Those who have been to the Naga Hills would know that the landscape is sheer poetry and the air is strung with melodies — melodies that have a very long past.
At a time when language had no written forms, generations taught the younger ones to act, live and work through songs. These songs also kept the memories of ancestors, brave warriors and legends alive in people’s minds.
Mercy Tetseo, the eldest of the lovely Tetseo Sisters, tells me, “Naga folk music is oral storytelling. It is all about sharing stories about why certain practices and faiths are carried out. For every activity in rural life, there is a song talking about the lessons and processes. Also, these songs help identify the territory of activity and the actors — that is, say, what kind of an agricultural activity is on, conducted by people of which clan, tribe and village.”
Giving an example, she talks of how when people of a clan and village are working together in the fields, they sing some songs through their work. And when the day’s work is done, they sing a different set of songs. “This is like announcing that it is time to return home. Those individuals working far away from the group take these songs as a signal.”
Folk songs have been a part of every Naga’s life. Yet, in current times, the Tetseo Sisters — Mercy, Azi, Kuvelu and Alune — are the cultural ambassadors who have brought Naga folk music, in its pure form, to a larger audience outside the state of Nagaland. They have been performing and acquainting people with this form of storytelling, with much appreciation from listeners, within and outside India and have recently released the album Li: Chapter One. The Beginning.
“We sing the old folk songs of the Chakesang clan. We have not tampered with the melody or words,” says Mercy as she speaks about taking folk music out of a clan and making it available to a wider audience. “We have retained the original story; but dropped the repetition of verses.” The Tetseo Sisters use traditional instruments to accompany their songs like the single-stringed Tati, which has been used for eons by the Chakesang and Angami Nagas. The Tati is made of either dried bottle gourd or the mithun horn. The mithun is the state animal of Nagaland; a semi-domesticated guar found only in the northeastern parts of India.
There are 16 main tribes in Nagaland, each with a number of clans. The repository of folk music in the land, therefore, is huge. But things changed in the 19th century with the coming of Christianity. “That was the time,” Mercy says, “When people forwent their traditional ways of life – their jewelry, music and dance, animistic beliefs, etc. Folk songs gave way to hymns that were made accessible in local dialects. People picked up the new in their religious fervor and forgot the past.” The young crusader tells me that the Tetseo Sisters share an inheritance. In the early 80s, Mercy’s mother and a few others revived folk singing and dancing in the face of stiff opposition from the Chakesang Church and Village Council. “Eventually, the church started accepting folk singing in its premises; and that was a huge shift.”
The modern era, fused with Christianity and westernisation, greatly alienated the urban from the rural in Nagaland. Talking of growing up in a city, Mercy recalls, “Growing up in Kohima, we missed singing out songs in groups while at task as in the villages.
Nevertheless, folk songs seeped into our lives in other ways. I remember gathering around our grandfather and grandmother who used to sing stories to us. Then during festivities, even in the city, we have witnessed people sitting together and singing about various rituals and activities.” In the last 10 years, however, the scenario has been changing. “I have seen younger generations across tribe and clan warming up to folk music. The idea of attending a folk concerts was boring 10 years ago; but now it is cool.”
The Tetseo Sisters should be commended not only for their amazing voices and singing, but also for documenting so well a rich cultural heritage. Going through their blog, one comes across traditional stories that feature in the Chakesang folk songs. The blog sure is a resource. I soak up this useful piece of information on the Chakesang ‘Li’ or folk song from its archives: “Li is made up of chants, harmonised calling usually between two groups or a leader and followers... Li can be sung in eight different voices in unison on both sides (leading side and following side). Most of the Lis are like a conversation thread, so there is the comment and response pattern. Or there is the soulful solo or lilting duet/trio... Adding to the wonderful harmony is the chants and war cry by the menfolk...” And coming from one who has heard it, mark my words, the beauty of Li is mesmerising.