“Where have our leaders gone? Running a global con. Poison our planet with your fossil fuel marathon,” Rain Jong, the lead vocalist of Rain in Sahara belted away at Freemason’s Brew Works, a pub in Guwahati, on February 7 this year.

Based in Guwahati, the largest city of the northeast Indian state of Assam, Rain in Sahara is a difficult band to describe. It blends hip hop, rock, R&B, Indian and western classical styles, while calling to its audience to rise to save the planet and humanity.

The enthusiastic response they received that evening, as well as their general popularity, shows that this call for the youth to rise against those responsible for the climate emergency resonates powerfully. It helps that India’s northeastern states, as well as the neighbouring countries in the region – Bhutan and Nepal – have a robust music scene.

Shillong, the capital of the adjacent Indian state of Meghalaya, is colloquially known as the Rock Capital of India, and each state has its music festivals, with many local bands performing. The popularity of Rain Jong and the drummer Rui Xing also known as Majid extends across to Sikkim and Nepal.

The drummer, Rui Xing, and the vocalist, Rain Jong, were already well known in the region [image courtesy: Rain in the Sahara]

The group comprises people from various backgrounds, many of them with some sort of musical career or interest before. What has bound them together is a focus on the climate emergency, manipulative politicians and corruption.

Lain Heringman plays the keyboard. He is a graduate in western classical music from Trinity College in London, and currently runs a social enterprise in Guwahati. It was here that he met like-minded talented musicians – Rui Xing, Rain Jong, the guitarist Pawan Damai and the bassist Rajat Bangia. Unlike him, most were self-taught, but like him, all were interested in making music about the climate crisis.

This concern is not unique to them. As Rain Jong shouted, “We rise! We rise!’ from the “You Think Our Future is a Joke”, the young audience in the pub broke into applause. The song underscores the harsh reality of how increasing emissions and pollution are suffocating their lives. It commits to resolute action. “We rise!”

Their message is for the youth to rise against these interconnected problems. The resonance it gets has much to do with local issues that have been ignored, many of them related to the environment. For example one of their biggest hits is “Black Water”. Heringman said, “it was inspired by a river in Guwahati, right next to my old apartment building that was referred to by almost everyone in the area as a drain. I saw people regularly throwing garbage into it. The river itself had turned black, often smelled foul, and during flooding (which would often shut down the main road it was next to until very recently) immense piles of garbage would accumulate at the bridges.”

From small music to world stage

Heringman said that they started mostly with rap and DJ music in 2016, and slowly evolved to use larger sound. The band has ten songs now, and Jong explains that they first create the music and then work their lyrics into it.

‘Ominous Clouds’ is a typical creation. It talks about how a combination of toxic air and spiritual corruption is leading the world towards doom. It includes the band singing a high-pitched prayer, “Maybe one day, mama I pray, we wake up before we reach our doomsday.”

Heringman said, “We write music to create emotional response in people on the topics of huge importance like extinction of species. We don’t want to sugar coat… If we don’t tell the truth now it is not possible to take action… Basically we are leveraging music, technology and activism to catalyse generations with these issues.”

The attendance by large and cheerful audiences has encouraged the band. Bangia – who manages the band with Heringman – said, “Modern life is designed to isolate people. But concerts are [among the] few places where [people] get the sense of community and feeling that they are not alone. Besides they experience that there are many like them who are concerned about the same issues.”

The energy and urgency of the music is a major draw [image courtesy: Rain in the Sahara]

They do not target a particular audience, and the people listening to them seemed to come from mixed backgrounds, though they were overwhelmingly young. It is the issues that bring them together more than anything else. In this sense they reach to the root of some of modern Rock’s great songs, such as Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, or Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning”, performed by bands who were reaching out to a mass audience with specific activist songs.

In 2018 the band played in Denmark as part of an International Anti-Corruption Conference organised by Transparency International. While the international attention was useful, for the band which has performed at various shows including the NH 7 music festival – one of the biggest in India – each appreciation is valuable. Heringman told of an incident where, after their performance, an army officer became emotional. He said, “The songs made him realise how huge the issues are and he was moved.”

Rain Jong and Rui Xing were already popular in Nepal and India’s northeastern states due to their work in their band Arogya. They would address issues of human trafficking and climate change, have also created a soul stirring piece on hate that India experienced through mob lynching. Two of their close friends, Niloptal Das and Abhijeet Nath, were lynched by a mob in Karbi Anglong district of Assam in 2018.

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