Jugalbandi: Freewheelin’ Lou Majaw

Jugalbandi: Freewheelin’ Lou Majaw

Our first glimpse of Lou Majaw comes just outside the Guwahati airport – his face is building-sized, emblazoned high above the multi-lane expressway to Meghalaya, on an advertisement for Star Cement. These billboards turn out to be ubiquitous. By the time we wind our way up from the Brahmaputra floodplain into the cloud-wreathed Khasi hills, the legendary rocker of the Northeast seems a reassuringly familiar fixture on the landscape, unmistakeable even in the fading light that slowly obliterates the thick pine forests lining the road to Shillong.

Photo credit: Vivek Menezes  

But when we set out to find Majaw the next morning, the rocker turns out to be as elusive as the fast-rising mist of his hometown. We knew that he could not be contacted via the Internet, but now learn that he does not have a permanent contact number or even a fixed address. Then we discover that you cannot buy a copy of his albums in any of the music stores in Shillong, because he prefers to remain his own sole distributor. One day goes by, then two, and still no sign of the Khasi cowboy in his signature cut-off jeans, as we console ourselves with innumerable plates of addictive smoked pork and fermented soybeans from the jadoh stall he is rumoured to frequent.

'Just chill out on that street in the evenings, and you'll see him walking down towards you before too long,' we are told by more than one of his old friends. And so, we return at sunset again to Laitumkhrah, our little group of five trailing happily up the hill past the packed churches and colleges in this buzzing neighbourhood of young people from across the Northeast; schoolgirls resplendent in matching cardigans and kilts, teenagers head-to-toe clones of Soho hipsters. As we approach the looming cathedral, the toddler on my shoulders suddenly grows silent as we catch the soaring sound of a choir in full voice. I realise with a start that it is Sunday, and we linger on the hillside until the throbbing Khasi hymn comes to an end.

And that is when we see him, head thrown back and laughing, in the middle of a busy sidewalk with a stream of quick-moving college students forking around his broad back. My son leaps with delight on my shoulders: 'Loulie! Lou Majaw!' We walk up and tell him, excitedly, 'We've come to Shillong all the way from Goa just to celebrate Bob Dylan's birthday with you!' The rocker is visibly unimpressed. 'They're coming from all over,' he tells me finally.

But I want more. I tell him I would like to hang out with him all day on 24 May. I want to bring my sons to the kids' edition of the concert, to attend the show-stopper in Police Bazaar in the centre of town. I want to photograph everything, and I've got a video camera too. All this and the rocker is still just looking at me, impassive and unblinking. I can see something occur to him, and he looks me straight in the eye and says, with a little shrug of indifference, 'Hey man, it's a free country.'

Despite lacking rail connections to the rest of the world, and its remote location on the tabletop terrain of Meghalaya, Shillong retains an outsized sense of self-importance. Right until 1972, it was the administrative capital of colonial Assam, a huge swath of territory including the present-day states Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram. The city remains the education centrepiece of the region, with dozens of boarding schools and colleges that serve students from across the Northeast.

So although Lou Majaw was born into a poor Khasi family in 1947, there was a sense of connection to the greater world distinguishing this city. Shillong has also always been relatively cosmopolitan, and markedly Westernised. It is not surprising that there was always an appetite for the latest music from abroad – Majaw has often spoken about the life-changing moment when he heard the irresistible beats of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley blaring from the hi-fi at a neighbour's house (his own family could not afford a radio). He started haunting his school's music room to practice the guitar, and from the beginning schemed to form swing and rock groups. When he got the chance, he left Shillong to try and make it in the music scene in Calcutta.

He worked a series of dead-end day jobs while playing in bands such as the Dynamite Boys, Supersound Factory, and Blood and Thunder. And then in 1966, the young musician heard an album called The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. 'Everything changed then,' Majaw has often said. 'Dylan opened my mind to new possibilities.' He returned to Shillong and started playing solely his own compositions. Around 1980, he founded Great Society, his band, also dedicated exclusively to creating original music. By then, he had already celebrated Bob Dylan's birthday with a free concert for eight years in a row.

