A Crescendo in the Valley

October  21, 2013 – Open


The Northeast is famous for two things above all else: political instability and music. Without either, the Ziro Festival of Music—the Northeast’s only festival committed entirely to independent rock—might never have come into existence.

While on a tour of the Northeast in 2011, the members of Delhi-based rock band Menwhopause faced a sudden postponement of their gig in Itanagar thanks to a curfew during a particularly turbulent week. With some days to spare, Bobby Hano, who had organised the Itanagar gig through his management company Phoenix Rising, suggested the band join him on a visit to his hometown in the Ziro Valley.

During that impromptu trip, Hano and bandmembers Anup Kutty and Randeep Singh conceptualised the Ziro Festival of Music, a brand new event for India’s rapidly expanding festival circuit. A year later, a bamboo stage was erected over a disused burial ground on a small grassy rise at the centre of the valley, surrounded by rice fields, villages and pine- and mist-cloaked hills.

Some bands I spoke with compared the event to Southern California’s Coachella, a destination event. At least in terms of remoteness, Ziro is something more like Burning Man, the famous festival held annually in Nevada’s remote Black Rock Desert, several hours from the nearest airport. The journey to Ziro, some 18 hours up rough mountain roads from the nearest major airport at Guwahati, demands patience and resolve. The government, in turn, requires permits for both domestic and foreign travellers, thanks to Arunachal’s sketchy northern border with China. These are the challenges under the best of circumstances.

In the first year, the persistent rain before and during the three-day festival flooded the roads, transforming an already long journey into a harrowing one. At the outdoor venue, the few hundred people who gathered each day waded ankle-deep into the muck to dance. About a month before this year’s festival, I met members of the Mumbai-based band Sky Rabbit to ask about their experience last year. Frontman Raxit Tewari described the event thus: “Loads of really young kids in the front going ape shit. They’re covered in mud; they’ve fallen 500 times.”

None of this—not the difficult journey, nor the permits, nor the stories of last year’s unfortunate weather—prevented some 1,200 people from turning up for the second edition of the event in September, more than double last year’s attendance. They had good reason. Despite the Northeast’s well-deserved reputation as a breeding ground for rock musicians, no other festival in the region—or in the country—gives so much stage time to the region’s young independent rock bands.

While the three big headliners travelled from Delhi, Bombay and New York, respectively, half of the 22 acts that played over the course of the festival’s three days trace their roots to the Northeast. “There are a lot of bands in the Northeast,” Kutty told me on the last day of the Festival, “but they hardly have a chance to play.” It is one of the great ironies of the Northeast’s music culture: despite producing some of India’s best musicians, the region has relatively little infrastructure to support their ambitions and talents.

Take, for instance, The Vinyl Records. Though three of the four members of the Delhi-based riot girl band hail originally from Itanagar, until last year’s Ziro Festival they had never played a show in their home state (though they’d been together two years). “In Itanagar, there is barely even one venue,” says Mithy Tatak, the band’s drummer, “So you can imagine how difficult it is for the artistes.” It’s a complaint I heard repeated frequently among Northeastern artists at the festival, many of whom have begun shifting base to Delhi, the hub of mainland India’s nascent indie music scene.

“Ziro is probably the first festival where bands from all over the country and the Northeast come together and play their own music,” says Daniel Langthasa, guitarist and vocalist for the Guwahati-based electro-pop duo Digital Suicide. “If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see one band someday somewhere, but there’s nowhere else to see six or seven good Northeast bands playing on the same stage.”

*        *        *

When Akhu Chingangbam returned to Imphal after 12 years in Delhi, he found the musical life of his city still tethered by decades of political strife. “Venues are very rare,” he says. “Even if we have a proper venue, there’s always the police who come and destroy the whole thing. That’s how it’s been.” He pauses for a moment and adds: “But people are there doing music.”

I heard similar stories from owners of bars and music venues in Nagaland. There, venues operate under the constraints both of church-supported prohibition laws and of an underground government, operating parallel to the official state government, that demands ‘taxes’ to keep doors open and alcohol flowing. And yet Nagaland continues to produce a disproportionate number of musicians.

Another irony: the forces that today hamper performers (whether directly or obliquely) in the Northeast are the same ones that enabled the region’s music culture in the first place.

It’s no coincidence, for example, that India’s three majority Christian states—Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram—have the country’s strongest affinity for Western musical idioms. “Even in our cultural ethos, music plays a very large role,” says Sentila Yanger, convener for Intach in Nagaland and recipient of a 2008 Padmashree for her work in cultural conservation and the arts. “We don’t have [an indigenous] written text, so the language of music was one way of conveying [oral narratives to people at large].”

With the arrival of American and English missionaries in the 19th century, these tribal languages were transposed into the Roman alphabet; today, English is the official state language for both Nagaland and Meghalaya, and is commonly spoken in Mizoram. Men, women and children began singing hymns in church choirs, a practice that introduced them to Western modes and melodic structures.

“We come from a culture—you know, from Mizoram—that’s very musical,” says Joseph Dinji, guitarist and frontman for The Frisky Pints, another Delhi-based band with roots in the Northeast. “Everyone sings in church. We’re taught how to read music and everything.” Danny Dakta, the band’s bassist agrees. “When you’re young,” he says, “you’re taught music.” It is a matter of course.

