If you have an idea of the local music scene in the Northeast then you have heard of Ronojit Chaliha, or Ron Cha as he is widely known. An extremely talented pianist from Guwahati, he had quite the fan following even before he got the call from Berklee College of Music.
When we met, during his recent visit home, our conversation ranged from one topic to another. Ron shared that his first piano experience was when he was three years old, and his grandfather made him sit on his lap and that was when he first tinkered with the big keys. It was a proud moment for Ranjit Chaliha when his grandson received a scholarship to Berklee. ‘My grandpa plays the piano really well and he is happy to see me taking it up as a profession.’ His grandfather wasn’t the only musical influence in his family, his father, Dhrubajit Chaliha is also a good singer. For generations, the Chaliha men including his father, uncle and grandfather have acted proprietors of a tea estate which was started by Ron’s great-grandfather in 1926. That would have been the easiest route for Ron to take as well but his keen ear for music wouldn’t allow it.
His tryst with live performances came at the age of six. He started his piano classes with Neil Nongkynrih of the Shillong Chamber Choir around the same time. ‘I met Uncle Neil at an event in Guwahati. He asked me “Why don’t you come for piano classes?” I immediately said yes. ’ For approximately three years, his parents would drive him to Shillong every weekend for piano classes. In between, he lost a few years of training when he was sent to boarding school. But as luck would have it, he was brought back after failing in mathematics in the eighth standard. He was glad to be back home and reunited with the piano. He then decided to fully concentrate on music and continued to pursue his academics under National Institute of Open Schooling.
In 2013, his father took him to the Java International Jazz Fest, Indonesia where he met F A Talafaral, a jazz enthusiast based in Mumbai. He became Ron’s friend after they met again at the Delhi International Jazz Fest. He invited Ron to Bombay, and persuaded by his invitation, Ron got on a plane. He started visiting Mumbai frequently. All the trips were sponsored by his dad so he knew that he had make full use of the opportunity. He started playing with the likes of Gino Banks and got referred to corporate gigs. He also started taking classical piano classes under Roxana Anklesaria-Doctor, who Ron describes an ‘an amazing teacher.’
One fine day, he received a call from an unknown number. ‘Hi Ron, this is Loy Mendonsa. I heard about you from my daughter Alyssa.’ After that call, he would play with Loy for eight-nine hours straight and crash at his place only to wake up and continue jamming. At times he would travel from east Mumbai all the way to the south just to hear that the meeting was cancelled or postponed. ‘Man, I just kept on slogging. There was no option of giving up. ’
He believed in his music and that helped carve a niche in the industry. ‘I auditioned for Berklee and as I waited for the results, I got a call about the scholarship that I received from the musical maestro, A R Rahman himself. He played a concert at Berklee and all the funds received from it were given to the institute to offer scholarships to four students from India, I was one of them. I would not have been able to study there if it wasn’t for the scholarship.’
Flying to America
His ticket to America came with an extra perk, his college in Boston was just a four-hour bus drive away from New York. ‘ New York is the hub and a space through which I can make it big in the industry. I go there often to play gigs.’
Being in the States, he realized that he has a long way to go. ‘After being there for a year, I have seen the level of expertise and dedication that goes into their music. You are exposed to such amazing music every day. They are always looking for something fresh and new.’ He has also experienced the difference between the art and the business side of the music industry. ‘When it comes to business, I transformed from an emotionally sensitive art fanatic to a subtle businessman. So far, I have managed to handle things independently. But I will share work as and when I find a person with whom I can share the bond and do business. ’
The Quality of Bollywood Music
He expresses his concern about the quality of music coming out of Bollywood. ‘There is a huge difference between the majority of the music that we hear in Bollywood and street buskers on the streets of Boston. It simply shows that most of the Bollywood producers do not care about the quality of music. I don’t have a problem with an artiste playing in Bollywood as long as they do not make wrong use of music for money. ’ He cites the example of musicians like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars who have balanced commercialism with quality music and have also earned well.
After completing his four year course at Berklee, he wants to come back and set up a music school. ‘Even though I would prefer staying in the United States, I want to build a school for young artistes who would love to know about the art of music. I still plan to travel on and off.’
As part of his electronic jazz project, he will be producing sounds on digital audio workstations. ‘I have been writing a lot of music. I am also a part of the Berklee Neo-Soul Ensemble, which is a mix of jazz, funk along with some rhythm and blues. I have been playing with them for a year now.’ His fondness for improvisation and the urge to explore has brought him so far and he is sure that it will help him go even further. ‘I will keep working and let my music do the talking.’
By Mrinal Paul
This article was first published in Eclectic Northeast August 2017 issue