By Ringo Pebam and & Jyaneswar Laishram
New genres, new bands, new outlooks, new outfits –– now that the rock music scene of Manipur has transformed into a habitat homing a host of younger generations, one cannot ignore the fact that everything rocking and kicking all around today is an aftermath of what was ignited during the 1980s and 1990s by a horde of path makers among which Paul Gangmei should never be left uncounted. It was in the year 1985 the first hard rock/ heavy metal band called ‘Machine Head’ emerged out of the unexpected. Lead vocal of the pack was none other than teenage Paul, and other huge talents comprising Momocha Laishram on drums, Jean Panmei on guitars and Len Gangte on bass. A wonderful combo indeed!
Paul’s untimely demise in the recent past at the age of 48 crippled many rock musicians and his fans. One of those who closely associated with Paul offstage during those heydays, Raj Chingakham from Illinois still remembers, “1985-86 was the time I met Paul for the first time. We were just beginning to learn how to hold guitar correctly.” He further recollects that Paul got matured in music sooner than imagined and no one around could sing Nazareth’s numbers better than him— and for Raj, Paul will live forever in Uriah Heep’s ‘Free Me’. “I had no doubt he would form one of the finest bands ever called Machine Head then. Sad to say we seem to realise his greatness only after he is gone forever,” he grieves.
A big turn took place in Paul’s music career in 1987 when Cannibals emerged to the scene – perhaps the first heavy metal band from Manipur popularly acclaimed at national level. Momocha still on drums, that classic lineup of the new band included Ritchie, Jimmy and Mathew. Lead guitarist Ritchie erupted with lightning riffs pulling out parallel to Dave Murray while Paul shrieked, “Kill for gain or shoot to maim. But we don’t need a reason…” – that was Cannibals covering Iron Maiden classic ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’, time and again on stages ranging from GM Hall to Polo Ground, Manipur Dramatic Union (MDU) to Light House (Churachandpur), Mokochung to Guwahati, Silchar to Shillong and Kolkata to Delhi.
Vikram Chongtham, guitarist of New Delhi-based jazz-rock band Fubar Ghetto recollects, “In the mid-1980s, I used to play accordion and Hawaiian guitar when Machine Head and Cannibals began blowing the winds of rock everywhere all around. Those were sweet and innocent days that actually inspired me to go for rock. Some of my classmates and I sometimes sought permission from our Don Bosco School fathers to catch some live gigs of Machine Head regularly staged at MDU, Yaiskul, etc. Machine Head were super talented then who went quite ahead of their time.” Later on, Vikram joined an array of popular rock bands viz. Ultra Vires, Phoenix and widely acclaimed Eastern Dark in Manipur before his final settlement at Fubar Ghetto in New Delhi.
Though in the 1960s and 1970s Manipur witnessed some pioneer and well inspiring rock n roll bands like Magnetos and Runway Tracks, the real evolution of hard rock music/ heavy metal in the region unveiled only in the mid-1980s and early 1990s — the two landmark decades that gave birth to a lot of popular bands, some of the well established bands such as Machine Head, Cannibals, Hell’s Angels, Dark Krusaders, Phoenix/ Phynyx, Post Mark etc. Many critics claim that rock musicians in these two decades eventually paved the way what Manipur perceives today — a home to more than three dozens of metal, blues, alternative, folk and rock & roll bands.
Still wondering to many about those hard rockers in the 1980s and 1990s is the way they rocked to the fullest when there was nothing in terms of technologies and gadgets around them. They somehow managed everything perfectly using whatever available at minimal levels — ordinary audio tapes, stereo walkman, indigenously-made amplifiers, that’s all. It was their ‘covering’ talent catering close to the heels of original tracks, rather producing a brand new taste of their own, which eventually pulled them off in the circuit of rock music across the country. In fact, the era of rock in Manipur in the 1980s reflected a testing time in every imaginable sense or dimension. Equipments in terms of personal or stage gears, besides being limited or absent, were primitive to say the least. “Looking from the positive angle, this void enhanced our creativity and compelled us to try and resort to being at our best to reflect and replicate the sounds and emulate performances of our favourite respective revered international artists or bands, for ‘kick ass’ professional level performances,’ says Len Gangte (Machine Head, Phoenix/ Phynyx).
The generation of rock in the 1980s and 1990s is relatively significant for the reason that those inspiring bands amputated the ‘bad boy’ tag from rock. They emerged with professionalism with a commitment for the love of music and indulged wholeheartedly to rock with every audience wherever they performed, breaking the walls of casts, creeds, regions and religions.
