Nostalgia rocks, with local band Smooth Riff.

It’s not often that I get to hear rock bands these days. And most certainly not Indian rock bands, which can be quite bad — really. Once in about 10 years, though, one gets into what you might call ‘situations’.

And that’s exactly what happened at Darjeeling last week. The evening entertainment at a sales conference of The Hindu Group featured a local rock band called Smooth Riff.

Not wanting to appear rude to the hosts and disrespectful to the band, I conducted my personal foolproof test. “Can you play something by Mark Knopfler, please,” I asked the lead singer and guitarist, Vishal Yonzon.

He assented with his eyes and, after a few surprisingly nice covers of Hindi songs, played one of the spiffiest versions of Sultans of Swing that I have ever heard by an Indian band. The last time I heard it played so well was in 2003, when a group from the Indian army — all from the Northeast, by the way — played, as the kids say, a ‘rocking’ version.

Yonzon’s guitaring was good as any, especially the solo bit towards the end. Those boys got it just right.

The best was yet to come, though. The band had played so well the previous day that, by popular demand, the lads (34, 24, 24, 24) were invited on the second day as well.

The evening wore on with the usual covers when, suddenly, through the gathering mists of the ever-soothing whiskey, I heard the opening bars of a completely unexpected song — good old Mustang Sally from 1965.

Only one other person in the room looked up sharply — we raised our eyebrows at each other in silent surprise.

That, for us, was the high point of the evening.

Yonzon said he practised physiotherapy for a living. Avishek Darnal, who plays rhythm, ran a cloth/clothes shop and has played the guitar since he was 12. Sudeep Sundas on the bass guitar is an adventure tour guide playing since 14. But hang on, the drummer — the guy with that endearing smile — Ningma Lama will soon be a policeman.

Bang on, McDuff, I told the drummer, on heads if need be.

They’ve played together since 2008 and admittedly did not practise much — no time, maybe once a week, they said with their eyes down.

Nor do they perform much outside Darjeeling. No one calls them, said Yonzon.

None of them has learnt music formally and they “just picked it up”. They don’t have a keyboard player, by the way, as they are “not comfortable with it”.

What would they do when Lama goes off to catch the bad guys, I asked. They looked worried for the first time. Lama just grinned.

Their equipment obviously costs quite a lot — the cheapest they had cost Rs 25,000.

Who pays, I asked, knowing fully well the answer. They did, of course, a part of it anyway.

And, finally, a grin turned up on the other three faces too: What are parents for, asked Darnal.

Yes, indeed, what are parents for if not to produce such talent?

(This article was published on August 30, 2012)
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