Like much of Shillong, the residential neighbourhood of Jaiaw feels as though it is from another world. The architecture is quaint, Edwardian. But the women in the streets are wearing jainsems, the iconic toga-like drape of the Khasi, and their cheeks bulge with betel nut. All the while the mist rises to slick the blacktop, sustaining the sensation of having entered another realm of existence altogether.

The disorientation continues as we enter the gates of Pearly Dew School, where blazered students sit lined up on bleachers at the side of the basketball court, under the watchful eye of their school principal, while a trio of long-haired musicians are setting up their instruments. Then up to the mike bustles Majaw, with thanks to Kong Ibari (the school principal, now beaming), and then, just like a ritual invocation, 'Happy birthday Bob Dylan, wherever you are and god bless you, thank you for everything that you've done for us, and especially for Lou Majaw.'

The musician strikes into the first ringing chords of 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright', and we feel a wave of sound coming from the audience all around us – dozens of children are singing along intently, they all know the words. We see the teachers lined up along a balcony overhead – they are singing too. Out of the corner of my eye, there is Kong Ibari, singing lustily as well, eyes closed and head rocked back.
Still it gets wilder. The entire crowd sings along to every line of 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' as though it were the Khasi national anthem. A band of cute six-year-olds troop onstage, rendering a scorching version of an obscure Dylan track, 'Man Gave Names to All The Animals', headbanging authentically like so many miniature Ramones.

And then Majaw again, exhorting the children to break ranks. A clamorous version of the all-time classic, 'Like a Rolling Stone'. 'Everybody must get stoned!' he bellows at them. 'Everybody must get stoned!' they chorus back. I look over at Kong Ibari – surely she is going to pull the plug. But instead she has a huge smile cleaving her face, a picture of pure contentment. As I watch, her lips frame the refrain, 'Everybody must get stoned.'

Later that night, I sit at the back of a stage erected high on Police Bazaar and watch Majaw project his rock-and-roll personality across the centre of his hometown. In typically chaotic Shillong style, the streets leading to the junction commanded by the stage are still open, and cars are pouring through, honking noisily. Several local acts have finished playing some of the most famous Dylan songs, but now it is just Majaw and the snarling guitars of his band, the Bad Monkeys, and the show is now for adults only. The rocker strips off his shirt, and struts the stage with his guitar held triumphantly high. A realisation begins to sink in: This is the real deal; Lou Majaw is the genuine article. He does not need Bob Dylan. He is our Bob Dylan.

The moment the concert is over, the band accelerates into clean-up mode. No roadies here, each musician packs his own stuff. Steam is still coming off Majaw's body, as he winds his guitar cable in his hands and fires instructions. Ten minutes later, I am in an SUV full of Bad Monkeys, and we are off to party in Bah Lou's cottage at the Shillong Club. The band heads out to pick up food, and I find myself alone with Majaw, wearing a soft sweater to fend off the chill, now looking his age. This has been his 39th consecutive Bob Dylan birthday concert, and even the legendary Lou Majaw probably knows that he cannot go on doing this forever. But we just sit in silence, feeling the moment.

Then the room fills up again with young musicians, and the drinks start to flow. Now there are snatches of songs heard from different parts of the room, and the guitar comes out again – and what do you know, more Dylan songs. Majaw's friends keep pouring in, and almost every one reaches for the guitar and plays something. Everyone sings, seems to know all the words. At around two in the morning, one of Shillong's top cops picks up the instrument. 'We haven't heard this one yet,' he says, and then bursts straight into one of my favourites from Nashville Skyline.

I can hear that whistle blowin',
I see that stationmaster, too,
If there's a poor boy on the street,
Then let him have my seat
'Cause tonight I'll be staying here with you.

Throw my ticket out the window,
Throw my suitcase out there, too,
Throw my troubles out the door,
I don't need them any more
'Cause tonight I'll be staying here with you.

Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer in Goa.

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