“Paul’s meaningful contribution to the chronicle of Manipur’s rock music world will forever be part of a history inscribed in the core of our hearts and minds, most importantly, among the loving fans and well wishers all over the region and beyond. Adieu, my friend. RIP and May God grant comfort and strength to those family members you left behind. Deepest condolences to the bereaved family members,” mourns Len Gangte.
All across the nation, Cannibals and Phoenix/ Phynyx drew a lot of attention from other bands and fans alike. Currently popular Delhi-based band like Parikrama still mention these two bands as their inspiration. “I can never forget the way Cannibals blew our minds at Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) during the 1989 Crossroad Campus Rock Festival. It was when we (Parikrama) weren’t even formed properly and we miss Paul immensely today, RIP Brother,” mentions Subir Malik of Parikrama. The band’s vocalist Nitin Malik adds, “Cannibals started it all for a lot of people like us. RIP Paul.” Big old girl fans of Cannibals in Nagaland and Mizoram still worship Momocha Laishram for his showmanship; drum sticks he hurled at crowd are still preserved as precious antics by his fans in these regions. Cannibals achieved stardom and they were The Beatles of the northeast then. There was an incident of a beautiful Delhi girl who jumped upon the stage to embrace lead guitarist Ritchie at one of their gigs in the capital city. Phynyx were one of the top five bands in India, in a poll conducted by Rock Street Journal in the 1990s. They were also the only band from North East who was interviewed by MTV Asia in the mid-1990s. “We used to worship Phynyx,” remarks Nitin Malik.
Kumardeep Das from Shilchar, a former colleague of one of the writers, exclaimed when they met in Bangalore in 2006, “You are from Manipur? Do you know Cannibals?” While standing in those long queues at the concert venue gate, when Iron Maiden first came to India in 2007 in Bangalore, south Indian metal fans who were standing beside us asked, “You guys from Manipur? Hey, your band Phynyx was very good man! Their song ‘Woman’ is awesome! We heard it from Rock Street Journal’s cassette.” Few days ago, Hiron Mech originally from Tezpur, and settled in Bangalore, while meeting at a bikers’ meet said, “I saw your post in Facebook about Paul Gangmei’s demise. I saw their concert in Assam when I was a kid. Great band!”
“Whenever Paul walked up on the stage, he was like the God. He could easily mesmerise the crowd.” recalls Guru Jiangam Kamei who led bands like Dark Domain and Devil Worshiper in the 1980s. “Why? My dear friend, you are already up there before all of us. One-day for sure we all also can join up there and sing together again… miss you so much. I will never ever forget all our past. I know how much you care and love Cannibals. Big heart. Great mind. Big voice… now how can we run a vehicle without wheels? May your soul rest in peace,” laments Momocha Laishram.
Sarat Thounaojam, guitarist and vocalist of 1980’s band Heavenly Fingers, who is known for his self taught and unique ways of playing guitar, who is now based in Dubai, truly mentioned that Paul Gangmei as front-man of both the groundbreaking bands, Machine Head and Cannibals, played a vital role in igniting the heavy metal fire in a remote corner of India in the mid-1980s. He conclusively pronounces that no one could ever take it away from him.
Today, 20 bands from Imphal, Churachandpur, Senapati, Thoubal, Tamenglong and Nagaland, comprising veterans from the then era of the 1980s and 1990s and the younger bands of the present generation are sharing a common stage for a tribute to Paul Gangmei at BOAT. Be there not to merely catch a glimpse of the historic gig, but to be part of the league paying homage to one of the men who sowed the seed of rock/ metal in the region. And watch the veterans and present day rulers of rock/ metal music carrying forward our flag high. Remarkable among the young performers will be Argos – a death metal band of young boys in their teens from Imphal. They may be just 14 years old, they may stand shorter than their guitars, but stronger they are than other upcoming bands and will not let you down. If you are not able to go to this ‘free’ tribute gig, and want to watch ‘live’ online, rock on to www.rockmusicmanipur.in to catch live streaming of the gig. (Note: Due to the article’s size constraints (newspaper space), more info about many other inspiring bands and individuals; and many tributes and condolence messages for Paul Gangmei by his former band mates, contemporary artists friends and fans are left out.)
[Ringo Pebam is a Software Enginerr based in Bangalore and Jyaneswar Laishram is based in New Delhi].