An assorted group of young and old lie scattered leisurely on the meadow, some holding bamboo mugs filled with the locally made rice wine called apong, waiting for the music to begin. When siblings Mütsevelü aka Mercy and Kuvelü aka Kuku of the Tetseo Sisters take to the stage, the audience swells in numbers and sounds of cheers fill the venue declaring the arrival of Northeast folk music.
Merely three years old, the Ziro Festival of Music or ZFM has become a favourite amongst musicians and non-musicians alike. Coupled with an eclectic mix of musicians and lush green paddy fields that dot Ziro valley in Arunachal Pradesh, it is easy to see why. And while this year’s edition of the festival (held from September 25 to 28) saw the largest line up of artists and was even extended by a day, it also witnessed the rise of Northeast folk music.
Home to various communities and tribes, the Northeast has always had a reputation for being musically rich. However, for artists from the region, the inclination and preference for performing has always been towards western style music. If anyone needed proof that that trend is now changing, one needed to be at the ZFM this year.
This year, the organisers of the festival were supported by the Itanagar-based trust Living Dreams which works to preserve tribal culture and released a folk-fusion album featuring music of six tribes of Arunachal Pradesh at Mumbai recently. One of the festival founders Anup Kutty, of the rock band Menwhopause, says they took a conscious decision to include more folk artists from the region this year; a decision that definitely yielded the right results.
And although it is easy to categorise, the truth is that the term ‘folk’ fails to truly capture the vast of array of sounds of the various musicians who had travelled many miles on dilapidated roads to perform for a mere 45 minutes.
The home grown Omak Komut Collective for example perform in the language of the Adi tribe. Some of their songs cannot even be termed as songs in the traditional sense of the word but ancient tribal hymns and prayers. However, with the heavy use of blues guitar, their songs have a fun feel to it that makes it impossible for people to not jive to. This is in contrast to the Karbi artist Warklung’s hypnotic tunes.
Using at least five different instruments (one of which includes a fresh hollow bamboo), Warklung managed to send some sections of the audiences already intoxicated by the aforementioned apong to an almost transcendental state of mind.
Another artist who has a similar ability to entrance is Rida Marbaniang of the Shillong-based Rida and the Musical Folks. While their performance may have left a little to be desired, singing to the sounds of the guitars and traditional Khasi instruments, it was clear that the vocalist has the ability to both uplift and mellow crowds at the same time; a quality that again reasons against the generic term ‘folk music’.
While the four-day event’s highly-charged evening performances were on much demand, it was the daytime’s soothing performances that audiences nursing hangovers needed. No one did that as well as the Tetseo Sisters.
Dressed in tweaked modern versions of their Chakesang tribe’s traditional dresses, Mercy explains to the audience why sisters Azine and Alüne were unable to make it to the fest even though they really wanted to. For those who had made a mad rush to watch the sisters from Nagaland perform, it didn’t matter.
Armed with the traditional string instrument tati made with mithun horns, an Apple Macbook and omnipresent smiles, the sisters take to the stage with their brother Mhaseve who occasionally accompanies them on the guitar. Their opening song Thokwrli about women working the agricultural fields and caring for the semi-domesticated mithuns help connect the audience to the roots of their Li- a style of singing characterised by powerful multiple vocals.
From performing an electro-infused version of the popular O’ Rhosi to debuting their latest single Ohe, their songs dealt with issues of love and loneliness (or the lack of it). As Mercy would explain the meanings of each song, the existential-esque tone of their Li would become clear. Expanding on Ohe, she says that the song is about the fleeting moments of life and the importance of spending time with loved ones.
Given their present popularity, especially on social media platforms, it is hard to imagine that the Tetseo Sisters faced criticism when they were starting out in the late nineties.
Mercy says that when they began performing, they faced opposition from Church leaders who felt the Li went against Christian beliefs. But they persevered to preserve what she says is part of people’s lives. That perhaps is one of the biggest challenges that tribal musicians from the region today face- preserving part of people’s lives through the songs of yore. Something that Manipur musician Rewben Mashangva agrees with.
A proponent of the Tangkhul-Naga Hao form of music, Rewben, or Guru as he is affectionately referred to, feels tribal people are losing their identity and that music is way to reclaim it. A veteran musician who has performed across the country for three decades, the 53-year old knows how to cater to his audience and changes to a more bluesy style of music to get the crowd going. He begins his set with ‘Princess of the mountain’, confessing how much he loves women, his wife included. Not one to shy away from building a rapport with the audience, Rewben takes out time to crack risqué jokes. But his carefully selected songs also make people think.
Moving effortlessly between his Tangkhul language originals to such classics like Hank Snow’s Nobody’s Child, Rewben’s powerful coarse voice encompasses the green meadow with good intent. “I get my energy from the crowd”, he later says.
“I want to preserve our old songs, many of which we have already lost’, Rewben says and confesses that he is himself unsure about the meaning of the chorus to one of his biggest hits Hope Pee.
He explains that the meaning behind the phrase “has been lost through the ages” before quickly speculating that it was probably used to invoke spirits because the song tends to make people get up and dance. “I think the song was used to make a call for people to get groovy”, the charming ‘king of the Naga folk blues’ says with a smile.