‘Guru’ Rewben Mashangva, one of the most respected figures in Northeast folk music, also had his first encounters with music in church. Mashangva came of age during the 1960s in a Naga tribal village in Manipur’s northwestern Ukhrul district. “In my time,” Mashangva says, “we bought our records from Myanmar [and] listened to Rangoon radio.” Western music camenot through India, where playback recordings were costly, but across newly formed borders into a region just beginning its still ongoing fight for cultural and political autonomy.

Fashion, another of the Northeast’s signature strengths, arrives through similar trade routes, and, like music, has long represented a form of cultural resistance to mainland India. In the violence that followed the formation of the Indian state and Nagaland’s failure to achieve autonomy, Yanger describes “that sense of alienation” breeding a culture that “detested anything ‘India’.”

“Clothing was a signature statement. Men wouldn’t be caught dead wearing even a kurta, because that was so closely associated with India,” Yanger says, “and music came much earlier.”

It is hardly surprising, then, that much of the music absorbed by musicians of Mashangva’s generation had overtly political overtones. “I learnt from Bob Dylan, Bob Marley. I like to sing political songs,” Mashangva says. With those early influences, Mashangva began composing original songs in his indigenous tongue (Thangkul, a Naga dialect), combining Blues-inflected guitar with handmade instruments and the socio-cultural preoccupations of home. “When I start singing in front of people,” he tells me, “I don’t sing love songs.”

Though plenty of the Northeast bands at Ziro did sing love songs (and some very earnest ones at that), rock music remains an essential element in the region’s dearly held tradition of cultural independence—the same tradition fought for, if sometimes just in name, by the political dissidents and insurgents who long defined the region’s identity.

“We [Northeasterners] have never been identified as Indian. I lived in Delhi for 12 years and I know how people see you,” Chingangbam says. Yet while the old truism that the Northeast is ‘another world’ remains commonplace (it’s a truism, after all, because it’s true), the way people identify that difference, Chingangbam observes, has begun to change.

*        *        *

On the third night of the Ziro Festival, when the last band had finished its set and the food and rice beer stalls had shut for the last time, most of the artistes loaded their bags into Sumos and Tempos and started immediately for Guwahati. Many of the performers had flights to catch back to Delhi or Bombay or Calcutta; a few others had to reach Shillong in time for the 18 Degrees Festival beginning just a few days later.

In the weeks preceding Ziro, activists in favour of instituting an Inner Line Permit for Meghalaya had thrown the state capital into some turmoil. There had been roadblocks and bandhs and a handful of abortive attempts to burn government buildings. The festival went off smoothly nonetheless.

While it is not surprising that the majority of people I met at Ziro—band- and audience-members alike—were more interested in the festival than the political tensions in the state, it is nevertheless illustrative of a larger point: many young people across the Northeast, even those who participate actively in the region’s political culture, have grown tired of disruptive scare tactics and begun to reconsider their region’s relationship with mainland India.

“Almost all the [Northeastern] states want…sovereignty,” Daniel Langthasa says. “Younger people—they would think differently. We don’t think that’s the solution… to be separated from the mainland. I don’t think that’s possible.” Though political instability, ethnic strife, insurgency and abuse from State actors remain palpable problems throughout the region, young people are more comfortable with the idea of being Indian, at least politically, than any generation before them.

This is not to say they have accepted the status quo; bands like Imphal Talkies and Digital Suicide continue to use music as a platform for political dissent. But for Northeastern musicians, political and otherwise, music also serves as a kind of cultural ambassador, a means of expressing (sometimes quite loudly) cultural difference from the rest of India even as the musicians themselves grow increasingly integrated with it.

That bands like The Vinyl Records and The Frisky Pints wholeheartedly consider themselves Delhi bands, and that the indie music world of Delhi seems to accept them (and many others like them) as such, is indicative of this integration. That people in Indian metros will still say of the Northeast, ‘Oh, everyone there is a musician’ demonstrates the extent to which music has supplanted instability as the primary referent for the region.

Of course, little of this registered on the ground at Ziro. “We learn a lot from this environment,”Mashangva had said. We sat watching on a bamboo bench, built here specifically for the event, even as tiny figures carrying umbrellas in their hands and woven baskets on their heads wended their way slowly along the sinuous paths that divide the rice fields along the valley floor. Two villages, both built almost entirely of bamboo, stood low-slung and gray over a one-lane road, silent in the shadow of the hills.

Mashangva was right. For the last two days, I’d seen local families walking their kids through the festival grounds by day and teenagers from the surrounding villages dancing by night. I developed serious brand loyalty for the bottles of millet wine and rice beer that I bought from a group of old ladies still marked by the traditional facial tattoos that have become a fading symbol of this remote valley’s long preserved indigenous culture. And I met people from across India who had come together—a touchy-feely kind of phrase I use reluctantly but also quite seriously—for the sake of music and a beautiful place.

At such a remove from the social ills and political turpitude that plague so much of the Northeast—and indeed, so much of India—many old clichés and truisms start to feel…well, true. ‘Unity in Diversity’ is not just a platitude. Sustainability and local empowerment are ideals, not trends. When the organisers say that the festival ‘belongs to Ziro’, it’s clear that they mean it.

And when Rewben Mashangva says, “If you are talking into a microphone, people will not listen,” I know how he is going to finish his sentence, but this time I’ve seen proof: “If you say it through music,” he says, “then people will listen.”

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