Br John Colombi stoops under the burden of age but his memory of the Laitumkhrah Cathedral band is still vivid. The Italian Catholic missionary talks about his association with Br Santino Mantarro, considered the father of the cathedral band, with fervour and tries to salvage his memory for more information about the musicians and the music they made.
The Band ki Synjuk in Laitumkhrah was formed in 1908 by Rev Herribert Winkler. Rev Fr Fruman Tius Stagmiller, another Salasian missionary, brought several instruments from Germany and Winkler encouraged local youths to learn the various ways of making music.
But as the sirens of World War I wailed, the music stopped for a while and the German missionaries had to return home. The band was left under the supervision of Rudolph Ruton, who was a former army band master. Later, Petrus Nongrum became in-charge and continued the band till 1922, when the Salasian brothers of Don Bosco came to Shillong and took over. In 1932, Fr Igino Recaldone made the band better. More musical instruments were procured from Paris.
The second phase of the war once again halted the functioning of the band. For a while, the band was conducted by Jang Bahadur followed by Himaldhoj Lama, both former Gorkha Regiment personnel. Mantarro took over as the band master in 1946 and strived to make it better. He rechristened it as the Parish Band and brought in more instruments from Italy. He encouraged youths in the urban and semi-urban localities to join the band.
“The two wars had heavily affected the functioning of the band. It was Mantarro who breathed new life into it,” recollected Colombi, who was associated with the band from 1974 to 1996.
In 1959, the band was renamed yet again as the Cathedral Band. In the same year, Mantarro got the band members their first uniform. There were two uniforms, one for summer and the other for winter. They cost Rs 7,000 and the members were asked to take good care of them. The caps for the members were brought from Italy and are still in use.
Now, the band with over 30 members is the oldest in the state and probably in the region. Its members, who are from different walks of life, gloriously remember the legacy that Mantarro has left behind.
It was a week before Easter and the band members had come together after months of pandemic restrictions. The practice was in full swing and the room behind Bianchi Hall on the cathedral premises was reverberating with the sound of the orchestra.
“Unlike the previous years, this time, we are not allowed to take out a procession. So, the band will play at the Calvary (near the cathedral),” said Ferdinand Ranee, secretary of the band, who plays euphorium. The Sunday Monitor team met the members a week before Easter this year.
The members from all age groups gathered in the store room after hours of practice to share their memories of the band. They have many stories to tell, about the band and their growing up with the music. Around them lay vignettes of history — more than a century-old instruments, vintage books of musical notations and photographs of old members in uniform.
Many members, like former footballer Eusebio Lyngdoh and professor Bernard Marbaniang, said their fathers too played in the band and they were inspired by the music and the discipline.
“As a child I would follow the band procession till the end. I would be at awe. I was determined to join the band,” said Edward Arnold Mukhim, who plays the trumpet.
Most of the senior members are associated with the Cathedral Band for more than two decades and they are grateful to Lewis Nongrum, “who taught us the basics when we joined”.
In the pre-Covid-19 situation, the band members would meet more than once a week and travel to other parts of the state and the North East for church events. But last year was a lull and the members barely got the chance to come together for practice.
“This year is no different as restrictions on taking out a procession on Easter still exist. But at least we can play,” said Mukhim as others nodded in agreement.
Small pieces of paper with names of the band members written on them were stuck on the numerous cabinets in the store room. Each member is responsible for taking care of his instrument. Most of the musical instruments which the members use are vintage.
Mukhim took out a Meyer flute and an alto horn, which were made in the late 19th century and brought to Shillong by the Salvatorians. “These are precious and part of history,” said Raphael Lyngdoh Jarain, the band master.
There are decades-old manuscripts and books of musical notations which were brought to the cathedral by the Italian missionaries.
After Mantarro passed away in 1971, Br Castellino Fernandez took over the Cathedral Band. Under his leadership, it got even better. He also set up the Oratory band that included both boys and girls. On May 29, 1994, he set up another group of musicians called the Apostolic Orchestral Group under the leadership of Stephan Dhar Kahit and Bernadette Kharmawphlang. This group still sings with the Eucharis Procession and Procession Maria.
After Fernandez, Alban R Suting carried forward the musical legacy. “Later, Br Colombi, who taught at Don Bosco Technical School, played an instrumental role in taking the band forward,” said Marbaniang and insisted that the reporters spoke to the Salasian brother in Mawlai.
The Cathedral Band has its own Constitution that was adopted in March 1969. Its motto is Omnia Vincit Labor, which means ‘hard work pays off’. It was evident from the dedication of the members, both old and young.
It is a matter of prestige even for young musicians to be part of the history. Imkong Meren has been playing drums in the band for the last two years. “I always had an attachment with the band and went for the processions. I would tell my family that one day I would join the band. And after college, I did join,” said the 30-year-old musician, who is also part of other music bands.
Rangkynsai Khongshai, who plays trumpet, is associated with the Cathedral Band for seven years now. The 25-year-old music teacher said he has learnt a lot from this association.
“I joined the band when I was in Class XI. It is not that easy to play in there. Some take over a year to pick up pace,” said Khongshai, who also plays guitar, saxophone, keyboard and Khasi traditional instruments.
The Cathedral Band has travelled to many places in the North East. In 1975, it went to Kohima. It also took part in the jubilee celebrations in Dibrugarh and Tezpur. On October 4, 1969, the band went to pick up the new Archbishop Rev Hubert D’Rosario from Mawlai gate and played till they reached Laitumkhrah.
“Over the years, nothing much has changed in terms of discipline and dedication. However, the uniform of the band has changed colour,” said Br Colombi.
The band is also contemplating an all-girl team, informed Ranee.
While two wars disrupted the performance of the band in the beginning of the 20th century, the new war against the Covid-19 pandemic has once again halted its activities. But the members are hopeful that the pandemonium will be over before Christmas this year.
“With all the restrictions in place, one cannot witness the grandeur of the band performing. Let us hope for the best,” said Ranee. It was almost time for the members to reassemble for the practice before they call it a day. Hard work pays and they know it.
Reporting by Team Sunday Monitor
Photos by MM & The Cathedral Band
(To watch the Cathedral Band playing, click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ok5PnR3gVDY&t=31s)