translates as the Weaving of Voices, was released last month and is the debut album from the Khasi-Cymru Collective – a collaboration between singer songwriter Gareth and artists from the Khasi community. The collective is part of the Welsh and Khasi Cultural Dialogues, a USW research project which encourages artistic collaboration between both communities.
Khasi people make up about half of the population of Meghalaya state, and are indigenous to Northeast India, a hugely diverse region with over 220 ethnic groups and as many, if not more languages.
Gareth has been part of the research project since 2016, and under the supervision of Professor Lisa Lewis, completed a PhD in music and performance, with much of it involving practical research with Khasi artists. Between 2017 and 2020, he was a regular visitor to Meghalaya, getting to musicians, artists, academics, taxi drivers, farmers, and many other members of the Khasi community.
Recorded in the city of Shillong and in villages around Meghalaya, ‘Sai-thaiñ ki Sur explores folklore, song, missionary hymns, poetry and identity in both societies. The album weaves together a range of voices from all over Meghalaya, representing a selection of the music that we wrote and recorded together. Some tracks are unaltered live takes made in the village of Pahambir, or in an old mission house in Mawkhar. Others were recorded by Peter Dkhar at Merliham Arrangements, a studio in Shillong, and the final touches recorded and mixed in Cardiff by Llion Robertson.
Gareth said: “Thanks to the musician and craftsman Risingbor Kurkalang I acquired a Duitara; a stringed instrument made from the wood of the jackfruit tree U Dieng Slang, that is ubiquitous in Khasi folk music. I’m so grateful to Rising for introducing me to Khasi folk music and tunes by Skendrowell Syiemlieh on the Duitara.”
Gareth also worked with the renowned Khasi songwriter Desmond Sunn, who DJs on Red FM Shillong. They wrote one of the album tracks, Kam Pher, together in just a few hours one cold evening in a forest outside Shillong, and it’s thought to be the first song to be written in English, Khasi and Welsh.
He added: “Looking back at those times through the cracked lens of Covid, it feels like they happened a lifetime ago. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that we will see to loads more collaboration between artists from Wales and the Khasi and Jaiñtia Hills in future. I’d like to say a huge Khublei / Diolch to all the wonderful people that made this record possible, it’s been an amazing journey and I know how privileged I am to have had this wonderful opportunity. I look forward to brighter days, when our voices can weave together in the cold mountain air once again.”
‘Sai-thaiñ ki Sur (the Weaving of Voices) is available here or order from your local indie record store.