This May heralds the release of a unique album, ‘Sai-thaiñ ki Sur, by the Khasi-Cymru Collective. Growing from seeds planted during an academic project, ‘Sai-thaiñ ki Sur is the resulting bloom of nearly four years of personal and cultural explorations. The little-known history between Wales and northeast India’s Khasi Hills bringing together disparate people and communities; all involved embarking on their own distinctive journeys, gathering and sharing experiences, ideas, knowledge, and learning about their cultures' differences and similarities.
The Khasi title ‘Sai-thaiñ ki Sur has an English meaning close to 'the weaving of voices', yet it alludes to a far deeper connection than strictly vocal. The album is more than simply a collection of exceptional performances from a talented group of musicians, as the contributions towards this rich and diverse musical tapestry extend beyond what can only be heard. Indeed, the 'collective' could be considered to include the Welsh and Khasi communities themselves. Over three years or more, Welsh songwriter Gareth Bonello (The Gentle Good) spent several weeks at a time in and around the busy Meghalaya capital of Shillong. There he met many poets, artists, craftsmen, musicians, and academics who happily shared their vibrant heritage. These encounters acting almost as a living archive to enhance his understanding of the history surrounding them, and allowing him to see influences from his homeland intertwined in Khasi culture.
The album itself comprises pieces performed in Khasi, Welsh and English, and uses traditional Khasi instruments. These include, among others, the besli (a bamboo flute) and the expressive duitara, a guitar-like instrument that is considered a symbol of Khasi music and its broader culture. Khasi-Cymru has produced a dynamic, proud sound with each track unique and absorbing, drawing on folklore from their respective histories and combining traditional folk music and original songs. A notable feature of Khasi music is the distinctive rhythmic patterns that embody each composition with its own powerful heartbeat and identity.
With live, unaltered performances alongside studio recordings, the album's production matches the unconventional, cooperative, and almost experimental nature of the Khasi-Cymru Collective. Still, we can find an even deeper meaning. The project has provided an opportunity for these joined voices to reach a wider audience and have new experiences. Lapdiang Syiem, the insightful Khasi poet who performs her spoken word 'To the men with hate speech on their lips' explains: "When Gareth approached me about collaborating on a piece merging poetry and music, I was hooked because it is what I have always wanted to explore."
While Lapdiang was visiting Wales, she heard upsetting news of the proposed Khasi Lineage (Amendment) Bill 2018. A law that would strip Khasi women of their status should they marry a non-Khasi man. "It was incredibly frustrating that I was not home, so the only way I could challenge the bill was to write about it and hope to perform it one day. And sure enough, it's a piece that I have been able to perform and share with a larger audience."
And the tune of cooperation and exploration resonates further in Lapdiang's words: "It’s been a special experience collaborating on this album because of the many voices that have come together. Understanding Gareth's working practice and sharing our experiences has been massively inspiring. I think it is a connection that has grown so organically and artistically that there is an understanding of what the two cultures shared and how we confront our identities as contemporary artists. The folk element plays so strong in our explorations, through folklore and music."
‘Sai-thaiñ ki Sur is a celebration of collaboration, open minds, shared histories, making new memories, and a genuine love of music.
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Khasi-Cymru Collective, (3) Gareth Bonello (The Gentle Good) (unknown/website).